Therapists, as a general rule, can spend an awful lot of time teaching clients how to take better care of themselves. Ironically, as a group, we probably don’t do nearly enough of this ourselves. I think one of the main reasons why, is that we are often so worried about “getting it right” that we either avoid self-care altogether, or over-enthusiastically do too much – resulting in our self-care routine becoming stressful in itself.
This idea is perpetuated by so many blogs and articles on how to maintain good mental health. For example, “Five ways to wellbeing”, “9 tips to practice self-care” or “10 things you should do every day to improve your life”, to name only a few.
The problem I have is not that any of these tips or strategies are not relevant or helpful. They often are, and brainstorming lots of lovely ways to take better care of yourself is a useful activity for people who struggle with it.
The issue I have, I suppose, is with the idea that we can reduce our self-care, or our mental wellbeing as a whole, to a simple list of activities that we supposedly need to tick off each day. When we do this, people start to schedule self-care activities into their day as a forced thing. They then become another task, another chore to achieve (and feel overloaded by) or not achieve (and feel like a failure at taking care of yourself).
The interesting thing about self-care, is that you really don’t have to do anything at all. If none of the classic ‘self-care’ activities, such as yoga, meditation, journaling, long walks in nature and so on, happen to be your cup of tea, then I say don’t do them. Because if you force yourself to do any or all of these things only because you feel like you ‘should’ do them and not because you enjoy them, they will generally make you feel more stressed, not less.
In my opinion, therapists in particular can sometimes get far too hung up on the idea that there is a right or wrong way to do self-care, maintain our mental wellbeing, or ‘flourish’. Living a balanced and meaningful life looks different for every single person. Self-care is about listening to your body and doing whatever enjoyable or nurturing things you want to do (or not do, as the case may be).
For example, if I have a large ‘to do’ list looming for the weekend, but I feel like taking the morning off to read a book, then I’ll do it. Or if I scheduled some time with friends, but I really haven’t had a spare second to myself all week and don’t feel like going, then I’ll cancel.
How is this self-care? Because my mind and body are signalling to me that I need a break in that moment, and I’m taking it. Doing any work, or spending time with friends, when I’m feeling stressed out or run down is not that productive or enjoyable anyway. But if I take a break when I need it, then everything else seems to come a lot more easily. I’m free and relaxed enough to work hard, or to enjoy that catch up with friends.
So I encourage everyone to do more of what they want (or less of what they don’t want) to do, in the moment, rather than what they feel they “should” or “need” to do. Sure, we can’t shirk all of our responsibilities in life, and sometimes a challenge is very rewarding. But so long as we balance it with a bit of real “me” time – time to do exactly what we want to do, whatever that may be – then we’re caring for ourselves just fine.