For some reason I have been a bit reluctant to write about self-care, perhaps because it is well-documented already? I don’t know. Maybe because I haven’t always been brilliant at it and I have had to work at seeing the importance of it (for me). I suppose it can seem like quite an abstract, self-indulgent concept.
More recently the penny has finally dropped. Self-care is essential. It is not a pleasant add-on or luxury. It is crucial to our good mental health and to us being able to manage the myriad demands thrown at us in our day to day lives. I think when I spotted ‘Looking after yourself’ as one of the blocks in Kim Golding’s House Model of Parenting (an essential block, without which the house would fall down and upon which many other vital blocks sit) I got the message.
Self-care is a subject fairly widely bandied around by adopters (with good reason) but I truly believe it is a necessity for everyone. We are all busy, under pressure and juggling many-a-ball. If we are not mentally and emotionally well, we can’t function to the best of our abilities. We can’t support those around us who need us and we leave ourselves open to illness.
With my professional hat on I have been working with a young person who is currently under a lot of exam stress. A diligent and bright pupil, they are working extremely hard, leaving little to no time for rest and relaxation. As a consequence their stammer has worsened significantly. My main therapy has been around teaching the need for self-care, much to their surprise.
We are not designed to be under permanent stress, though modern life does tend to lead to it. We know, because of our children and how they have been impacted by their adverse starts in life that Cortisol (the stress hormone) wreaks havoc. A quick Google indicates it can impact on blood sugar levels, cause weight gain, suppress the immune system, affect the gut, damage the heart and even impact on fertility. Cortisol is meant for special occasions when we really need it, it is not something our bodies should be flooded with all the time.
We can juggle all the balls, work hard, play hard, look after others and achieve all we want to but, crucially, only if we look after ourselves. If we don’t make time for self-care activities, take the breaks, listen to our inner wellbeing voice, the consequences can be dire. A close friend experienced just what can happen when you forget yourself. I’ll let her tell you, in her own words:
“Self-care is life-saving. I do not say this lightly. Around ten years ago I had a very severe mental health crisis, resulting in me being in hospital for 7 weeks. It was horrible. It was caused by depression and exacerbated by me not taking care of myself. Forgetting myself. Putting everyone above myself. I worked solidly, because I felt so sad. If I was at work I was busy, if I was busy I wasn’t thinking. There is only so long you can do that, and then you crash. I crashed. When I was well again I had to make dramatic changes to my life, and the major one was how to actually look after myself.
The most life changing aspect of self-care for me has been learning to say no. Knowing my own limitations and not being afraid to voice them. You are not a bad person because you put yourself first. If you cannot take care of you, you can’t take care of anyone else.
Also, keeping lines of communication open. Keep talking to those around you, even when it’s a difficult conversation. Silence is a killer. When I was ill I was the most scared I have ever been, and had to have hideous conversations with people, which ultimately led to me getting the help I needed. It’s ok not to be ok. There is something incredibly freeing about being so open and honest. It was so hard to talk, but ultimately has only improved my relationships with everyone around me.
Baby steps. Find what makes you happy. Do it a lot. It sounds simple but life is hectic. Work, family, kids, school runs. But you know what, that ironing pile will still be there tomorrow. The house looks like a bomb hit it but you’ve kept your kids alive and fed and so now you are going to watch strictly come dancing and admire the, erm, dancing skills of Gorka, and just relax. There will be time for the ironing. It is not tonight. Equally, if ironing is your happy place, then good luck to you!”
I’m very proud of my friend for being brave enough to write this for me and letting me share it. Having visited her on the mental health ward, hidden away down the interminably long corridor, I can vouch that it is not a place you would want to end up (though my friend did feel safe there for which I am grateful).
Self-care is life-saving. It is essential. But how the bloody hell do you do it? If it was that easy and straightforward, people up and down the country wouldn’t be ending up in crisis. I suspect the first challenge of self-care is knowing what you need. After that, you need to value yourself enough to allow yourself to have it and then actively make it happen.
Grizzly has recently moved to a more senior post which is highly stressful with long hours and quite a bit of travel. He shoulders a lot of responsibility at work. Thankfully, this was acknowledged during his induction and he was warned of the need to manage his timetable proactively to ensure it contains time for self-care. It is an ongoing challenge for him, as there are only so many hours in the day, but he is good at knowing what he needs at least (half the battle) and as long as he can run several times per week all is well. Running is not a negotiable activity: it is an essential part of his week.
