I came upon the concept of self-care the hard way. I was then a mid-level associate at one of the largest law firms in the world, trying to close a transaction. The 3-month marathon to get the deal done meant only 3-4 hours of sleep daily, eating bad food between meetings and conference calls, no exercise and being pretty much locked up in a building in the City for days. During the last final days of the deal, I hadn’t slept in more than 48 hours and my body simply couldn’t take it any longer. For the first time in my life my back was stuck (the adrenaline that had been keeping me up simply stopped) and I developed seasonal allergies (also a first for me). I felt quite depressed and began wondering about the career choices I had made. After spending the next few days catching up on sleep, I got the help of a nutritionist with a background in psychology to help me deal with my health issues. That’s where I began my journey with self-care – the same journey that eventually helped me leave the law behind and find a vocation that embodied a more authentic life (according to my needs and desires). It was neither easy nor quick – but it was most definitely worth it! Life is too short to be lived badly.
Self-care is firstly about self-awareness, and secondly about taking actions in one’s life not only to improve or maintain one’s health, including specifically improving resilience (a concept we will look at below) but also to practice taking an active role in fulfilling one’s dreams and living a more joyful life. Self-care is neither a selfish act nor something that we should force upon ourselves (though it does require work). It needs to be seen as something that energises us rather than depletes us even if the results may take a while to be felt. It is not a selfish act because caring for self allows us to have the energy, time, resources, boundaries and openness for others. Self-care is the key to better health, positive outlook, improved mood, reduced stress and increased resilience. It’s also key to a good relationship with oneself, other people, one’s dreams and potential, and even to the environment and other beings.
Self-care encompasses physical, psycho-emotional, spiritual, professional, relational and other aspects. At the end of the day Self-care really is just an attitude to life!
- Information and the importance of self-awareness. Like many things in life, you can’t make effective decisions or take steps towards a goal if you lack information. The most important information required for taking steps towards incorporating self-care into your life is:
- Self-awareness: without a doubt, self-awareness is the starting point for any effective plan towards self-care and it is also the most important piece of information you need. Without authentic knowledge of yourself, of your own dreams, desires, strengths and weaknesses, “shadow-sides” and probably most importantly of your emotional self, you risk living an internalised idea of someone else’s dream of you, or a projection of what you think you should be as dictated by your history and environment. This ultimately can affect not only your sense of happiness and fulfilment but also your health. In many cases illness can be seen as a physical manifestation of the frustration and powerlessness resulting from the difference between your “soul” potential (or dreams) and the actual manifestation of that potential in your life. Awareness of self is the first step on any meaningful journey for change.
- Perspective: this is about taking a step back from yourself and your life as it is, and trying to take a fresh look at it, allowing the context to change. It is extremely difficult sometimes to open ourselves up to a new perspective and new opportunities if we maintain the same frame of mind. Many of the associates I worked with in my past law firm ultimately left the firm like I did either to continue working in the law in some other way or change careers. I remember a discussion a number of us had when we got together shortly afterwards. We couldn’t believe how our perspective of things had changed simply by stepping out of that work environment. We called it the “vortex” – otherwise known as tunnel vision. Many of us also realised how much time we had wasted because of it.
- Establishing Priorities: in our busy world we all have responsibilities and these often will gage our priorities, sometimes to the point where the responsibilities overwhelm our life and our dreams. Establishing priorities is about the balancing act between true responsibilities and our dreams. It is necessary to be aware of these in order to formulate a plan and find the time to take even the smallest steps in the direction of self-care.
- Self-responsibility: this is about taking responsibility for your actions or inactions. It’s about being honest enough to yourself (and others) so as not to use other people or situations as excuses for lack of courage or motivation. For instance, children or work responsibilities are often used as excuses for not taking care of your health, leaving a bad relationship, fulfilling a goal or jumping on a dream opportunity. Don’t get me wrong – of course you may have heavy responsibilities which may take a lot of your time, but in most cases, there is always a way to make some time for yourself. Something to think about in relation to self-responsibility is how are your actions reflecting your values or the values you say you have? What values are the people around you learning by your actions or inactions?
- Setting boundaries: whether it is in your relationships, at work or in other aspects of your life, setting boundaries is essential for self-care. Boundaries have a lot to do with self-esteem and they permit autonomy. Having a sense of boundaries is finding a healthy balance between giving and receiving/taking. I find that thinking of it in terms of energy depletion helps: how much energy are you giving to others, to work, etc and how much of it are you maintaining for yourself (and not only for survival)? Establishing boundaries is necessary in order to implement priorities and taking steps toward change.
- Death and taxes. There is a quote that says that nothing in this world can be said to be certain except death and taxes. I would say it is death and change. Both of these aspects of our life not only need to be accepted as a certainty but also really felt in our daily life. In certain healing models and spiritual traditions one of the first healing “protocols” is confronting the person to Death. It may sound frightening but only in the face of Death does Life have value. If we were truly to live life with the awareness that Death is right by our side instead of doing what most of us do which is to pretend it’s not there until it is, we could probably really live to the fullest. As for change, it seems that most of us expend a huge amount of energy, even when our current situation no longer serves us, to avoid or prevent change. It is amazing that fear of the unknown or the steps required for change can make us choose to give up our dreams, to live an unfulfilled life, and in extreme cases even to live with illness.
- Resilience. Resilience is a common concept when speaking of self-care. It relates not only to the psycho-emotional but also to the physical ability to bounce back from stress, challenges and adversity. It is the ability to adapt and remain flexible in the face of change – to see life as an adventure of sorts no matter what. Though different people have different levels of resilience due among other things to genetics and nurturing, self-care is an important factor in promoting resilience.
Self-awareness is really the starting point in self-care. Though it takes time and some commitment it is also simply a part of life experience so don’t despair! The key is to take little steps, every day (or so), to stay curious and also maintain a sense of adventure. There are plenty of tools out there to help you get started, from self-help books, to online exercises to therapists or coaches. Personally, there are 2 such tools that I like to recommend: the Wheel of Life and the Circle of Reality (also called the Energy Practice). Both of these tools help you not only begin a relationship with your self-awareness but also help you prioritise, gain perspective, set boundaries and take responsibility for your well-being.
The Wheel of Life is a coaching tool I was introduced to by a good friend and mentor who is also an Executive Coach – it is more structured than the Circle of Reality. The Circle of Reality is something I was introduced during a psycho-spiritual training and is something I have now incorporated into a life practice – I do it at least once a year, sometimes even every 6 months.
An example of a standard Wheel of Life is the one below. The goal is to set up categories relating to aspects of your life and gage how important you feel each category is to you using a scale. Then using the same scale, you determine how you stack up in real life. Becoming aware of the difference can help you determine areas of your life that need improvement or change and those that are fine. It can also help you determine if anything is missing or no longer of value.
The Circle of Reality, though similar in concept, is much more free-style, and in fact it allows you to get creative to find the right form to carry out the practice. Furthermore, it really requires you to go into a lot more detail, and can be more challenging. For a copy of the Circle of Reality, click here.
There is plenty here to help you get started but remember this – you don’t need to do it all at once. Start with those things that cause you the most unhappiness and don’t hesitate to get help. There are 3 steps to the process:
- Work on self-awareness
- Make a realistic plan
- Take baby steps but do it regularly, if possible even daily
Next month we will explore physical Self-care and what you can do to build resilience.