This mental health awareness week (May 2021), I thought it was timely to explore the truth about self-care to encourage you to keep taking action even when we are no longer in lockdown.
In general conversation, when asked How are you? people tend to answer fine or busy followed by a list of what they are doing. But in asking, I don’t want to hear about that, I want to know how it is to be you right now.
This means if you do trot out your to-do list, I will likely ask where you feature on this list. Then I might ask you what you are doing for self-care and which actions you are finding helpful.
To some my self-care question may seem a challenging one. But there is little point noticing we are feeling down, tired or overwhelmed, if we just soldier on telling ourselves we are fine.
In other spheres of life, if we notice something is different but do nothing, it’s seen as irresponsible or called neglect.
Lockdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have shown that our mental well-being can fluctuate and that when we identify what we need and take action, we can help ourselves feel better. This is self-care.
However, self-care is often thought of as selfish or superfluous, if it is thought about at all. Which couldn’t be further from the truth.
For this reason, I thought it would be useful to share some facts about self-care to encourage you to continue to practice it even though, in the UK, we will soon be out of lockdown.
1. Self-care is deliberate action
Let’s start with a definition. Not easy because like a fish it’s slippery and difficult to catch; research done a decade ago found more than 139 definitions (1). Goodness knows how many are out there now!
The Self-Care Forum (2) defines self-care as:
The actions that individuals take...in order to develop, protect, maintain and improve their health, well-being or wellness.
And these actions stretch along a continuum from things we do every day to keep ourselves well to looking after ourselves when we are feeling ill to living with and managing a long-term condition.
2. Self-care is personal
Mental well-being is subjective. It comes from how we feel about ourselves, function through our day and think our lives are going.
This means what we choose to support our wellbeing is personal to us.
For example, going for a run will certainly not energise or lift my mood (in fact it will do the exact opposite) but it might feel good to you.
A recent Bring Mindfulness to Life participant rightly realised self-care actions are those he “enjoyed not endured”.
This insight chimes with the work of Lyubomirsky and colleagues (3) that explored the three major factors thought to govern happiness: genetics, circumstance and activities an individual chooses to undertake. Their research found that it is activities that offer the best opportunities for sustainably increasing happiness.
3. Self-care goes beyond our physical needs
Whilst good hygiene, decent sleep, daily exercise, avoiding/mitigating risks, staying hydrated and healthy eating matter, as human beings we also have emotional or psychological needs that if not met can negatively impact our mental well-being.
I divide all these needs into seven domains (Super Seven Needs) along the lines of Maslow (4) and the Human Givens Institute (5).
Our Super Seven Needs
Looking at these seven needs you will see how, depending on circumstances, lockdowns can impact mental well-being.
Whilst some emotional needs may be met through meeting a physical one (perhaps you gain a sense of achievement when you cook a new recipe or go for a run), there are other areas of life from which we can draw.
Our relationships, hobbies, professional and spiritual life can all go some way to meeting our needs.
For example, I might find fulfilment from:
being asked to write an article (recognition and purpose)
deep cleaning my kitchen (safety and achievement)
discussing new ideas (connection and personal development)
walking on a beach (physiological and meaning).
4. Self-care requires self-knowledge
If self-care is our responsibility, we need to know ourselves. This means knowing what we can do to manage our sense of well-being.
How do we do this? We take time to learn about ourselves. We identify what helps and what hinders us.
Make a note of what drains/tires and what sustains/inspires you
From this place of knowledge, we can proactively plan for taxing days, situations, meetings, conversations etc.
We can also rearrange our activities and identify recharge points so that we are not so driven and empty from a never-ending chain of depleting activities that we are running on fumes.
5. Self-care can be done in the doing
For too long we have been sold that self-care activities are things to do after the doing is done.
When the kids are in bed, after this task is finished, after work I will...
Driven by the doing, we go from task to task never really stopping to notice how we are in all this doing. And a lot of the time, those self-care activities we promised ourselves get squeezed out by other priorities.
Very often we are last on our to-do list, if we even make it onto the list.
Until we bring mindfulness to life, we may not notice all the well-being boosters that punctuate our day. Too lost in the doing, we don’t recharge from that moment of achievement, awe or a-ha!
An exercise I ask my clients to do is to start to notice the things in their day that can refill them; the satisfaction of a task completed, the smile of a child, the time spent on hold.
6. Self-care includes protection
Self-care is not just about those actions that maintain or enhance our health and wellbeing but also those that safeguard it.
In other words, it is as much about choosing to not do something as it is to do something.
There is no self-care, if there are no boundaries.
How often do you offer, accept or agree to something that you later regret or resent? And what about the times we give in to short-term temptation (a second helping or another hour on screen) over long-term betterment?
Related post: Why bother with boundaries?
7. Self-care starts with self-awareness
Alongside self-knowledge, being sufficiently self-aware to notice changes in body and mind is key to practicing self-care.
Task and other focused we regularly lose connection with ourselves. But we cannot take action, if we don’t know we need to.
Routine activities (making a drink, washing our hands or turning a key) can be opportunities to pause and note how we are doing and what we might need.
Such mindful moments can mean the difference between attending to ourselves in good time and being dragged down by sinking, thinking or pressing on to depletion.
This is particularly true when we are feeling overwhelmed, overscheduled or overworked. Taking a mindful breath or three is a really helpful and resourceful action. It will interrupt the mind and reset the nervous system so that you can think more clearly and choose your next best action.
8. Self-care is not selfish
Without doing things to ensure we can think, feel and function well we will not be able to contribute, relate or give to others or the organisations of which we are a part.
We take for ourselves so that we can give to others.
It’s a cliché, but on a flight should there be a need to use the emergency oxygen system, we are told to fit our own mask before helping others with theirs.
Would you call that selfish? I call it necessary. So is self-care.
9. Self-care develops self-advocacy
In Western cultures we tend to value productivity and achievement (external outputs), the exact opposite of self-care which provides an outcome on the inside.
And whilst this has probably led to the self-indulgent and selfish stigma associated with practicing self-care, once you realise it is about acting responsibly, you feel empowered to take your needs into account, make requests and state boundaries. All of which can be done with grace.
Remember, the only person who has your back is you.
Going forwards, if we want to flourish and not flounder, we must continue to accommodate the physical and emotional systems that run inside of us.
That means accepting, working with and caring about these aspects of ourselves. In doing so we not only understand ourselves better but also other people.
Take care of you.
1: Godfrey CM, Harrison MB, Lysaght R, Lamb M, Graham ID, Oakley P. (2011). Care of self - care by other - care of other: the meaning of self-care from research, practice, policy and industry perspectives. Int J Evid Based Health. 2011 Mar;9(1):3-24. doi: 10.1111/j.1744-1609.2010.00196.x. PMID: 21332659.
2: Self-care Forum (n.d.). What do we mean by self care and why is it good for people? Retrieved 22 April, 2021.
3: Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 111–131.
4: Cherry, K. (2021). The 5 Levels of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Retrieved 22 April, 2021, from verywellmind
5: Human Givens Institute (n.d.). What are the Human Givens? Retrieved 29 April, 2021.