Whilst running works its magic for Grizzly, I personally can’t think of a less desirable way to spend my down time.
Thinking about what works for me has been enlightening. I think it has taken me quite a long time to figure it out. However, it turns out that I’m a right unsociable so and so and find nothing more restorative than a day alone. Interestingly I don’t tend to stay at home for a self-care day (probably because it is good to escape the washing pile). I tend to find a coffee shop, sit with my back to the other customers (I know, miserable!) and read, write or draw, while consuming a massive cup of tea. I’ll generally write a blog post – in itself an act of self-care it turns out. Sometimes it isn’t just that I want to write but that I need to, just as Grizzly physically needs to run.
Blogging has certainly helped with keeping my adopter/ parenting worries in check – it gets them out of my head but doesn’t involve the discomfort of having to actually explain them to someone face to face (though I do a bit of that too).
The main self-care challenge for me has been identifying when I need it. Sometimes I can do a million and one things at the same time and be fine. At other times, one small thing can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I have had to listen harder to the little voice inside that tells you when everything is getting a bit much. It turns out it is much better to heed the whisper than to allow things to get on top of you, as you will undoubtedly snap and lose your temper with the children. I don’t like to shout at them so I have had to get better at identifying the times I might (otherwise you get the joy of dealing with the guilt afterwards). I have to be particularly mindful of my hormonal state (see PMS and Adoption) and be a little kinder to myself at those points.
I think Mum’s in particular (sorry Dad’s and everyone else, I’m allowed a sweeping statement once in a while) are adept at ‘getting on with it’ – pushing through the home and childcare duties, work and the never-ending to-do list whether they feel like it or not. Things would quite possibly collapse around you if you didn’t. However, there is a skill in knowing when pushing through is ok and when you are rapidly closing in on your limit. I’m still working on it but after a busy few weeks of going from work to sorting out the builders who have been re-doing our bathroom to the children (especially Little Bear’s growing Christmas-related mania) to making Christmas decorations and selling them at craft fayres to Christmas shopping to planning & liaising over our next project (a pod in the garden since you ask) as well as a few other things, today’s yoga class felt like one ask too many. I usually love yoga but after a lot of rushing about and being in specific places at specific times, my little inner voice was asking in a stage whisper for a day off. There are times when I would have just made myself go anyway, ignoring that little voice, but I feel so much better for having listened. A whole day off, being unsociable, having some peace. Just what my inner wellbeing guru ordered.
As well as the crucial self-care we all need, there are also acts of self-kindness: finding ways to spoil yourself a little; ways to make life easier; adding things in just because you like them or they make you happy. Here are some of the things that work for me:
- Wandering around my garden. It is not a big garden but I love looking at how my plants are growing, watering them in the summer and generally enjoying my little bit of outside.
- I also like going to look at the fish in our tiny pond. I have no idea why that is so relaxing but it is.
- I seem to be getting quite into the indoor gardening too. I also wander about the house tending my indoor charges.
- I feel particularly happy when the sun shines in on the melon seedlings and I think they might just grow some melons.
- Shopping. Sometimes you just need to buy yourself a little gift. I have to be careful though, shopping can lead to guilt.
- A little taste of something carbohydrate-y as I’m not really eating them at the moment but a girl needs a treat every now and again.
- All snuggles with my boys are lovely. Giving up on all jobs and lying on the sofa for a whole afternoon of snuggly TV can be just what the doctor ordered.
- Any sort of gift that arrives in subscription form. My friend got me a Papergang subscription from @Ohhdeer so beautiful stationery landed on the mat every month. It was amazing.
- A good book on the rare occasions I manage to read one. The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan is a very wholesome and uplifting read.
- A good rummage in a charity shop, especially if there are retro coffee pots to be found.
- Low-maintenance hosting. I rarely bother killing myself preparing a fancy meal to impress people with. You are just as likely to get a takeaway here but I will sit and chat and pay you my full attention. I’d rather give my energy to you than to the cooking.
- Ditto children’s lunches. No slaving over packed lunches every night – school dinners all the way.
- A cheeky lunch out with Grizzly when he is working from home – dating without the need for babysitting.
- When all else fails, putting on my fluffy onesie, lying on the sofa and watching an episode of First Dates.
I wonder what other people do to be kind to themselves? Feel free to share.