Deeply accessible — and affordable — steps you can take to develop a healthy and nurturing self-care practice.
According to Audre Lorde, self-care is not just an indulgence but rather an “act of political welfare.”
As a therapist, who largely sees women who are trying to juggle more than is possible, I keep this quote in mind during most sessions. Women are not just mildly burdened by trying to do it all, they are truly exhausted. And the pressure, oftentimes to remedy this exhaustion, is through someone curating a good set of self-care strategies. Unfortunately, these strategies are often expensive, time consuming, and don’t cultivate long-lasting feelings of self-love — which is really the goal of self-care.
While discussing these struggles with clients, I try to listen, identify obstacles to self-love, then create strategies together. My goal during these dialogues is to try and make the idea and possibility of self-love simple, affordable, and deeply accessible. The essence of self-love strategies is to create a long-lasting and respectful relationship with yourself, one that supports the psychological, spiritual and physical.
Here is a set of essential strategies that have helped my clients:
The fundamental principle for surviving this world intact is the creation of boundaries. This is because boundaries signify our acceptance of three separate facts: one can never be in more than one place at a time, there is a place where one person ends and another person begins, and we can disappoint people and survive it. None of these concepts are easy to embrace.
There are several times during each day that many women forget that they literally cannot be in more than one place at a time, often trying to honor the wishes of everyone around them at once and hoping to defy the laws of physics.
While our loved ones want us to help them, to ease their pains, to unburden their loads, we need to let the people around us feel things and suffer. We can never do that work for them.
As women, we are taught to privilege our perception of the subjective experience of others rather than honoring our own internal wisdom and knowing. Multiple levels of messaging tell women to put their boundaries aside in favor of family, marriage, work, children. However, without having a proper set of boundaries, we can never truly show up for anything because we are forever running on empty.
I ask all of my clients to try and articulate at least three boundaries that they feel absolutely rigid about. There is a myth that boundaries give us a feeling of safety and freedom; the reality is that this is only true after decades of practice. Up until that point, the boundaries terrify us because they defy our training, trigger those around us to test our limits, and can sometimes feel downright psychologically fatal. It is only with practice that boundaries become tolerable. And yet we must force ourselves into them in order to have a perimeter around us, an emotional acre of land from which we can harvest our own beliefs, internal dialogues, and intentions.
The boundaries can be simple, but ought to remain consistent, refueling and manageable to accomplish.
For example, “No one can talk to me during my shower every morning,” “I can’t hear about your work or talk about mine until we have had dinner and cleaned up,” or “I go to spin class every Saturday morning, even if there is a birthday party to bring my kid to at the same time.”
I ask my clients to identify times in the day that they feel comfortable in their bodies — not a small feat, particularly for women. I will even ask my clients how long they wait until they put on their comfortable pants after they get home. For the women who live in cozy pants, more power to you. Then let’s talk about how comfortable your bra really is. But for the woman who gets home and doesn’t even take off their work clothes before starting to cook, I have some real concerns.
When you get home from work, prioritize taking off your work pants and get into cozy pants immediately.
Your work is done, and it is time to surround yourself with something softer. It’s time to ease your body’s work for the day.
Not Weighing Yourself
Start getting clear about the role that diet culture has played in your relationship with yourself. When self-love feels unattainable, it is often because we are in some kind of war with both our bodies and food. There is a movement afoot about how to unlearn the lessons of diet culture, to embrace and accept ourselves, to question the very powerful role that an enormous diet industrial complex has had on our psyches, and to consider the possibility that health can come to us at any size.
If the path towards self-love feels detoured by waiting for the ‘right’ body to come along, I work with clients to truly interrogate that mythology. The fact is that the idea of the ‘right’ body is a moving target that we can spend our whole lives changing. Another fact is that we often say that we can’t love ourselves because we are too ‘fat.’ Fat is not a feeling. But it has become a euphemism for intricate internal processes that deserve to be removed from the ‘fat file’ and brought into the light of day.
No real bodily change can occur without self-love and paradoxically, it is precisely self-love that diminishes the need for that bodily change.
I ask clients to examine who is profiting off their self-hate, who is earning more than them because of their self-hate, who is getting a seat at the table because of their self-hate. The more that we reject our own bodies the more that we get in the way of pulling up a chair to every emotional buffet that we have the right to be at.
Social Media Sabbath
Rather than creating a diet plan that involves food, I ask my clients if they would instead consider a social media diet. Many religions have some sort of Sabbath (or plan for rest) set aside in their weekly or monthly cycle. We all need this type of ritual when it comes to social media.
