If you’ve ever been on an airplane, you’ve heard the safety instructions to “put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” Like “you can’t pour from an empty cup,” this saying has become a sort of mantra in the self-care space. In order to take care of anyone or anything else, you need to take care of yourself first—and it’s best to have a self-care plan or practice in place before you feel like you need it.
Self-care, originally a medical concept that doctors discussed as a way for patients to treat themselves and exercise healthy habits and later transformed into a political act by the women’s movement and the civil rights movement, is the concept of consciously tending to one’s own well-being.
At its very core, self-care is just that: taking care of yourself. In recent years, it has turned into an entire industry, and with that industry have risen misconceptions that self-care must be costly and time-consuming and is only necessary once we’ve burned out.
In reality, self-care is most effective when it’s done as a preventative measure that is a natural part of your daily life. Here are some of the most common misconceptions about self-care and steps you can take to make preventative self-care part of your routine.
Self-care isn’t all about vacations and trips to the spa. In fact, that could be the opposite of self-care for many people. The most important thing is to figure out what rejuvenates you the most. This could be cooking a meal, playing music, going to therapy, taking a walk, talking to a friend or family member on the phone, or even showering—any activity that leaves you feeling refreshed. Waiting until you have the money to splurge on something can just mean postponing the self-care you need; find something you can do for yourself now.
A lot of people will cite lack of time as a reason for not practicing self-care, but this might be because when they think of self-care, they’re thinking of things like a weekend away or an afternoon by a pool. In reality, self-care doesn’t have to take up a ton of time—even ten to fifteen minutes a day of mindfulness helps.
In fact, it’s best if our self-care is natural and integrated into our day rather than seen as an additional burden that we have to find time for in our schedules (and that can be deleted from the calendar when something more “urgent” comes up).
In a society that glorifies overwork and even burnout, self-care is often positioned as selfish or a way to waste valuable time that could be spent producing. But remember your oxygen mask! No one needs to justify self-care, but if you’re having trouble reframing self-care as essential and not selfish or lazy in your own mind, just remind yourself that you’ll be better positioned to get things done when that oxygen mask is tightly secured.
Self-care isn’t selfish, it’s self-aware.
I used to be most guilty of this one (and still am sometimes!). I would wait until I was so exhausted, burned out, or sick that I had to stop. Then I would scramble to find something to help me relax, usually settling for whatever was easiest, like television, which I don’t actually enjoy.
Waiting until you are suffering to take care of yourself is not sustainable and only results in a pendulum swinging back and forth between burnout and numbness.
We can read as many articles about self-care as there are hours in the day, but unless we commit to actions that we want to do, changing our behavior will be so much harder. For a long time, I thought self-care consisted of long baths, days on the beach, or pampering, none of which bring me joy. Walking outside, reading, and yoga are my favorite forms of self-care, and they’re all free!
Eating healthy, being active, getting enough sleep, and positive thinking all help us to mitigate the effects of stress and anxiety on our bodies, but there is no one right way to complete any of these things, so whatever is the most fulfilling to you is the best—for you.
We all have obligations in life and it’s impossible to cut out everything that doesn’t fulfill us, but it’s worth examining how you spend your time to see if it can better serve you.
Little adjustments like asking your family or roommates for help around the house, adjusting your work schedule, and saying no to nonessential requests that you never wanted to do in the first place can declutter our headspace and schedules and leave more time for what fills our cup.
Once you decide what you find most rejuvenating, make a contract with yourself to commit to these actions until they become second nature. Life will get in the way, and family, friends, and work never stop calling, but making preventative self-care a priority will save you time and energy in the long run.
Being mindful and intentional about your self-care can make it even more impactful. I mentioned earlier that walking outside, reading, and yoga are my favorite forms of self-care. I do those things every day, but I also go out of my way to make them extra-special as much as possible by going to a garden, drinking tea with a good book in my library corner, and lighting candles while doing yoga. Walking to the grocery store is so much more calming when I listen to music and pause to smell my neighbor’s lilies. I can (and sometimes do) rush through a quick yoga session in between calls, but I always feel more rejuvenated when I silence my phone, spritz my mat with lemongrass, end with a short meditation, and take time for myself.
If you are struggling right now, all of these tips can still help you to build a self-care practice, but remember to be kind and patient with yourself if you’re suffering now.
Small steps and a mindful commitment to integrating self-care into your day will be more effective than trying to implement sweeping changes. Try these tips for integrating self-care into a busy workweek, these helpful tools to prevent burnout and compassion fatigue, or find a therapist who can help you develop coping mechanisms tailored to you.
Then, if you find yourself going through a rough patch, your strategies and self-care practice will already be in place and you’ll be better positioned to do what is more important—taking care of you.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.