If you listened to my last episode, you know I’ve been off my game for the past few weeks. A little bit of old trauma resurfacing, a little bit of burnout, and a lot of stress all piling up at the same time.
I haven’t been shy about sharing what I’ve been going through. I don’t want to be the person that hides behind a happy, well-adjusted façade all the time. Most of the time I am happy and well-adjusted. But I think it’s also human to go through these rough patches. My intention about talking about this is to normalize it, to show that this is indeed human, and to change the narrative around this. It’s not weak to have hard times. It’s not a character flaw. It doesn’t make you any less remarkable.
Anyway, because I’ve been open about this, I’ve been receiving lots of well-intentioned advice from friends, family and colleagues. Most of this advice is some variation of “take care of yourself.”
Which is great advice, but what exactly does it really mean to take care of yourself?
So I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on self-care these days. In fact, that very term makes me cringe a little. Because I think the concept gets thrown around out there all the time as something we’re supposed to do for ourselves, but we never really talk about what self-care REALLY means. So that’s what I want to dig into today on the podcast – what self-care is, or at least what I think it should be if it’s meant to actually contribute to our mental and physical health.
I want to start by telling you all about this ridiculously expensive bath bomb I indulged in a few nights ago. This thing is $30. 30 bucks for a bath bomb!! I’m not going to lie, I have a couple of them, but I’ve been reluctant to use them because they’re so freaking expensive and I think I need to save them for a special occasion. I do the same thing with good bottles of wine, by the way.
But this bath bomb. It’s huge. It took more than half an hour to completely dissolve, and as it did, it released milk with chocolate essence. It smelled so good. It really was divine. But I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to. I put all this pressure on myself to enjoy this indulgent treat. And I felt a bunch of guilt. I had thoughts like, if I’m giving away shifts in the ER, I should be suffering in bed or something, not enjoying a luxurious bath bomb.
When I was thinking about that whole bath experience later, I realized that self-care is definitely not about bath bombs. It’s not about face masks or pedicures or green smoothies or whatever else comes up when you think about #selfcare. Sure, those things are great. But my bath wasn’t self-care. I wasn’t caring for myself in any way. Yes, I was indulging in the fancy bath bomb, but I was steeped in self-criticism and guilt. There’s nothing caring about that.
So I think self-care actually has to start inside ourselves. We have to give ourselves permission to receive care, whether that comes from ourselves or someone else. I think this is a crucial first step that we forget about. I think about all the stories I’ve told myself in the past about self-care: that I don’t have the time for it, that other people need me too much, that it’s selfish of me to even want it. Maybe those stories sound familiar to you too.
If so, then I want to encourage you to let those stories go. It’s certainly something I’m working on. A few weeks ago I would have told you that I was the master of self-care. I manage my time well, and part of that has been scheduling self-care time. I know, for example, that after a string of night shifts I’m useless for a few days, so I don’t schedule anything important post-nights. And I have a rule about turning off my cell phone in the evenings too. Things like that. In medicine we talk about work-life balance as a form of self-care. And I thought I excelled at that.
But when I think about it now in retrospect, I can see that I was approaching those things as another part of my schedule or tasks on my to-do list. I may turn off my phone and schedule quiet evenings, but my monkey mind was still going a million miles an hour during my scheduled self-care time. So it wasn’t restful or rejuvenating or self-caring, not in the ways that really matter. I’m pretty sure that if I was paying attention to my thoughts at the time, I was probably allowing myself that so-called self-care time only because I knew I was still thinking about work. Had I allowed myself to really shut down for some quality self-care time, I probably would have felt just as guilty as I did with the bath bomb the other night.
So I think that’s the first essential piece of self-care – giving yourself permission to actually have it. Putting yourself in the mindset that you deserve to take care of yourself, and knowing, and I mean really knowing on a deep level, that if you want to take care of the people who need you, you have to take care of yourself first. I think we pay lip service to that concept without actually believing it. We need to believe it. That’s the first step.
Ok. And then I think the second essential piece of self-care is figuring out what it is you actually need. This sounds like it should be a simple thing, but I’ve actually been struggling with it. I saw my therapist the other day and she asked me, “What does your heart need today?” and I couldn’t answer her. I don’t know what the heck my heart needs. My instinct was to say that I need things to slow down just a little bit so I can hear what my heart is trying to tell me.
And so while I’m working on giving my heart some space to speak, I thought I could at least tune in to what my body wants. That I’m good at. I can always feel what my body needs.
And here’s what I know about myself: when I’m super stressed, I start doing stupid stuff. My first clue that stress is piling up too much is that I stop washing my face and brushing my teeth in the morning. It’s gross, I know, but it’s the truth. On the days when this happens, what’s usually going on is that I hop out of bed and immediately start stressing out about all the things that have to get done that day, and then all of a sudden taking a few minutes to moisturize feels like a colossal waste of my precious time.
