You may have read about self-care and you may be on board with the benefits it can offer — even if it requires some extra effort on your part.
“[Self-care] means really listening to your body, taking moments to check in, intentionally tuning in to the thoughts going on in your mind, and challenging your behaviors and belief systems if things feel out of alignment in your life,” says Kelsey Patel, a Los Angeles–based wellness expert and the author of the forthcoming book Burning Bright: Rituals, Reiki, and Self-Care to Heal Burnout, Anxiety, and Stress.
You may feel up for the challenge, but recognizing the need for self-care is one thing. Actually adopting a self-care practice that can improve your life is another. Here’s how to do it.
First, Understand What Is Self-Care and What Isn’t
“The way I define self-care is the intentional, proactive pursuit of integrated wellness that balances mind, body, and spirit personally and professionally,” says Paula Gill Lopez, PhD, an associate professor and the chair of the department of psychological and educational consultation at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut.
It’s about more than taking care of your physical health. “Just eating healthy isn’t enough anymore,” Patel says. “Things are moving so fast around us that we need space to self-care and slow down to rest from all the busyness in our lives.”
And just because a behavior is “good for you” doesn’t make it self-care, explains Brighid Courtney, of Boston, a client leader at the wellness technology company Wellable and a faculty member at the Wellness Council of America (WELCOA). You need to get some sense of gratification out of it for it to be self-care, she says. “Although activities such as running or meditating may be good for your overall health and well-being, if you hate them, then they are not considered self-care.” (If you do find those activities energizing and fulfilling, however, they are potential self-care practices.)MOST HELPFUL
The common denominator of self-care practices is that you get some enjoyment out of the activity, says Marni Amsellem, PhD, a licensed psychologist based in Fairfield County, Connecticut.
Your perspective plays a role in determining what types of behaviors constitute self-care for you. For instance, say you are new to running and set a goal of running 10 miles per week. The act of running itself may not be enjoyable and you may struggle through every minute of it as you’re getting started. But if you get satisfaction from meeting your goals, it could still be worthwhile. If that practice allows you to say: Look at what I did today. I’m working toward my goal and that feels good — then that counts even if in the moment it doesn’t feel like self-care, Dr. Amsellem says.
Ultimately, your self-care routine should make you a better version of yourself. “My rule of thumb is, as long as the activities that you choose are adding to your well-being and are not detrimental to the other areas of your life, then there is a benefit,” Courtney says. “You are better suited to take care of others, foster strong relationships, be resilient, and balance personal and professional responsibilities.”
A 5-Step Approach for Creating (and Getting Into) a Self-Care Routine
Follow these five steps to adopt a sustainable self-care practice.
- Find what makes you feel centered. Gill Lopez, who leads self-care workshops for students, professional groups, and community groups, says she exposes participants to different types of self-care because one size doesn’t fit all. “I go through all different kinds of things that might appeal to people in hopes that they’ll find something they can do on a regular basis,” Gill Lopez says. Start by writing down as many things as you can think of that bring you joy, whether it’s the color purple, receiving back rubs, springtime, certain smells, or essential oils.
- Brainstorm how you can incorporate those things into your daily life. It could be in the background (such as filling your space with the colors and smells you enjoy) or it could take up a more prominent space in your daily routine (such as designating a set amount of time for a certain activity), Gill Lopez says. Starting small may make the habit easier to get into. “Pick one behavior that you would like to make part of your routine for the next week,” Courtney says.
- Set goals for incorporating self-care behaviors every day. Once you decide what self-care practices you’d like to incorporate into your life, come up with goals for how often and when. Make your goal realistic and measurable, Gill Lopez writes in a 2017 article published in National Association of School Psychologists Communique. (1) For instance, if you’re trying to unplug from electronic devices in order to be more present, start with a short amount of time, like 20 minutes during dinner. When you successfully stick to that for a week, you can set a more challenging goal.
- After seven days, evaluate. Once you’ve completed a seven-day streak, Courtney says to reflect on how you’re feeling and note any positive benefits. “Use this as fuel to maintain the behavior throughout the month,” she says.
- Adjust and tweak your approach as you go. It’s okay if there are bumps along the way. “We’re talking about a practice, we’re talking about trial and error, and we’re also talking about our needs changing over time,” says Ellen K. Baker, PhD, a psychologist based in Washington, DC. “What might be self-care in one period might be less so in another period.”
Some examples of easy-to-adopt self-care practices include: reading a book to your toddler (or yourself) every night; taking a 10-minute walk outside; going to sleep earlier; powering down your devices in the evening; cooking with more nutritious ingredients; and surrounding yourself with things that make you happy.
Overcoming Barriers to Self-Care
If you have trouble getting started with a self-care routine, it might be worth exploring where that roadblock is coming from. “If there is a stuck-ness or a difficulty getting started or sustaining some kind of a self-care program, I’d look at what might be going on,” Baker says. Some people can unravel that mystery through independent journaling, but you may need to visit a therapist to get to the root of the issue. Baker says a therapist will be particularly helpful if the question you keep running into is, “Am I worth it?”
Ultimately, Patel says self-care shouldn’t be a chore. “More self-care equals more self-awareness, which equals more self-love, which will ripple out onto others you interact with every day in the form of compassion, gratitude, and deeper kindness,” she says.
“If you take the time for even just a few minutes of daily self-care, you will be able to show up to the world from a place of inner peace, and things will likely feel much easier.” That, she says, should be all the justification you need to get started now.