I have had a lot of people come to me lately with ailments that (on the surface) seem relatively mysterious. Their stomachs hurt, they are noticing an uptick in the amount of migraines they get. They’re constipated. They’re gassy. They have diarrhea. They have no time to cook. Their exercise is falling to the wayside. They’re depressed and they are anxious. They are, essentially both full of guilt and full of physical pain. It’s gotta be a trend right now, something astrological. It suddenly seems like “too busy” is making everyone I know feel literally ill.
And in steps self-care.
Self care is as amorphous and tricky to define as it is necessary to participate in. My good friend Molly is what I would call a self-care whiz, and I was extremely excited when she asked if she could write a little something on treating yourself awesomely for my audience. The below piece resonates with me so deeply (yeah, I need a little self-care, too), and I am seriously hoping it strikes a chord with you, too.
Self-care is vital. We need it. I am giving you permission to go at it like a fucking champion. Below are a bunch of ideas of how to get started:
I’m imagining a world where we all feel unapologetic and unashamed to be who we are, held respect for limits and boundaries of ourselves and others, and believed we were truly worth loving. These ideas seem obvious, right? But I look around and see people completely removed from the simple act of honoring themselves. We need self-care, but oftentimes we don’t know how or where to get it.
The stereotype of self-care is a bunch of things that seem out of reach- expensive spa days, sitting on the beach and meditating, activities that involve money, time, and disruption of the necessary flow of life. We are taught self-care is a luxury afforded by an elite few and I am here to say that this is absolutely not true. Permission, access, and love: These simple guidelines are what you need to take care of yourself in a deep and restorative way. Surprisingly, it’s notoriously difficult to approach ourselves with these intentions. If you’ve ever struggled with feeling selfish, guilty, or lost when it comes to “self-care” and how to do it, you’re not alone.
On some level, showing up for the needs of other people has become more acceptable than showing up for our own needs. But I ask this: If you are really going to be able to give your energy, your thinking, your creativity, and your strength to your projects and communities, is it not essential to recharge and reconnect to yourself? The more you treat yourself well, with love, care, and tenderness, the more you can feel like a whole person who is able to actually make clear decisions for yourself and your life. If we could all do this, and all be whole people meeting other whole people, we would literally transform the world. Self-care enables us to access our minds and to think about why we are in circumstances that deplete us, plus how we can find the energy, consultation, and clarity to change said circumstances.
When I teach people how to practice self-care (and it is very much a practice, starting with 5 minutes a day, all at once or sprinkled throughout), I teach activities that can be done almost anywhere, with any kind of tools or supplies. These things I teach are easy to conceptualize but what seems hard for people is offering themselves permission to actually start. Kindness for yourself around that challenge is also self-care! If you think of something you’d like to do for yourself, but find yourself struggling to begin, offer thanks to yourself for all the protection your stubborn parts are offering. It’s scary to think of opening yourself up to care (even your own). Bodies and brains like homeostasis. And yet, we are always learning and growing. It’s a challenging tension that, if you can recognize it and allow space for that tension to just be, you’ve already offered tender care to the parts of you that are struggling.
With that, here are some inexpensive or free activities you can think about and try- and if you find yourself getting stuck, remember that stuck is a part of your process, too. You’re not trying to get anywhere but to yourself.
Journal about your dreams
Breathe. If you need a template, try breathing in for a count of 4, deep into your diaphragm, thinking “soft”, and out for a count of 4, thinking “belly”. Keep your belly soft, try not to hold tension there. Do this for about 5 minutes, in line at the grocery store, in traffic, when you feel stress, when you need a rest.
Walk slowly mindfully down a street you’re already familiar with, and notice something new
Write and send a postcard to someone you care about, even if you live with them!
Hum to yourself and feel the vibrations in your cheeks
Eat your first bite of food for the day with all of your senses open and aroused. Let it last as long as you can.
Go to a natural place, like a yard, an urban park, or if you can, a wilderness area. Notice the smell of the grass. Touch a tree with both palms and hold yourself there for 30 seconds. Stop and stay a while. You may start to notice some of your physical stressors start to evaporate, as you remember: You are interconnected with the world around you, and your care for yourself extends to caring for this world. Trees are bad-fucking-ass, and you are too.
