Self-Care: Simple and Complex

Self-care is a popular topic — and for good reason — but it tends to be oversimplified. 90% of the posts about self-care I see on social media don’t mention any of the issues involved. Lists of “100 acts of self-care”  make good clickbait and seem fun to share, but for many of us with mental health issues, they are intimidating and patronising.

All too often, self-care is promoted as a simple solution to mental health problems. The tasks advocated seem easy — to people whose mental health is relatively good — so we are told there is no excuse for not doing them. It’s rarely acknowledged that these “simple” tasks are almost impossible during bad episodes of mental illness.

There are exceptions to this glib approach to self-care, usually in social media posts and other materials produced by mental health organisations. The Blurt Foundation is particularly good at promoting self-care whilst addressing how difficult it can be and has a good self-care section on its website. However, many people and organisations have a lot to learn about how to present self-care in ways which are relevant to everybody.

Since it’s self-care week, I thought I would take the opportunity to discuss why self-care is more complex than it appears — especially for people, like me, who experience long term mental health issues.

 

There are different types of self-care — which vary in accessibility.

A major problem with any list of self-care activities is that a proportion of them will be difficult for many people to access or complete. When you see “20 easy ways to practice self-care” as a heading, bear in mind that none of them is easy for people experiencing mental illness and many will be impossible for people whose symptoms are moderate to severe. The ability to perform these tasks may also vary over the course of time — even from one hour to the next.

During the worst episodes of my mental illnesses, I was unable to do many of the “simple” self-care activities which people recommend most frequently: preparing a healthy meal, writing in my journal, seeing friends, going for a walk… In fact, the only act of self-care I was able to complete most days was getting out of bed. Usually because I needed to let the dog out.

You can try to practice self-care during relatively bad episodes of mental illness, but it’s important to select tasks which are appropriate for your current symptoms and situation. Getting dressed, taking a shower and making yourself a cup of tea are all acts of self-care which can make a difference to how you feel. They may seem ridiculously easy to someone who hasn’t experienced severe mental illness,but are very difficult when you are at your lowest ebb.

Tailoring your self-care plans to your current symptoms means they won’t always make sense to other people. For example, when my anxiety is bad but my depression is relatively good, I can do “difficult” tasks at home (cooking complex recipes, introspective exercises, running on the treadmill) but struggle to do anything outside, even a task which I have done many times before (walking the dog, going to the supermarket). You don’t need to explain yourself, but make sure you don’t judge yourself when other people express the assumptions and judgments they make about you. Mental illness isn’t logical.

Some of the activities depicted as self-care are so fraught with issues for people with mental health problems that they can leave you feeling worse. Anything which involves unfamiliar situations/environments/people, for example, is incredibly stressful for me. Getting a massage is not an act of self-care for me; it’s a situation which provokes anxiety when I think about the possibility! Going out for afternoon tea is a treat, but I don’t consider it self-care — allowing myself to be quiet and inactive for a few days afterwards to recover, however, is self-care.

Varying definitions of self-care are inevitable, especially when people have different mental health issues and different symptoms. For this reason, it’s important to define what self-care means for you. It’s also helpful to have different self-care strategies in place for different times/situations, depending on your mental health.

 

Sometimes self-care means not doing something.

Giving yourself permission to opt out of events and activities which could cause you distress and/or make your symptoms worse is a form of self-care. It’s a way of protecting yourself. Putting your needs first is not selfish — it’s necessary. Some people may accuse you of causing problems, but taking care of yourself is your main responsibility.

I feel guilty for refusing invitations, but I know the consequences if I go along with something which causes me more stress and anxiety than it’s worth. The people who really care about you will try to understand. They will see that you’re not being difficult for the sake of it and while they may be disappointed by your decision, they won’t hold it against you.

Another aspect of self-care is not getting caught up in other people’s emotions and judgments. If you explain the situation clearly and they take offence or accuse you of being selfish and manipulative, it’s their problem — not yours. Set boundaries in place and refuse to be drawn in. Stand firm on what’s right for you — it won’t be easy, but it’s easier than dealing with the consequences of not protecting yourself.

A note to anyone reading this who doesn’t understand why someone with mental health problems would refuse an invitation: events and activities which seem pleasurable to you can provoke a lot of anxiety and negative emotions. You may believe a party means only a few hours of discomfort for someone with anxiety, for example, but this is not the case. Instead, it means days (sometimes weeks) of anxiety beforehand, which may cause unpleasant symptoms like indigestion, diarrhoea and tension headaches. The “few hours of discomfort” actually feel like torture to someone with anxiety. When the part is over for you, it’s not over for someone with anxiety — they are left exhausted for at least a week and often ruminate on every little detail, worrying that people thought they were rude because they were too nervous to speak or that they embarrassed themselves in a million different ways. When someone with mental health problems refuses an invitation, please don’t try to guilt trip them into changing their minds — accept that they know what’s best for them and try to empathise.

