Four reasons and six ways to practise self-care

older lady looking at gin and tonic

What do you need right now? Today, this minute, this week.

Self-care: what do you need to that's right for you? Woman drinking G&TThis is a tougher question than it first appears. The answer is sometimes something like ‘coffee’, ‘chocolate’, ‘a very large G&T, thanks very much’. I like all of those things.

But taking care of ourselves is often a conflicted business. Is it selfish? Indulgent? Not for those of us who live in the real world, with busy jobs and deadlines and families to care for?

In other words, self-care is often either dismissed as something for the weak, or alternatively, somewhat aggressively demanded when we’ve had enough of our busy lives. It can feel like an entitlement or a guilty pleasure or an admission of weakness. Or all three.

So we continue to motivate and drive ourselves with external goals, to care for others, and probably to also crave booze or food or beauty treatments or television as ‘me-time’ when we’ve had enough. That’s fine up to a point. They distract us or help us get through the week. I’m not saying they are wrong, and I’m no stranger to these things.

But there is another layer to this. Deep self-care is often something we only start to understand when we’re thrown a crisis or difficulty that serves as a wake-up call. Sometimes, self-care can feel like the only viable option when life has turned upside down – but giving ourselves permission to do that can be a huge challenge.

Why is it worth learning to give ourselves that permission?

1. Oxygen mask – we’re all familiar with the oxygen mask principle. In order to help others effectively, we need to put our own on first. That’s not selfish, it’s logical.

2. Responsibility – As a psychologist, I work a lot with junior doctors. Their tales of interactions with patients and the workload they face has made me very aware of doing what I can to look after myself rather than expecting someone else (often a junior doctor) to pick up the pieces if I don’t bother. That applies to my mental and physical health – the two are not separate. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek help from junior doctors or anyone else when we really need it, of course.

3. Contrary to our beliefs, most of us are not invincible. Many of the clients I work with have an assumption of invincibility somewhere underneath whatever’s going on (especially doctors, in one of life’s great ironies). It means we can deny that we have any need for self-care. And that way, we don’t have to face the feelings of vulnerability that deep self-care entails.

4. In the long term, we simply feel better if we take care of ourselves. We feel happier, fitter, more resilient, have more energy and optimism, are more creative and productive.

How can we get started?

1. Learn about yourself. This can be painful, awkward, and emotional, and it’s a lifelong undertaking. It can come from personal development at work, from time with other people, from new adventures, from crises or from psychological therapeutic approaches.

Having practised and studied psychology for the best part of 30 years now, I have drawn the conclusion that – however much we might want to avoid it – there is no better foundation for truly inhabiting your own skin and understanding what you need in order to do that (I consider myself still to be work-in-progress on that front).

Self-care: Sleeping lady2. Be kind to yourself – so much easier said than done. I’ve lost count of the clients, friends, family (and me) who can be world-class self-critics – vicious, unforgiving and harsh with themselves.

It can be a habit so ingrained that we can’t even see it. But the words you use internally about yourself have as big and damaging an impact as they would if someone else shouted them at you. If that was happening many times a day, we’d call it abuse or bullying and take steps to address it. It takes much practice and understanding of yourself to change this habit but it is possible. And the benefits spread to other people around you when you are kinder to yourself.

3. Exercise – probably enough said. Bodies and minds are all part of the same system and everything about us benefits from the right level of exercise.

4. Sleep – it’s not always easy to get or to manage with twenty-first century lifestyles. But, without becoming obsessive about it (which can often result in an own goal and prevent sleep), it’s worth gently nurturing and prioritising.

5. Beware of numbing behaviours – many of our ways of dealing with stress and the challenges of life (alcohol, over-the-counter painkillers, hours spent watching mindless telly or social media, overworking, turning to chocolate too frequently) serve a real purpose in temporarily making us feel better or shutting off unpleasant feelings such as anxiety or anger. But the underlying issues don’t go away as a result. Personally, I’m sceptical of the term ‘me-time’ as some things sold to us under that banner are numbing activities or products.

6. Good use of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ – so often we say one when we mean the other. When we’ve identified what we need, this becomes easier.

Self-care isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s not a weak response to the challenges we face, but essential for realising our potential and maintaining a long-term healthy approach to life – for our own and for others’ benefit. It often goes against the prevailing culture that we work and live in and requires some difficult decisions or a need to stand up against peer pressure. Most of all, it also requires a willingness to face ourselves with all our strengths and vulnerabilities.

So, let me ask again – what do you need right now?

Some useful references

Brene Brown Daring Greatly – and her TED talks are worth a watch. Her work is about vulnerability and shame, and is delivered with very good humour.

Kristen Neff Self compassion – along with the work that she has carried out with psychotherapist Chris Germer – also see their website www.centerformsc.org


Sarah Dale

About Sarah Dale

I'm an occupational psychologist and author. I've written two books, Keeping Your Spirits Up, and Bolder and Wiser, and I'm working on more. I enjoy coaching, organisational consultancy, writing and training to help people deal with uncertainty and change, and to make better sense of their lives. Follow me on Twitter