What do you do to recalibrate, slow down, and recharge your strength and offer care to yourself?
Molly Merson, MFT is a psychotherapist in Berkeley CA who offers relational psychotherapy for people learning how to love and understand themselves. She also hosts a “Self-care Staycation,” a half-day experiential retreat for a small group of folks wanting to kickstart or deepen their self-care opportunities. She makes sure people leave with tools and resources that can be used long after the retreat is over.
Tasks get sidelined, things pop up, your day sometimes just doesn’t go how you thought it would.
That’s okay. If you learn nothing else from this, please know that it is okay to not do every single day absolutely perfectly. That being said, it’s also okay to nail your goals, and some of the these tips may help you to do just that.
I have two primary physical goals at this moment in time. One is to build muscle and the other is to maintain energy. I put effort into both acts in a super committed way, and although building muscle is relatively draining, I have safety habits distributed throughout the day that are expressly put in place to protect myself from exhaustion and overwork. I plan my food, I plan my schedule, and I plan my time not because I have so much extra space in my day that I need to work to fill it, but because on a daily basis I do a lot and a plan keeps the good stuff flowing. Naturally, that’s my first tip.
Make a plan.
It could be the plan in this article to start, but probably even better would be a plan you tweaked to fit your life. Set alarms or make a sticker chart to help yourself stick to your plan.
What to do in the morning:
Wake the fuck up
I know plenty of folks who have trouble getting out of bed, but the first way to get shit done is to get up to allow yourself enough time to do the things that you want to do. I wake up at 6:30 most days, which is before the sun rises and thus, is not exactly my favorite. But! I usually get up to work out first thing. I know that lifting right away jumpstarts my metabolism. I know I feel like a fucking champion when it’s 9:00AM and I have already worked out, showered, and gotten dressed for my real day, and I know that feeling accomplished first thing is helpful for fitting it all in. You can wake up to work, or meditate, or exercise or whatever, but just wake up. Carpe that diem.
Drink a huge cup of water
Upon waking, you are dehydrated. If you reach for a glass a water before you even wipe the crust out of your eyes, you are doing something right. Your body won’t have to work so damn hard to function, so you’ll have more energy. Go for the gold.
I actually don’t care when you meditate in a day, but I do think you should do it. Often I wake up overwhelmed by all of the things I have to do and the only way I can calm my mind so that I can actually get started is to allow ten minutes for the breath to happen on a conscious level. Meditating first thing primes me for a successful day.
Have caffeine if that’s your thing, eat a super powered breakfast, take your vitamins.
My choices here are as follows
-coffee with a little unsweetened almond milk
-liquid vitamin B12
-oats with chia seeds, blueberries, and protein powder pre workout, smoothie with protein powder, banana, strawberries, and kale post workout. Every single one of theses actions gives me a tangible energy boost that I instantly feel.
What to do in the afternoon:
Drink a huge cup of water
If you can drink a cup of water every 1-2 hours during the day, you will be doing awesomely. Again, an alarm on your phone is an awesome reminder.
Eat muscle building meals and snacks with protein, fat, carbs, and veggies.
You deserve better than the vending machines and the quick food fixes.
I don’t recommend measuring or weighing food for most people, because that seems to be the quickest way people choose to drive themselves wild with anxiety and fear around food.
Instead, I say go for the good stuff and try to find a balance. Typical plates of food for me include sweet potatoes, baked tofu, kale and peanut sauce, tofu scramble with mixed veggies, black beans, and avocado slices, bean pasta with seared tempeh, broccolini, and homemade marinara, etc. My meals are often different logistically, but very similar in terms of a template. Vegan, gluten-free protein, fat, carbs, and veggies are on 99% of my plates and that seems to be what’s logical for most other folks too.
If you’re worried about portion size, my first recommendation is to eat slowly and try to find when you’re full, but for those with a chronic history of eating disorders or dieting, I know it can be difficult to heed the body’s signals. In cases like these, using your fists can be good. Eating tons of veggies, 1 fist sized serving of starch, and 1 fist sized serving of your protein is a good start. You will be the only one who can tell if your body needs more. (Also, PS, I eat six times a day, so my meals tend to be smaller. If you eat three times a day, double the above suggestions.)