A paradox in self-care is that sometimes not performing an act of self-care is self-care. This means recognising when a certain activity won’t deliver the benefits you hope, for example, forcing yourself to do a vigorous workout when you are already tired. Give yourself permission to do what you most need right now, even if that’s lying on the couch for a while.

 

 

Self-care doesn’t negate the need for help and support from others.

Self-care is not a substitute for mental health treatments and services, though it can form an important element of mental health management. It complements treatments like medication and talking therapies, which in turn can make it easier to practice self-care. While self-care is about taking care of yourself, it doesn’t mean you should struggle alone instead of getting help from other people.

Self-care is often presented as taking responsibility for yourself, but it’s seldom acknowledged that being able to take responsibility for yourself is a privileged position. You need to be well enough to practice self-care. Most people who experience mental illness need support from other people, in both personal and professional capacities — which should not be a source of shame.

Unfortunately, the language used in many social media posts, blogs and articles about self-care is careless. It implies that people who are unable to practice self-care are unworthy of help from other sources. Some people write about self-care as if it is “the answer” to our mental health crisis, which is untrue and potentially harmful.

Self-care is not a substitute for treatment or support. It’s a habit which we should all try to develop, whether or not we have experienced mental illness, without judging those who are unable to practice self-care. It can help us to achieve and maintain good mental health, but is not the only way to manage mental health.

 

Self-care needs to be practiced with self-compassion.

It’s not about creating a to-do list of tasks you “should” be doing, which often makes you feel worse. Don’t berate yourself for not being able to do certain tasks. Don’t feel guilty if a day, a week or a month passes without you being able to practice self-care. Do what you can, when you can.

Self-care starts with self-compassion and vice versa. When you believe you deserve compassion, you are motivated to practice self-care. When you practice self-care, you realise you deserve compassion.

Self-care is effective because it engenders self-compassion, leading to a positive spiral which changes how you feel about yourself. I realised this a few years ago, when I started making the effort to apply body lotion every week. My main motivation was getting rid of the dry skin on my knees, shins and elbows, but after several weeks I noticed it was beginning to change how I felt about myself and my body. It forced me to connect with my body, which I had always regarded with disgust, and taking time to do something for myself was powerful — it raised the possibility that myself and my body were worthy of time and effort.  A simple task shifted my mindset.

 

Self-care is not part of a reward/punishment system.

Self-care is not something you need to earn the right to practice: everyone deserves it. It’s not a reward for acting or feeling a certain way, or for doing something specific.  Conversely, it’s not a way of punishing yourself for not doing, thinking or feeling something different.

It’s about accepting yourself as you are, right now, and doing something to improve your mood, health or wellbeing. You don’t need to earn self-care or ask permission. You don’t need to tell anyone about it or keep it hidden. 

Neither is self-care a way to cancel out unhealthy or self-sabotaging behaviours. It’s not a column on a balance sheet, giving you permission to punish yourself as long as you counterbalance it with self-care. It’s not an excuse for not tackling unhealthy and harmful habits. It’s separate from your mental health issues and symptoms, although it influences your mental health in positive ways.

 

Check your self-care expectations.

Self-care is important and can have a big impact on your mental health and wellbeing, but it’s not a miracle cure. The effect is gradual and accumulates over time, especially as practicing self-care becomes a habit. It might make you feel better immediately, but it might not.

I find the best policy (for me) is to approach self-care with hope, but not expectation. I know there are possible benefits to any given act of self-care, but I don’t take them for granted. Most of the time, there are immediate benefits — often the satisfaction of completing a task! — but these are bonuses.

The long-term impact of self-care is also unpredictable and not guaranteed. Some of my self-care activities have produced positive results after months (or more) of seeming to have no impact; others have been effective after a short time. Many activities appear to be pointless until I stop doing them, at which point I notice my mood drops and other symptoms worsen.

I always find myself repeating that managing mental health involves a lot of trial and error, but it’s especially true for self-care. What works for you is often surprising. Something frivolous, like painting your nails, can have a bigger impact than it seems to merit. Other activities, like eating healthily, take so long to have an impact that it’s easy to get demotivated and give up. I think approaching self-care with the spirit of curiosity and experimentation is helpful.

The most powerful aspect of self-care is the act itself: by performing self-care you are telling yourself that you matter, you are valuable, you are worth the effort. And you are right!

New Year, New Me? No, Thanks.