Social media is designed to make us feel like we are on a treadmill when everyone else is on flat road with aerodynamic sneakers.
Social media brings out feelings of inferiority, competitiveness, and shame. And while there are connective and powerful dimensions of it, those dimensions can only really be taken in if we are to function with some level of control over it.
Most clients I work with set their alarm in the morning, roll over and check their phones. I am no different. Once the scrolling begins, so goes the measuring of our self-worth. But we deserve a shower, and some coffee or tea first. We deserve some fortification before allowing ourselves to become saturated with overstimulating content and curated narratives of perfect lives and homes. We need to know that our psyches are sacred and sensitive. We must tend to them accordingly. Taking a break from our social media use allows our neurotransmitters a chance to calm themselves down, to take in the world around us, to take notice of scents and sights. It is an honest reset that allows for the possibility of reengagement with the self — the self that deserves love, attention, and conversation rather than hashtags and advertisements.
In order to truly love our own minds and souls, it’s important to consider that these forces need creative outlets to be understood and seen. Creativity can take more forms that many imagine including: movement, cooking, photography, poetry, writing, decorating, shopping, discussing reading, studying other languages. The list is necessarily infinite.
But on the list of things ‘to-do,’ it is almost always creativity that falls to the bottom. Without allowing ourselves creative outlets, we deprive the world of our vision and wisdom. And it is often by sharing our creativity that we can get to know ourselves, especially the pieces of ourselves that cannot be articulated through language alone.
Creativity is a path by which the internal can be made external, understood and celebrated.
Keeping creativity as a sacred priority means that we love ourselves enough to share what is inside of us that is not necessarily easy to understand, but still warrants being communicated and known.
Tracing the Etiology of Internal Voices
There is a realm of psychological theory called Object Relations Theory. It came after Freud and before Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Object Relations argues that our mental health is significantly impacted by the extent to which we are able to tune into our own voice and truth versus the voices and truths that we have internalized from our attachment figures or others in our life.
For example, a client who often got in trouble as a kid for making mistakes can have a very difficult time tolerating her own imperfection in adulthood. This is largely because there are voices that still reside in her own mind that she can’t decipher from her own, or from the truth. And these voices are telling her that she is ‘bad.’
I work with clients to trace the etiology of the different voices that compete to author the story of who they are. I then ask them to examine the trustworthiness of these voices.
Often, voices we have internalized from others lack credibility and are imbued with cruelty. When we can label those voices, truly reveal the DNA in them, we can get some volume control over them and turn up the volume on our own internal story. By owning this knowing, we are entering into a deeper process of self-love, using our own soul as a compass rather than relying on faulty arrows pointing us south rather than north.
I know this sounds crazy, but I often ask clients if their skin feels dry. I am not aware of many people who deny that, in fact, it does. This suggest several areas of depletion around the ability to offer oneself love. First, it suggests that there is not proper hydration. Hydration takes time, care, and attention. It also means we have to pee a lot. It means that we have to attend to our own bodies several times throughout the day. The body needs this.
We can’t defy that reality out of love; we can only defy it out of neglect. Also, it’s just not that hard to moisturize. But it takes both time and tender touch, our own tender touch of our own skin and body. That is not an easy thing to do. But it is an act of love. I, myself, notice that when I put moisturizer on in the morning, I use a tiny bit and rush through it. By the time I get to work, I need to moisturize again. This suggests that I am starting the morning from a stance of scarcity versus abundance, which then has a palpable impact.
Self-love is an act of abundance, one that requires time, touch, and attention to bodily detail and sensation.
One of the simplest, yet hardest, forms of self-love it to attend to the breath. It is a concept that is visited and revisited across generations, cultures and countries. The simple act of breathing and feeling that breath, imagining the inflation and deflation of the lungs, is an act of self-love — because it forces us to take notice of our own body’s labor, reliability and miraculous nature.
For my clients that simply cannot return to their breath, I encourage them to find an animal and try and match that animal’s breathing. Animals know how to rest and to breath in sync with that rest. Relying on the wisdom of animals is an act of surrender, an act of not needing to be expert, an act of letting ourselves get help without a request for anything in return. When we match our breathing with the breath of an animal, a mutual form of self-love invariably emerges, particularly because who we are in the face of that animal is someone worth loving.
You may also enjoy reading How to Understand and Prioritize Your Self Care, by Indira Abby Heijnen