Allow yourself breaks to shit around on the internet, but keep your focus in the off break time
For me, 15-20 minutes of Facebook, blog reading, Instagram, and texting just to say what’s up every 2-3 hours works well. I also make myself get up and take a quick walk after the 15-20 minutes is over to signal that my time waste-age is through and I’m ready to get back to the grind.
Have a snack that supports your goals
Because I am in a muscle building/energy maintaining phase of life, I go for protein (the muscle’s building blocks) and carbs (straight energy for the system). Here are some examples:
rice cakes and hummus, carrots and black bean dip, tofu scramble with a little Daiya cheese melted on top, protein smoothies, fruit.
What to do in the evening:
De-stress in the best ways that you know how
Meditate, make out, journal, nap, read, go for a walk, stretch, flip through a magazine, listen to relaxing music, masturbate, sit in a room and do nothing, whatever- just do it consciously and for a good amount of time. Chances are, you work hard. I recommend staying away from screens during your de-stress and really trying to get comfy.
Settling into non-work mode will help to replenish you for when it’s time to get back to it.
Eat a Dinner that supports your goals
I have been playing around with different kinds of dinners, and what I’ve noticed is this: my muscles are more visible when I keep carbs that aren’t vegetables closer to my workouts. Because I am wildly narcissistic and want to see the shit out of my hard work, I tend to eat a dinner that is mostly veggies and protein with a little fat. Sometimes I end up having something more carbohydrate rich, and that isn’t a huge deal, but there’s a bunch of meals I can make with a protein and veggie template, and I like to see abs. SUE ME.
(Most people’s goals will simply be to eat healthfully during dinner and I FULLY support that. Following the same guidelines that you did at lunch is absolutely perfect, too.)
but try to stop two hours before going to bed. No one likes to wake up time and time and time again to pee.
Plan your next day
This is one of the most important ways I prep for success.
Before I go to bed I write down all the stuff I need to do the next day, and I put it in order of importance. Sometimes I would LIKE to study for my personal trainer exam, see clients, write a blog post, work on my conference proposal, and organize my files but I realize that focusing on my clients and my exam are paramount and that’s all I can handle in a day. Taking the time to prioritize means that I can avoid alphabetizing files when I should be brushing up on anatomy.
Another way I prepare for my day is to generally plan my food if I am going to be near my home all day, and prepare and pack my food if I will be out. No matter what I soak some oats and chia for my overnight oat breakfast and take note to make sure I have enough unsweetened almond milk and greens for the next day. Knowing what and how I will eat saves me a significant amount of time.
Wind down in preparation for a serious sleep
This is how I make sure I sleep soundly:
- Try not to have more than two coffees a day, don’t drink it past 3PM.
- Watch ONE episode of a TV show, then call it quits
- Take one dose of melatonin, because that is my JAM and helps me sleep like a baby.
- Try to get screens away from me at least an hour before bed
- Spend time reflecting on my day and write a gratitude list
Sleep for 8 hours
I sleep for AT LEAST 8 hours a night, and I know some can get away with less, but I don’t really understand why one would want to. GOOD SLEEP IS KING!
Repeat most days
Because guidelines are good, but sometimes you gotta break ’em. Work your schedule enough for it to feel like a habit but not a rule.
Of course sometime in there, you will have to work out.
Muscle building happens in the kitchen for sure, but it also happens in the gym. For me, I find that I do best when I workout in the morning, strength train 4-5 times a week, sprinkle in a dash of cardio and bike commuting, and lift heavy using compound exercises. Your exercise situation may look different, and that’s okay. It is likely that you will be working out for ONE HOUR A DAY, which means there are a bunch of other hours that you will need to fill with healthy, productive, energy producing, muscle building habits.
Your body is more than a product of what you lift or how you sprint, so remember to take care of it as such.
As I have mentioned, the basis of my recovery from anorexia, bulimia, compulsive exercise, and negative self talk was learning to like myself.
First, I had to learn how to like myself in very logistical ways:
I had to eat.
I had to not exercise for more than an hour a day.