 

It’s two days into the New Year and I’m sick of seeing adverts inviting me to become “a new you” or to start “your new life.” I like setting goals, whether New Year’s resolutions or otherwise, but I hate this emphasis on The New You. Using this language doesn’t evoke transformation – it implies obliteration.

The message is “you need to change every aspect of your being and become someone else.” This is not empowering: it’s impossible. If you aim to become this mythical New You, you are setting yourself up for failure. What a great way to start the year!

 

Value who you are.

You don’t need to become a New You. No matter how unhappy you are with your life right now, your core being is not the problem. There is nothing inherently wrong with you that needs to be eradicated.

Erasing yourself is not the answer; valuing yourself is the answer.

It’s a hard lesson to learn, but nothing really changes until you learn that you are valuable, useful and worthwhile. Until you decide that you are valuable enough to deserve everything you want, it’s extremely difficult to get anything you want. If you manage to succeed, you will find that the effects aren’t what you’d hope – winning a prize won’t make you value your own achievements.

Losing weight is a common example: when you don’t value yourself, you decide that your life would be perfect if only you were thinner (because you will be more confident, powerful, etc.) and you throw yourself into a punishing regime. Often, you will fail to lose a significant amount of weight because your regime is unrealistic. When a month of starvation results in misery, no energy and just a few measly pounds lost, you give up and believe you are destined to be a failure.

On the other hand, if you hate yourself enough to stick it out and reach your goal, there is a surprise in store: you realise that nothing much has changed. You have some new clothes and a temporary confidence boost (it’s alarming how quickly the confidence wears off after you lose weight), but the same life. The same you.

You react to this problem of the same you in the same way – you find a different aspect of your life to blame for your unhappiness and set out on the same path of punishment and self-sabotage. The self-sabotage can crop up at any time, whether it’s a week into your attempted transformation or months after meeting your goal. You will find yourself adopting unhealthy habits which build more obstacles between you and the mythical New You you are trying to become.

As you probably realise, I have been through this on many occasions. When I was 18, I lost 60lb and thought my life would magically become a life I wanted to live. It didn’t, because I hated myself and hadn’t tackled the underlying problems, which included zero self-esteem and clinical depression.

It was an awful shock to reach the milestone I had been striving towards, only to realise that nothing had changed apart from my dress size and the assumptions ignorant people make based on one’s dress size. I wasn’t even much healthier than when I was overweight, because my weight loss tactic was eating very small amounts of junk food. My mental health problems worsened and I regained all of the weight, plus a lot extra, within a few years.

There are no short cuts or workarounds: you need to start with valuing yourself. So forget all ideas of becoming a New You – aim to be the same you, but better.

 

Use your goals to become closer to your true self.

Forget creating a New You from scratch – instead, focus on getting closer to who you really are. Think about what you want, not what the media, advertising and other people tell you to want. What would you like to do more? What would you prefer to do less? Move towards the things which are working in your life and away from the things which aren’t.

Don’t fall into the trap of doing what everyone seems to be telling you to do at this time of year. Even if you want to lose weight (I do – healthily and permanently, this time), it doesn’t mean you have to join one of the slimming clubs advertised on TV and join a gym. You can find the methods which work best for you, without paying undue attention to all the crap flying about.

If it helps, take time to consider what you want – many people seem to have the attitude that New Year’s resolutions involve throwing yourself in the deep end, but that is not the only option. You have time to research, make small adjustments, experiment, etc. and still achieve your goals by the end of the year.

Embrace who you are and what works best for you.

If diving in at the deep end is the most successful strategy for you personally, go for it. If you are more likely to reach your goals by making slow and steady progress, do so. I suspect most of us flourish from a combination of big and small changes at different times – but remember that the ultimate change, the mythical New You, is impossible.

 

Become a better version of you.

Instead of chasing the mythical New You, work on becoming a better version of who you already are. Because you are pretty awesome. Seriously. Everyone has admirable personality traits, talents and skills; make a list of your own if you need reminding.

Consider how you can focus on these strengths and use them to make changes in your life.

Achieving goals involves working out how to incorporate them into your current life. Your life may change as you progress towards achieving goals, but you will always have this starting point. You need to create a path leading from here and now to the life you want. It goes back to learning to value yourself – you also need to value your life as it is right now, even if you don’t like it very much. You can’t exchange it for a new one.

I’m not saying you should dream small – far from it! – but you need to figure out how to get from your current life to your dream life.

Stop thinking of yourself and your current life as things you are stuck with, but don’t buy into the fantasy of a blank canvas either. Instead, consider your current situation and your core being as materials which you can sculpt. You can’t change the molecular structure of these materials, but you can shape them into something beautiful.

