Many of us are familiar with the term ‘self-care’ and have noticed how often the word features in our day-to-day language. The hashtag #selfcare has featured in 37.4 million posts on Instagram to date, and many more times since the writing of this article. So, while the term is certainly trending, how many of us fully understand what self-care means and more importantly, how to apply it to our lives?
Unfortunately in our modern, highly demanding lives, where we try to maximise our time as much as possible, we often prioritise our jobs and the needs of others (including family members, friends, loved ones) over our own, which inadvertently, limits the amount of quality downtime we reserve for ourselves. In western societies where the protestant work ethic still influences our lives, we favour drive, ambition, and discipline over self-care and sometimes dismiss those who practice self-care as being lazy, selfish, and unproductive.
However, self-care is crucial, especially if you are dedicated to taking care of others. In continuously side-lining your own wellbeing, we become overwhelmed, physically exhausted, and this can unconsciously affect the wellbeing of those around us.
If you relate to two or more of the following examples, you may be compromising your own wellbeing and stretching yourself too thin:
- You feel mentally and physically drained and therefore struggle to complete daily tasks
- You work more than 70 hours a week including overtime or voluntary work
- You continuously miss out on social events because you are too busy working / caring
- You have to be reminded to take breaks
- You sacrifice your sleep, regular meals, or exercise in order to pack more into your day
- You opt for snacks instead of sit-down meals as you feel you don’t have time to stop to eat a full meal
- Your family or friends have expressed their concerns over your workstyle
- You feel sluggish, you have low energy, are prone to sickness and catch the common cold or flu often
Some of you might have read the above points and thought, ‘well that is all well and good, but I don’t have a choice.’ Maybe your boss is demanding, you have study commitments on top of your job, you are a carer and want to ensure you give as much time as possible to those you care for, or maybe, you are a perfectionist and have placed very high standards on your output.
While working hard, caring for others and pursuing different interests outside of work are all very important and demonstrate strength in character and ambition, it is important to assess when we may have crossed the line or have sacrificed our own wellbeing for the sake of others. If you are struggling to maintain your current energy levels remember to be kind to yourself, “Self-compassion is not a valuation of self-worth. It’s just a way of treating yourself kindly whether things are good or things are bad…. You can motivate yourself not out of fear of being inadequate, but because you care about yourself” says Dr Kristin Neff, a pioneering self-compassion researcher and author from the University of Texas.
According to the World Health Organisation, “self-care is what people do for themselves to establish and maintain health and to prevent and deal with illness. It is a broad concept encompassing hygiene (general and personal), nutrition (type and quality of food eaten), lifestyle (sporting activities, leisure etc.), environmental factors (living conditions, social habits etc.), socioeconomic factors (income level, cultural beliefs etc.) and self-medication.”
Examples of self-care include:
- Setting boundaries with family, bosses and friends who demand a lot but give nothing in return
- Asking for help without hesitation or shame
- Treating yourself with kindness and empathy as you work towards your goals
- Standing up for yourself in the workplace or in the home when your respect is compromised, or your efforts are underestimated
- Saying no to extra obligations without guilt
- Setting time aside to plan a healthy diet, regular exercise and get adequate rest
- Accepting your character flaws, learning to love yourself and celebrating your individuality
If you struggle to set boundaries or feel overwhelmed in your role, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Building a network of friends, professionals, and family members that you can use as a support system will create free time for yourself. Ask a family member if they can spare a few hours to step in at home or ask your boss for a mental health day. Reprioritise everyday tasks to enable time to relax or ask a supportive friend if they can lend an ear so that you can air your problems.
Ultimately, when you take time for yourself to rest and recover, not only do your perform better in the long term and avoid burn out but you also benefit your physical health and create space to become the best possible version of yourself which in turn will benefit your career, your family and those you care for.
World Health Organisation (2019) 58: "WHO Consolidated Guideline on Self-Care Interventions for Health: Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights". Available here
Brickel, R. E (2020) What Is Good Self-Care, and Why You Deserve It, Psychalive.