Monday, July 18, 2011

A reflection on self-care

"Self-care" is a catch phrase I have heard a lot since beginning to work in the mental health field a few years ago. Going to workshops as a Case Manager, wise people said, "Make sure you are taking care of yourself. At the end of the day, make sure you do whatever it takes to relax yourself - a hot shower to wash the days concerns away, a run in the park with your dog, a yoga class - because you cannot care for someone else if you have not cared for yourself first." While I completely agree with the necessity and importance of self-care, what I kept hearing was, Make sure you exercise, make sure you eat well, make sure you get enough sleep. Make sure...

The trouble is, "self-care," which initially sounds like something pleasant, starts to feel like yet another thing to put on the to-do list - a task, a job. (Which means I am even less likely to want to do it.) And somehow, taking care of oneself is often the last thing checked off the to-do list (a.k.a. the one that never gets checked off, but continues to get transferred to the next day's list of tasks.)

But why is this the case? There are plenty of people who are convinced that Americans are really narcissists, so shouldn't we all love spending time on ourselves?

When I was a case manager, I often translated "self-care" to self-indulgence, which is a fairly easy mistake to make, as noted in this Psychology Today article. We are bombarded constantly with marketing messages that tell us we are "worth it," and that everyone "deserves a little 'me time.'" While I didn't do anything as problematic as going into massive credit card debt, I was so emotionally exhausted that I would often over-sleep and spend hours watching TV or movies on the couch. I didn't exercise enough (or at all) and I ate a so-so diet at weird times because my schedule was so erratic. Surprise, surprise - the time I spent "relaxing" did not rejuvenate me and I quit my job as a case manager after only a year and two months. Granted, there were other issues involved beyond my minimal self-care - such as it being my first job out of college, lack of experience and relevant education, and being a little too emotionally invested. I never got the hang of the schedule, and overall it wasn't a good match for my personality. (I need a lot more structure!) But as my professor noted in our last counseling class, self-care doesn't work when you are already burned out. I didn't start attending yoga classes regularly or investing more time in creating a healthy schedule until it was already too late. I felt a lot of guilt about not being able to "handle it" when I decided to leave the job, and I shed a lot of tears over feeling like I failed myself and the children I worked with. But all was not lost: I learned a lot about what I need in a work environment, ways to be organized, and different things I can do to advocate for myself.

As a full-time Research Coordinator, I had different kinds of job stress, but was overall able to maintain a healthier lifestyle. I got the right amount of sleep, exercised fairly regularly, and took yoga breaks in my office. Also, since I was working on a weight loss study, I started paying more attention to what I ate. (Alex described this time in our life as when we "started eating a lot of baby carrots.")

Now, as a graduate student, the self-care subject has come up in many classes again, yet has been difficult to maintain, but for different reasons. A dominant factor for me is definitely Time. During the Spring semester, I was taking five classes, working part-time as a research assistant, and doing a practicum simultaneously. This meant that I would sometimes leave the house at 7:00 AM and not return home until 10:30 PM. When exactly was I supposed to maintain a relationship with my spouse, friends, and family, let alone fit in some self-care? I'll say during this time, the two greatest decisions I ever made were these: 1) Deciding it was worth it to schlep all my extra stuff into the city to go to the gym in between work and class and 2) Marrying a man who was willing to pack me a lunch and cook me dinner every day.

The second dominant factor is a little more elusive, I think. For some of us, a very strong desire to succeed can mean pushing ourselves to do more, be better, be able to "handle" it all. In some ways, society rewards people who can somehow "do it all" and instills guilty feelings in those who live a more balanced life. If you are not doing this, that, and the other just like Mrs. So-and-So, are you as successful?

I'm going to say, Yes! Especially over the long term. While it might seem impressive now that that person can juggle all those things, the likelihood of maintaining that kind of insane schedule is low. Having balance in one's life is potentially the only way to not get burned out, and for me, the only way to really feel happy.

Too much spinach can give you gout, by which I mean, too much of *anything* is not good for you. So roll out your yoga mat, put on your sneakers, or turn up the music for a private dance party in your living room. It might not be easy, but taking care of yourself is really the best way to prepare yourself to care for somebody else.

Also, be honest with yourself. Chances are, a little less time on Facebook might be the only change that has to be made to squeeze in 20 minutes of restorative yoga before bedtime (she says to herself with a sigh.)

What do you guys do to practice self-care? Do you have any time-management tips or tricks you use to squeeze everything into a day? How can we support and encourage each other to keep up with our self-care practices?

1 comment:

  1. ...Such a cool thinker, you are, Dorothy my Dear. XO SM