What does self care really mean, and how do you practice it effectively?

Spoiler: it’s not all bubble baths

I read so much about self care these days. Taking care of yourself is a good thing, but sometimes it’s hard to work out what self care really means.

Self care is unique to you

For one thing, it’s different for every person. OK, some of us might love us a bubble bath, but for other people, it can sound like the most boring thing in the world. It can even vary day by day. I like a bubble bath but I know that if I’m on the cusp of a migraine, it will lower my blood pressure too much and I won’t be able to function for the rest of the evening if I hop in the tub.

Self care is not something you “do right”

Some of the ideas around self care can also feel contrived and unhelpful. There’s this idea that you’re not doing it right if it doesn’t involve at least 2 inches of bubbles, a Jo Malone candle, a glass of white wine, and an Instagram post with the hashtag #metime.

Self care is the opposite of self harm

I’ve found that a good way of approaching the idea of self care is to recognise it as the opposite of self harm. So the opposite of physically harming yourself is to take care of your body. The opposite of telling yourself you’re a useless bag of crap is to use self-compassion to speak honestly and kindly towards yourself.

Self care is a spectrum

It took me ages to realise that. Self care is not something you do or don’t do, or involves good things or bad things. It’s something you do at a point along a spectrum where it is doing you good, not doing nothing, nor doing harm.

So a bath might be nice to relax, but staying in there until it goes cold so you can avoid tidying up is not looking after yourself. One or two glasses of a crisp Chablis are lovely, but sinking a bottle of Lambrini then following it up with whatever you find at the back of the cupboard is not taking good care of your body or mind. Exercising is self care but flogging yourself to death then throwing up on your trainers is self harm. Tidying up to make your environment nice is a form of self care, but obsessively cleaning your house is harmful.

You get the idea.

Self care can be thoughts as well as actions

This is another one that took me ages to understand.

Self care isn’t just about what you do. Going for a walk, or tidying up, or cooking a healthy meal, even meditating – those are all actions. And that’s what most self care advice focuses on.

But true self care is also about having thoughts that help you, rather than harm you.

We all have harmful thoughts, and those of us who have depression, OCD, psychosis, anxiety or other mental illness have lots of them. They can be intrusive and painful for lots of people. For others, they can be so ingrained that we hardly notice them.

All those times you’ve passed up an opportunity because you feel you’re not good enough – when all the evidence points to the contrary – are examples of harmful thoughts that you might not have noticed.

Every time you’ve looked in the mirror and thought how ugly you are, or need to lose weight, or criticised your signs of aging – those are all self-harming thoughts.

Self care is about starting to change those thoughts from harmful ones into caring ones. For that you need therapy – if you can’t afford it or the waiting lists are too long, start with online or book self-help courses. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is useful for helping to change your thoughts.

Examples of true self care

This is what I’m currently doing to take good care of myself.

  1. Exercise. This is the big one. It’s also one that I, like many others, resisted for ages. Eventually a few things came together that got me off my fat arse and outside. The first was that I was fed up of being fat. The second was that I wanted to set a good example to my kids. The third was that I discovered that exercise is not just about being thin, as it was always sold to me. It was about having a calmer mind, stronger muscles and being able to do more – like lift a pushchair into the back of a Ford Focus. I had help too, primarily in the Fat Mums running club, who got me outside, helped me build up my stamina, and wouldn’t let me cancel on our scheduled runs!
  2. Therapy. I’m not going to go into too much detail about my therapy in this post, but I want you to know that I’m now finishing a course of therapy that has made a massive difference to my life. It’s schema therapy (like CBT but with more stuff) and I’m near the top end of the mental scale, because I have complex issues. I’m telling you all this because I have had crap therapy and crap psychiatrists in the past (interspersed with 2 great counsellors and a brilliant ADHD coach). And yes, I was at the point of giving up before I found the right therapy, and therapist for me. So please, if you’ve had bad experiences, persevere.
  3. Early nights, early rising. Sleep is the other big self care thing. Ignore all the stuff that says when you should go to bed, how long you should sleep, when you should get up and what duvet cover you should have (unless it’s Hello Kitty, cos Hello Kitty bedlinen is the best). Your circadian rhythm is unique to you and you alone know how much sleep you want and need (if you don’t, start tracking how much you sleep and how you feel the next day – not just how much energy you have, but also how irritable you are and how much you crave a Twix). If tracking hours is stressful, as it is for an insomniac client of mine, track your sleep quality instead. Then you’re not counting or worrying. I get enough sleep and I find I function better if I get up early. I have more energy on 7 and a half hours’ sleep than I do on 9, so having an alarm clock isn’t a problem for me.
  4. Eating properly. I changed my thinking about food at the beginning of the year. I stopped seeing food as “bad” or “good” or “fattening” or “healthy” (the word “healthy” has negative connotations for me). I started thinking about what food would nourish my body, give me energy, and be really tasty. This shift in thinking has really helped me lose weight, along with calorie counting (I don’t do it religiously, it just helps to realise how calorie dense a food is). Nothing is off limits either, as banning cake from one’s life makes it hardly worth living.
  5. Going outside. This is another big one – and one I underestimated until I had kids. I insisted on them being outside every day, and almost all my exercise classes and running sessions were outside too. I noticed that being outside reduced my stress and with the kids, I started slowing down a bit (not hard with my running, I suck at it), and noticing more about the changing world around us. Even if I don’t make it as far as the park, there’s always something to see outside. And the vitamin D means I won’t get rickets.
  6. Being around the right people. Therapy helped me with this. I am fortunate to be around interesting, kind and supportive people – most of the time. I found some people to be an unhealthy presence, who made me feel sad, angry or just uncomfortable. So I avoid them as much as possible and I got a useful tip from one of my clients, who pointed out that it’s easier to just not see certain people, rather than get up and walk out once the argument starts.
  7. Fulfilling, creative work and other projects. Some might think it’s odd to count work as a form of self care, but I love my work with Sparkle Class. I love writing these posts, coaching my clients, running workshops and giving talks. I enjoy using my creativity and talents, and sparking ideas off other people and getting excited over stuff. It’s really fulfilling to have the privilege of helping people too. Outside work, I often have a creative project on the go, like knitting or craft, or writing.
  8. Looking after my environment and enjoying culture. Often people talk about tidying up or cleaning their home as part of self care, and that is true for me too. I relax better in a tidy home, although too much tidiness makes me uncomfortable. It’s about finding the right level for you. Other parts of my environment are important too – soothing music is a particular favourite, or a good film, or a good book. I tie these two – environment and culture – together, because for me, they are quite closely connected. I can’t really relax with a book if there’s stuff everywhere or there’s too much noise!
  9. Playing. One of the downsides of having kids is that you now have to share your Lego, but on the upside, the kids will share their toys with you – and they generally have more! I love to play with the kids and don’t do it enough. We have games in boxes, games we make up on the spot, all kinds of toys, and outdoor games. Playing forces me to slow down and concentrate on what’s going on in front of me. It’s a great form of self care because I’m with the people I love most, and there’s no pressure (unless two of you want the green car). Kids are not judgemental, and they encourage us to be fun.
  10. Bubble baths. Yep, bloody bubble baths! I do actually enjoy these, and sometimes I do the whole business with the wine, the magazine and the candles. I think it’s the feeling of being pampered that appeals to me and others. You don’t really need any of that stuff – but it properly feels like you’re taking care of yourself if you have it.

So, that is my take on self-care. If you have any thoughts on self care, or you want help with taking care of yourself, drop me a line.

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