This morning, I treated myself with a massage. I cannot afford to do it on a regular basis, but since my shoulder injury is still nagging at me, I decided go ahead and spend the money in hopes of finding some relief. Afterwards, I felt great. I was sitting a bit taller. My neck and shoulders felt a bit roomier. My massage therapist took a look at me and said, “Doesn’t it feel good to take care of yourself?” I paused.
The massage felt great, but I was surprised when I heard myself think, “Sometimes.” To me, self care seemed over-indulgent. When people say the words, “self care” I imagined this slippery slope descent into sloppy, lazy, gluttonous behavior, and I quickly saw why I avoided it so much. Taking care of myself is either something I’m not worthy of, or it’s something that will ruin what worth I have left.
This injury has caused me to look at a lot of my own behaviors and resistances. I actually know what I need to do to take care of my body, and I’m almost amazed at my ability to avoid those very things. I’m looking at you: physical therapy exercises, that yo-yoing meditation practice, and neglected vegetables sitting in my fridge. If the habit of self-care doesn’t come naturally to you either, it doesn’t mean you are stuck in this cycle of half-hearted attempts. Like yoga, meditation, physical therapy exercises, or even eating more vegetables, it’s a practice.
Redefine your self-care routine. Taking care of yourself isn’t just for the wealthy, the pretty, or the worthy. It’s for everyone. Self-care doesn’t mean you have to blow a crazy amount of money on spa days and pedicures. It’s simply a practice of meeting your needs in this moment. For some of you it may be taking a walk around the block or taking a 15 minute nap. What is something small, that costs nothing that nourishes you? Bubble bath, read a book, call a friend, check one thing off your to do list.
Start small. Self care is a habit you have to build, and we often sabotage ourselves by trying to do too much at once. Pick a goal. Maybe you would like to take a 30 minute walk 5 days a week. If you miss a day or don’t complete your goal, adjust your goal to something more attainable. Even if you start out with 5 minute walks, it’s better to have consistency than attempting 1 out of the 5 walks, getting discouraged and shaming yourself about it for weeks until you feel brave enough to attempt it again.
Be aware of your own mind games. One of the reasons I had such a hard time taking care of myself is because self-care reminded me of how little care I normally have for myself. It sounds totally crazy–and it kind of is–, but it is so common. How many times have you started working out only to realize just how un-fit you are? Don’t want to do yoga because you aren’t flexible enough? We have all these little mind games to keep us safe (if we never take that walk around the block, we never have to feel how out of shape we are; we never have to feel incompetent or feel rejection from others), but they also can keep us stuck in the same old patterns.
Avoid extremes. As stated before, keep your goals attainable. Extreme diet and exercise changes can end up doing more harm than good. When these changes aren’t attainable we just end up feeling bad about not being able to measure up. Think about the language you use as well. You aren’t on or off the wagon. You aren’t “being bad or doing better.” These phrases have connotations of judgment, guilt, and shame. When we live in guilt and shame, we don’t ever make behavioral changes, because we don’t feel worthy of change.
Play nice. Whenever we try to change our habits, things aren’t going to go as planned. I’m not going to tell you to not think negative thoughts, because those are going to happen. Your negative thoughts and judgments are just your brain’s way of protecting you. (For example, if you beat yourself up about your failed attempts to meditate, then you won’t try it again, and therefore you won’t be reminded of how bad you are at meditating.) So, when that negative dialogue comes up, you can listen, and even say, “Thanks for the input, but I’ve got this.” You know the phrase, “Two wrongs don’t make a right?” I think they were talking about your own crappy internal dialogue. When your brain starts calling you a failure, turn the other cheek.
Rinse and Repeat. You are going to fail. A LOT. Read that again, and let it soak in. It isn’t just you who struggles with this. Everyone does. Failing doesn’t mean that our actions aren’t worthwhile. It just means there is more work to do. Practice at failing. Fail. Get back up. Fail again. Learn from each time. Instead of thinking of failure as “one more thing you can’t do right” think of it as free practice on building your resilience and self-compassion muscles. Get angry. Cry. Feel how you feel. Then get up and try it all again.
Making self-care a habit is hard work. One of the biggest lessons my yoga practice has taught me is that hard work can feel good. Giving effort doesn’t mean to take on stressful struggle. Most of all it’s taught me that this self-care thing doesn’t have to be all or nothing, pass or fail. It’s just a give and take, and when it’s done lightheartedly and with compassion, it does feel good. It feels worthwhile, joyful, and life giving. When you get it down, it feels strong, and it puts you in a place to be of service to the people around you. It puts you in the place where you can look at someone who needs help, and remind them: “Doesn’t it feel good to take care of yourself?”