I realise now that I don’t want a blank canvas. I’m enjoying sculpting my life. The materials are more interesting, problematic as they may be, and the flaws have their own beauty. I’m learning to chisel away the negative stuff and to polish the best material so that it shines.

Use the materials you already have and value their colours, shapes and textures. Say “no, thanks” to the mythical New You advertisers are trying to sell.

 

Let’s Talk About Self-Love

Sorry if you were expecting a post on masturbation, but this topic is far more taboo: it’s about loving yourself and showing love to yourself. Self-love is rarely mentioned in everyday conversations – in fact, the phrase “she really loves herself” is likely to be used as an insult, a synonym for arrogance or selfishness. But there is nothing selfish or arrogant about loving yourself. You’re not placing yourself on a pedestal above everyone else; nor are you obsessing over your own issues while ignoring everyone else’s concerns. You are simply showing yourself the same consideration you would show a friend or close family member.

Self-love, as any other type of love, is demonstrated through consistent practice. It involves keeping yourself safe, showing yourself kindness and taking responsibility for your relationship with yourself. It’s about taking time to consider what you need and want. It means taking time to provide yourself with the things and activities which nourish you.

Learning to love yourself is a long process. I have been trying to practice self-love for several years, yet there are times when I believe I still hate myself. Mental health problems will affect how you feel about yourself: while I try to practice self-love regularly, there are times when anxiety and depression get in the way. The key is to keep trying to practice self-love when you are able.

What does self-love look like? It varies depending on who you are, but at its most basic it involves choosing healthier habits and avoiding dangerous situations. It can be as simple as going for a walk a few times a week and breaking off contact with people who bully you. For me, it includes making time to read and write, which are huge passions in my life. I also practice self-love when I play with my springer spaniel or stop to smell a rose. You can practice self-love in whichever ways benefit you, whether big or small.

Self-love is something we all need to talk about a lot more. If it had been discussed openly when I was younger, perhaps I would have realised much sooner that there is an alternative to hating yourself. You can learn to love yourself and practicing self-love is the first step to learning how. Start by deciding to do something you enjoy today, even if it’s just for 5 minutes.

Why You Should Be Selfish

A lot of us fall into the martyr trap. We think we don’t deserve as much as other people – time, money, social contact, love, respect, effort… When your self-esteem is low, it’s difficult to ask for what you need, let alone what you want, because you assume you are not worth it and everyone would say no anyway. Why bother asking when we know the answer? It’s not worth the time and effort.

Sometimes our martyrdom can become a security blanket and an excuse – if we never access everything we could, we don’t have the resources we need so we don’t have to try to achieve our goals. When we don’t reach our potential, we can blame our circumstances. Our failure isn’t “real” because we didn’t have the advantages enjoyed by other people. We convince ourselves we are just not the type of people who succeed. It’s easier than challenging this assumption.

Stop! Asking for what you need is not “bad”. Asking for what you want isn’t a bad thing either – especially when getting what you want allows you to contribute to other people’s lives.

Think about it on a basic level: if you are very poor and struggle to support your family, you might go without food so that they can eat more – but what if you eat so little that you cannot care for your family? You might become too weak to work, which means your family will starve. You might be so weak that you cannot prepare meals or feed your children if they are too young to feed themselves. By giving up your share of food, you are actually being more “selfish” because you leave yourself less able to meet your family’s needs.

The same applies to other basic needs, like sleep, and activities that are not essential to survival but are important to living a happy life, like contact with friends. When you fulfil your own needs, you are in a better position to fulfil other people’s needs. You are stronger, more energetic and resourceful. You can help others – without jeopardising your own health and happiness.

Let’s examine this further: what about activities which contribute to your own life, but leave you with less time/money/energy/whatever for your family and friends? The benefits are less obvious, but they still exist. Who do you think makes a better parent, partner, friend, neighbour, etc. – someone who makes time to follow their own interests because it gives them more satisfaction, or somebody who does nothing for themselves and resents it more as the years pass? Which person is more likely to motivate the people around them to achieve their own goals? Who is happier?

The happier and more satisfied you are with your life, the higher your ability to affect other people’s lives in positive ways. It can be hard to appreciate this in the short term, especially when working towards your goals isn’t going according to plan, but it’s vital to recognise this truth. Sure, you will have to make short term sacrifices, but it’s worth it in the long term. Even if you fail in your endeavours, you are setting a wonderful example to everyone around you. You are chasing your dreams, which is inspiring and encouraging.

So be selfish. Set aside time to satisfy your needs and work towards your goals. It will make you a better parent, a better child, a better friend – and it will make you a lot easier to live with!