Updated: Sep 28, 2021
What is self-care?
In therapy, we focus a lot on self-care, but what do we mean by self-care? We can think about self-care as caring about our own needs at least as much as we care about the needs of others in our life. However this is the crux of the problem. Self-care requires us to put ourselves first at times, and so many of us struggle to put our own needs first. We start to equate self-indulgence with self-care (ooooo I'll just have an extra choccy biscuit, I've earned it). This habit of prioritising the needs of others, confusing self-indulgence with self-care and neglecting our own self-care needs can result in deteriorating physical and mental health, particularly for those with a lot on their plate such as caring responsibilities.
What do we mean by needs?
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs sets out a basic model for considering what our needs might be. If we start at the bottom of the pyramid, the bottom three categories represent survival. Here we can see our basic needs for survival, food, water, air. Moving up, we have health, safety, security. For some, home provides a safe space. For others, less so. Then we need love, acceptance and a sense of belonging. Without these three basic categories, the theory is that we may struggle to achieve the ‘growth’ categories higher up the pyramid. That’s because if we’re struggling to survive, it can be difficult to focus on the rest.
How do our needs relate to Self-Care?
Self-care is about ensuring that our own needs are fully met in order to survive (the bottom three categories) and thrive (the top four categories).
More often now, when people talk about self-care they are generally talking about the conscious and deliberate choice to do things that meet our needs, in particular our need to be physically and mentally healthy.
What does self-care look like?
Anything we do for ourselves that makes us feel good or better, looked after or nurtured can be considered self-care. And we all have different needs, therefore self-care will look different for every individual. Good self-care has a strong focus on taking care of our physical and mental health and wellbeing and for those that take self-care seriously, they may adopt a self-care regime that ensures continued good health and strength in mind, body and spirit. This may include things such as:
A healthy work-life balance
Staying on top of finances
Eating a healthy diet and drinking plenty of water
Taking medications as prescribed
Ensuring a regular exercise regime
Good personal hygiene and grooming
Getting enough good sleep
Building in time to relax and switch off
Saying no to things we don’t want to do
Saying yes to things we enjoy such as hobbies and interests
Making time for music, reading, watching a movie
Nurturing relationships, spending time with friends and loved ones
Spiritual or religious practice for those who follow one
Spending time outdoors
Keeping a wellbeing or gratitude journal
Seeking help when needed, whether practical help or help such as counselling or therapy
The term self-care has also been adopted by the medical community and refers to individuals managing their own health, taking an active role in staying on top of their own health conditions.
How does self-care impact mental health?
Life can get really messy, difficult, complicated and tough at times and it can really take it out of us. Therefore taking good care of ourselves both physically and mentally provides a strong foundation for enjoying a long, fruitful and happy life and coping when life throws us a spanner in the works.
The problems arise when we fail to put our own survival needs first, especially if we have a lot of responsibilities such as work, study, childcare and caring for others. But there are very good reasons for looking after ourselves and putting our needs first more often. As they say on an aeroplane, you must put your own oxygen mask on first or you won’t survive the flight and won’t survive to help anyone else. As the Instagram memes state, you can’t pour from an empty jug and you’re no use to anyone if your batteries are flat!
The fact is, the healthier we feel, both mentally and physically, the more able we are to cope with all of the responsibilities we have in our lives and all that life throws at us and the more able we are to help those we are committed to helping along the way.
How do I fit it in with everything else I have to fit in?
The good news is, self-care doesn’t have to be complicated or require a huge time commitment, nor does it have to be expensive. It’s about making a commitment to putting yourself first, even just for a few minutes each day.
But I can already hear you saying ‘oh but I feel so guilty making time for me!’
And therein lies the problem. We learn the habit of caring about ourselves from a very young age and it may be that we’ve been conditioned in our life to put others’ needs before our own.
So I have a question for you....