I had to not puke.
I had to not lie to manipulate my schedule in order to meet the needs of my eating disorder.
I had to not cancel plans because food was involved.
Just these five goals took years to accomplish.
There is nothing quick about unlearning a series of behaviors developed to make yourself feel as if you are an okay person. There is no easy way to completely change your mindset about very basic survival skills.
It was the less logistical ways that I began to treat myself well that got me well enough to eat, exercise moderately, not puke, quit lying and keep my plans. Those were as follows:
I started to change what I did to treat myself well depending on the circumstance: This is perhaps the first way I learned to honor myself. I accepted that different activities (self-care things, foods, exercise, etc.) would be appropriate depending on what was going on in a given day. I stopped demanding that I journal by the ocean when I felt bad when I actually wanted to watch documentaries about Tiny Houses and Ocelots. I stopped insisting I run as fast as humanly possible when I actually needed the kind of slow sweat that a hike brings. I taught myself to tune in to my needs in each given moment by practicing doing so again and again and again
I tapped into my dreams: learning to like yourself means acknowledging that sometimes what you think you should want to do with your life is different than what you actually want to do. In my case, I thought I should want to be a teacher because that was a very viable career given my degree, it had a stable income, and it looked respectable on paper. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy my teaching position and I knew I wanted to make money by writing and helping people to treat themselves well. I also knew I wanted to be able to be completely transparent about where I’ve come from, and to cuss whenever I wanted to.
When I quit teaching to start Super Strength Health, it was the best thing I ever did in terms of treating myself as if I were of value. It is likely you will want to do something different than what I did, but no matter what, I think you should start taking steps to live your dream. Go for the mother fucking gold. You’ve got this.
Take walks: lots of walks, slow walks or fast walks, or any kind of walks really. In a previous life I refused to exercise unless it wrecked me. Spin class and CrossFit yes, yoga and walking: waste of time. This ignored the fact that there is a whole big wide cool world out there, and that it is very informative when you open your eyes to pay attention. I walk as much as I can now, with no goal in mind, because I like to see my community and my town. Treating my environment with reverence has helped me to treat myself the same way.
Show up for other people the way you used to show up for your eating disorder (or other annoying, shifty, selfish behavior): Listen. I want to take the judgement out of the word selfish. It took me a long time to acknowledge that my eating disorder behaviors were selfish because I felt sad that I did the things I did, and I felt that I didn’t WANT to be doing the behaviors. How could doing something I hated be selfish? It just didn’t compute.
Now that I am able to see my eating disorder with more of a bird’s eye view, I have the perspective that I was searching for. My eating disorder was selfish, because the behaviors I had were designed to soothe my own anxiety about being a human in this world in a body. Watching my eating disorder go down was extremely painful for the people around me, and was actively hurting my friends and family. Once I started showing up for the people in my life as if they had the same power the eating disorder did, I started to gain self esteem. (Remember, self-esteem comes from esteemable acts, which can often be helping your loved ones out when they’re in a bind.)
Other acts that can help you to like yourself are as follows:
Say innumerable nice things to yourself. With every moment be your own cheerleader. Say “you’re doing great, you’ve got this, I love you” 100 times a day if you have to.
Practice a hobby: Get working on something that is funny and fun and doesn’t have a lot of emotion wrapped up in it. (origami, skipping, cursive, rearranging your room, sewing, bouquet arrangement, etc.)
Buy yourself some fucking flowers, goddamnit. Or plant a garden. or just go sit under a tree. Plants are visually awesome and they truly help.
Stick up for yourself when need be: Don’t let people talk down to you, ask for money when people owe it to you, etc. Taking the emotional charge out of sticking up for yourself is good, too. When someone cuts you off you can speak up about it without being pissed and have a whole different experience of self-advocacy.
Perhaps most importantly:
Write a gratitude list: When I weighed 95 pounds, was almost unable to finish my studies in a subject I loved, and was dead fucking broke I found a thing or two to be happy about. Noting that I was stoked on my apartment and a movie I saw that week kept me alive, and built a momentum that I carry with me, even years later.
Living in gratitude is the #1 way to like yourself, I think.
What are your tools to treat yourself well?