Someone once told me that the bookends of your day are the most important because it’s when you tend to have the most control and it sets the tone for your day. So your morning routines and your evening routines are stabilizing in a way. Everything that happens between the bookends is subject to so much external interference that sometimes it feels like you’re just going along with the current of life.
And I’ve sort of noticed that to be true. When I don’t brush my teeth and do my face in the morning, the rest of the day feels insane. And then what tends to happen is I veg out in front of the TV at night. I don’t tend to emotional eat when I’m stressed, but I do like to numb myself out with a bit of Netflix. Or Prime. It’s usually Prime for me. In fact, it’s usually Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My husband knows that if I’ve turned Buffy on, something’s up with me. It’s to the point where he will ask me on bad days if I need to spend some time with Buffy.
Anyway, when I get sucked into Buffy, I tend to stay up late, and then I don’t sleep well, or for long enough. And then the morning feels even worse, and so I don’t brush my teeth, and then everything kind of spirals down after that. Both of the bookends to my day get shot, and the middle of my day doesn’t stand a chance. And then that of course makes me feel worse about everything, and then I spiral down even more. It’s a vicious cycle.
I have watched this pattern repeat itself in my life so many times I can always predict exactly what’s going to happen after the first morning I skip brushing my teeth. It took me years to figure out how to stop this cycle.
The key for me is sleep.
It is definitely my number one self-care habit. When I’m getting enough good quality sleep, I’m totally on, but when I don’t my day suffers. And when I start getting into the Buffy marathons at night, I sleep even less, and things just get worse. But now I know that when I don’t brush my teeth in the morning, the most important thing for me to do is not turn on Buffy at night, but prioritize doing something to relax my brain in the evening and go to bed early. So now I have a ritual of having a bath, doing a meditation, and then going to bed.
This, for me, is what self-care truly is. It’s knowing what I need to do to take care of myself during the tough times, and then giving myself permission to do it. It’s not always easy…the appeal of Buffy is that I get to check out and get lost in the drama of Evil Willow and ignore my own problems. But of course that doesn’t solve anything, and when I turn Buffy off, the problems are always still there.
So the first key to good self-care is giving yourself permission to receive it, and then the second key is to give yourself what you really need, and not just whatever’s trendy in the current #selfcare movement.
And then I think the third piece to good self-care is actually committing to it when you really need it. As I’ve been learning these past few weeks, this is not so easy. What’s easy is pouring a glass of wine and turning on Buffy. It actually takes an effort for me to choose to meditate and go to bed instead.
In weight loss, we put an effort into learning new habits when life is good so that they’re easier to follow when life gets hard. I think we need to approach self-care in a similar way. So for me, because I know that sleep is so stabilizing for me, it’s something I prioritize every day. I have a ritual around going to bed and this makes it just that much easier to initiate my bedtime protocol when I feel the urge to spend time with Buffy.
This kind of reminds me of something I read recently about dominos. I read that a domino is able to knock over another domino that is 1.5 times larger than it. So imagine a row of 13 dominos, with each one 1.5 times larger than the one before it. If we make the first one super tiny, like 5 mm high, the 13th one will be 3 feet tall. And if you continued on to 29 dominos, the last one would be as high as the Empire State Building. This means that by pushing over a domino so tiny you could practically just blow on it to push it over, you can actually topple over the Empire State Building. The power just gets amplified with each domino that falls.
I think this is a great metaphor for self-care. If you can do just one tiny, small thing to take care of yourself, that action will amplify to have a positive effect way out of proportion to the effort you put into it. So for me, pushing over the first domino might simply be to not even turn the TV on.
I love Mel Robbins’ concept of the Five Second Rule when it comes to this. She says that when you first notice your instincts, when you first hear that tiny voice inside you telling you what you need to do next, that you must physically move and take action on it within 5 seconds or your brain will stop you. I think this is actually true. I have watched myself when I get the urge to watch Buffy. I’ll hear that voice of wisdom say “you should really go to bed instead”, I have to take steps to initiate my bedtime protocol right away, otherwise I’ll shortly find myself on the sofa with the remote control in hand.
So there you have it. The three keys to self-care: give yourself permission to receive it, give yourself what you truly need, and then commit to giving yourself care when you need it by taking action.
I think it’s also important that you have a plan for self-care. So to help you with that, and also to help you get a healthy mindset around self-care, I’ve got a worksheet for you. If you want it, head on over to www.wayzahealth.com/selfcare to download it.
I’d also love to hear what you do for self-care. Reach out to me by email or find me on social media. Details are in the show notes.
Thank you for listening. See you next week!