Why are your needs to survive or indeed thrive any less important than anyone else’s? I’m here to tell you they are not – they are AT THE VERY LEAST as important as everyone else’s.
So the starting point of self-are actually begins in the mind – it means acknowledging that ‘my needs are valid, at least as valid as anyone else’s.’ ‘My needs to survive and thrive are just as important as anyone else’s.’
Once we start to believe this, we can, little by little, start to look at our week and build in opportunities for self-care.
Three simple self-care strategies to get you started
A quick, easy and inexpensive way to start building in self-care is to commit to the following:
A healthy daily breakfast – you could prepare overnight oats with berries or a boiled egg the night before, ready for your morning breakfast.
A seasonal stroll – switch off your gadgets and get outside – whether you’re in a town or city, in the countryside or by the coast, there is always something new to notice in every season.
A long soak – write a ‘do not disturb’ sign, stick it on the bathroom door and give instructions to be left alone to enjoy a long soak or shower, candles, your favourite bath/shower melts…..lovely
What are the benefits of good self-care?
Self-care is highly beneficial, impacting positively on our mental and physical health and wellbeing. Making a commitment to look after ourselves is a step towards better physical and mental health.
Improved physical health: look after your body and it will look after you. The building blocks are good hygiene, a healthy and varied diet, daily exercise, good sleep and dealing with health issues as they arise by checking in with health care providers when we need to, such as your GP, dentist or optician. A good starting point is to build these into your weekly routine before adding anything else in. Taking care of these basics first and foremost sets us up well for a positive impact in every other sphere of our lives.
Improved Mental health: Good self-care can help us to manage stress, anxiety and depression and can prevent these common mental health difficulties from getting worse. There are good reasons for this. When we genuinely commit to caring about ourselves, we start to:
view ourselves as human beings with valid needs and wants, therefore we start to become kinder and more understanding towards ourselves
improve our self-esteem and self-confidence
assert ourselves, saying no to things we don’t want to do
put more things into our life that we really want to do, things that make us feel better or lift our spirits
improve our personal relationships, spending more time with people who make us feel uplifted
put better boundaries in place with people who drain us
recognise when we need help and seek mental health support
So are there any downsides to self-care?
I’m tempted to say there are none, however it depends which way you look at it. I always advise my clients that when we start to implement better self-care strategies and we start to put better boundaries in place to protect our mental health, this can have an impact on our personal relationships, often for the better, but sometimes less so.
And that’s no surprise. If you think about it, if a person is used to you putting their needs first and neglecting your own, and then that starts to change, that’s going to have an impact on those people whose needs you’ve been putting first.
They may notice changes such as you’re not there quite as often, or you’re busy doing something you enjoy. We hope that the people in our lives respect this and are happy for us and are supportive. However they may feel that their needs have become unimportant to us and may even say we’ve changed or call us selfish.
If we want to preserve our relationships, it’s important that we assert our needs, that we communicate what our needs are and why we may need things to change in order to make more time to meet our own needs. At times, it may even become necessary to understand what is happening in the changing dynamics within a relationship when we begin to put ourselves first, and where necessary, to re-negotiate the dynamics of some of our relationships and put better boundaries in place.
On the upside, if this is something that we have to deal with, then ultimately it can have an even greater positive impact on us and on our relationships. Imagine fighting someone’s corner, it feels good doesn’t it, to defend someone, to be on their side? We feel confident and in the right. Now imagine being on your own side, in your own corner, defending your own right to good self-care. It feels good, it builds our self-confidence and self-esteem, it feels liberating and our assertiveness improves as it becomes the norm to assert our right to good physical and mental health. As a result, people may stop taking us for granted. They may start to have more respect for us.
It can be difficult putting better self-care in place, it isn't without its challenges, however the upsides in the longer term far outweigh the downsides. So what’s stopping you? Start today by downloading our free monthly self-care planner here to help get you started https://www.mindaloud.org/projects-3.