The Way We Think Of Self Care Is Wrong, And It Needs To Change

For a long time, I thought putting a priority on my wellbeing was selfish. Be helpful, don’t be a bother, don’t let your problems burden others, I thought. But of course, by not taking care of myself, I ended up being a bigger burden than ever.

It was only after finding myself thoroughly burnt-out that I started to take self-care seriously. And once I did, I realised I was in the minority.

The reality is that few of us are taught how to be our own parent, but once we grow up, that’s essentially what we have to become. Who else is going to take care of us?

But despite that, self care has got a somewhat wanky reputation. Here’s why that’s bullshit, and why looking after yourself should be part of your everyday.

What is self-care?

Since wellness became big business, it’s given the term self-care certain connotations. Namely, that it’s some new-agey, First World vanity ritual involving mud masks and filtered goji nectar. And while a day at the spa might be just what the doctor ordered for some people, there is no single activity with a claim on self-care. Just ask Dr Luke Martin, Clinical Advisor at beyondblue.

“The reality is everyone practices self-care, even if they don’t call it that,” he says. “But I think the term ‘self-care’ can be off-putting for some, sounding too self-indulgent or the kind of thing people who are ‘too into themselves’ might do.”

In reality, self-care is as basic a necessity as brushing your teeth. “Self-care is like putting petrol in the tank of the car,” says Dr Martin “Without it, we very quickly start running on empty and burn out.

“Any activity you find enjoyable, relaxing or interesting counts as self-care. This could be exercise, meditation, playing music, connecting with people you like, reading, or even taking a bath.

“When we don’t practice self-care, we can easily become highly stressed and overwhelmed – which contributes to poor mental health.”

The importance of down-time

Although mental health has occupied a larger slice of the national conversation lately, there’s still a definite tendency for people to say they’re “fine” even when they’re not. This is connected to the pressure placed on all of us to be productive, ambitious, and socially active. It’s easy to slip into the mindset that any time taken for yourself is an unaffordable luxury.

Professor Vijaya Manicavasagar, Clinical Psychologist at Black Dog Institute, insists that we need to ditch this attitude.

“Looking after our mental fitness is just as important as looking after our physical fitness,” she says. “I’d like to say even more important, because if you don’t have mental fitness then you’re probably not going to look after yourself physically anyway.”

And a big part of mental fitness is giving your mind a breather. In a time when the average person consumes information at a furious rate, taking a few moments to catch up is more important than ever.

“All too often, we don’t take enough time out in our busy lives to reflect and process what we’ve been through, or what the day has offered to us,” says Professor Manicavasagar.

“If mindfulness works for you, a bit of meditation might help. If listening to music soothes your mind and helps you process information, then maybe just find a quiet place listening to music.”

The responsible thing to do

For people who are naturally caring and generous, self-care might not come naturally – putting others before yourself can be a really hard habit to break. But as Professor Manicavasagar points out, you can’t look after others if you’re falling in a heap all the time.

“In order to be a good carer, you have to really start with yourself. You’ve got to start with making sure that you are in a position to give.

At a psychological level, if you run yourself ragged with looking after people, chances are you’ll even get down about it or feel very physically tired, or you’re going to start getting very irritated and start snapping back at whoever it is you’re supposed to be looking after.

“It’s altogether better to be looking after yourself, and looking after yourself on a daily basis.”

Make it a habit

Escaping on the weekend or taking an annual holiday is nice, but occasional treats won’t help you much if they’re all the self-care you’re getting. As Professor Manicavasagar says, “a little each day is much better than a lot all at once.”

Dr. Martin agrees. “It’s easy for stress to build up gradually over time without us even noticing. So, scheduling a few self-care activities into your weekly routine helps to maintain good mental health.

“It helps you feel more energised, less stressed and more able to take on challenges. Self-care can also stop small problems snowballing into big problems.”

And you won’t even need to schedule a mani-pedi.

(Lead image: Trusty Joe)

Joel Svensson is a Canberra-based writer originally from Melbourne. He’s written more latté-fuelled stories about first-world problems than he cares to admit, and can be found coping with misleading hashtags at @le0jay.