Extreme Self-Care: why you need it and why self-care can be so hard
Championing the importance of good self-care is something that I have become increasingly passionate about. As a fellow human being I know, first hand, that nudging yourself a little higher up the priority list is far from easy. If you tend to take on the role of caring for others, personally or professionally, this can be particularly hard. Is this something that you find yourself struggling with, despite your best intentions, and at some times more than others?
Why is it so hard to take care of yourself?
There are many reasons why self-care be challenging. There may be things that are particular to your individual circumstances or past experiences that have affected how easy you find it to make self-care a priority – sometimes it can be worth getting some professional help with things like this. Your ability to care for yourself can be tied up in the complexities of your self-worth and self-esteem. It is easier to take care of something that you feel good about and harder with things that you don’t feel deserve good care – that can be as true of yourself as it is of a possession!
It is also worth remembering that you live in a culture that encourages you to ‘not be selfish’. The ‘busier and busier’ state that society constantly invites you to engage in can easily mean that your needs get repeatedly pushed to the bottom of the pile. For this reason, looking after yourself is something that you will need to regularly reaffirm and perhaps even view as a life-long project.
It’s often hardest when we most need it
Have you ever noticed that it seems hardest to look after yourself when you are most stressed, most unwell or facing the biggest struggles? Of course, there are many reasons why this can be the case, some of which are the very practical ones of time and energy. You are likely to be most off balance at these times and it can get harder and harder to make the best choices and decisions and to prioritise self-care. You might have also noticed that once one area of self-care starts to slip it is common for all the others to become increasingly neglected. It is almost as though there is an exponential effect happening. The less you care for yourself, the worse your self-care gets.
For example, you may be having a difficult week so you have a few extra drinks in the evening to try to relax, you snack a bit more and then have another night of takeaway. Then you feel too tired to fit in your exercise and your sleep starts to be affected. You feel even more tired and a bit rough so you cancel some valuable time with a good friend and so it goes on. It can feel more and more difficult to do any of the things that might help.
What is “Extreme Self-Care”?
What if, instead of looking after yourself less well when things are most challenging, you learned to look after yourself even better than you normally do? It won’t always be an easy thing, when demands are most high, but here are three simple things you can try when times are tough:
1. Consider what you might be able to drop: any time you hear yourself saying “I have to…” ask yourself honestly if you really do “have” to do it. You may be surprised at how many things don’t, in fact, have to be done today.
2. Think whether you could ask someone else to do some of the tasks in front of you. Perhaps a friend could pick up the kids from school or you could ask your partner to cook an extra night? Often people are very happy to help; if you are one of those people you will know that it can feel really good to be able to help someone out.
3. Keep it small. Sometimes just starting with one thing can help to break the cycle. Keep it simple, perhaps try increasing your water intake, going for a short walk, having a night off the booze or making time to prepare a meal from scratch. Anything that will help you to feel a little more positive.
Practicing what I preach
It is easy, as a health professional, to go on about things that are good for other people to do so I wanted to include something a bit more personal in this article.
You may know that a few months ago, I unexpectedly ended up in hospital with suspected appendicitis. This was all rather unplanned and resulted in me spending some time, sat in my hospital bed, rearranging various work and personal things that I’d had planned in! I took the decision to give myself a clear chunk of time off and, once this was done, I was able to relax and focus on me for a little while. It was good to allow myself enough time to recover so that I didn’t have to drag myself back to work, or any of my other commitments, before I felt ready.
Of course, I didn’t get it all exactly right! The first time I went for a run I had to walk the last bit as I wasn’t quite up to the, albeit short, distance that I had planned. But when I noticed that my body was struggling, I paid attention and slowed down. I had overestimated what I was capable of but at least that time I caught myself and didn’t compound the problem. On another occasion, some weeks on, it wasn’t until the next day that I realised I’d done too much.
All you can really do when you misjudge things in this way, or when you have let your self-care slip, is to remember that you are human. This can help you get back on the self-care wagon as quickly as possible and attend to what it is that you need in that moment.
The challenge of asking for help
I am fortunate to have some wonderfully supportive people around me who stepped in to pick up the things that I had to drop for a little while. There were other things that just had to wait. It is worth saying though that, even when there are good people around, it isn’t always easy to ask.
The decision was initially taken to treat my appendicitis with antibiotics. Although very successful in the short term, after some follow up appointments my doctor advised that it was best to remove it as it will quite likely cause further problems down the line.
As I write this, I am now in the slightly different position of beginning a planned period of time off for surgery and recovery. I find myself once again needing to ask others for help so this seemed an apt time to write again about the challenges of self-care. I find the more often I ask others for help, and acknowledge times when I just can't do something, the easier it gets.
I really hope I have accurately judged how much time off I will need but if it turns out that I need more time off I will take it. As humans we usually don’t give ourselves enough time and I see the results of this over and over. Most people have demands that are hard to step away from and you might feel you don’t want to let others down. Not acknowledging how long you need to heal and recover from things, can be a (very human) way of avoiding how scary illness and your own frailty can be or how much things might sometimes affect you.
Over the years of working as a healer, therapist and psychologist I constantly strive to get better and better at listen to my own advice. This is important to me because it helps me to feel like I can speak with integrity and, very importantly, humanity. Like most people this is a work in progress and is something that I very much see as a lifetime's endeavour. I'll be back in November, if you'd like to book yourself an appointment. In the meantime I will be taking time to practice my own extreme self-care. I hope you will be looking after you too.
© Dr Karen Janes, 16th October 2021.