When I was in graduate school for counseling, we talked a lot about compassion fatigue, therapist burn out, and the all-important “self-care.” No one ever really defined self-care, but there seemed to be this general understanding that it involved taking lots of baths and eating chocolate.
Once I began my work as a therapist, self-care was again discussed in clinical supervision and among colleagues. With an overwhelming caseload comprised of foster families and severely mentally ill adults, I didn’t feel like there was room left in my schedule for self-care. Self-care became another item to add to my to-do list; I resented the entire idea of it.
After two years of living at a pace that wasn’t sustainable, I was exhausted. I had to walk away from therapy because I burned myself to a crisp. Yet I still didn’t understand what self-care was or why it even mattered.
Motherhood changed that. As a mother of a newborn, my definition of self-care was finding five minutes to shove cold leftovers in my mouth or carving out time to shower a couple times a week. Self-care meant doing whatever it took to keep going so I could take care of my baby. It was simple, it usually wasn’t all that indulgent, and it was necessary for my survival.
Over the years, I’ve realized something truly life-changing: self-care isn’t about guilty pleasures or adding yet another item to my long to-do list. Self-care is a paradigm shift; it’s moving from doing to being.
Self-care is living an intentional life of meaning and fulfillment. It’s choosing things that make life rich and full, and it’s prioritizing lightness over drudgery. It’s accepting full responsibility for the course of our lives without waiting for the day that life will become good on its own.
Here are six ways to practice radical self-care:
1. Nourish your body
Spend time in nature. Eat good foods. Get enough sleep. Drink water. Move your body. When you neglect your basic needs, you limit your potential.
2. Tackle old demons
Acknowledge where your potential for growth lies, and then face your struggles head on. Don’t live in denial about your shortcomings. Quit engaging in magical thinking about your flaws somehow disappearing. Embrace the ways that you’re a hot mess, have compassion for the areas where you struggle, and then get to work.
Decide what you can let go of, and then trust that you can set aside old coping skills that aren’t serving you anymore. If there are ingrained patterns standing between you and the best version of yourself, with lightness and compassion, set about loosening your grip on old ways of functioning.
3. Feed your soul
Meditate, write, dance, volunteer. There are so many ways to express yourself and give your life meaning. Contribute to your community or participate in a spiritual practice. Whatever makes you come alive is worth devoting your energy to.
4. Believe in your worthiness
You don’t have to prove that you’re good enough to anyone outside of yourself. You aren’t required to gain the approval of others before you make a decision, and making other people happy isn’t a yardstick by which to measure your worth.
Your heart and your gut tell you everything you need to know. There’s a place deep inside of you with the answers, and that’s where your truest self can be found.
We all have an inner critic. You might call it your ego. It’s that part of you that insists you aren’t good enough, that you don’t quite measure up. It wants to help you and keep you safe, but the truth is you don’t need it. While that voice may always be present, you don’t have to be beholden to it.
5. Get some boundaries
Say no when you need to. Say yes when you want to. Know where your issues leave off and someone else’s stuff begins. Don’t take on baggage that doesn’t belong to you, and don’t solve problems that aren’t yours in the first place.
Get good at meeting your own needs, and stop expecting other people to give you permission to take care of yourself. Remember that you are the only steward of your precious time and energy.
Plant flowers. Have a dance party in the kitchen. Tell a silly knock-knock joke. Life can feel like endless drudgery if we allow it, but we also have the choice to meet each new challenge with joy. Have the courage to enjoy life each day.
It’s time to stop waiting for someone else to make your life what you want it to be. Be present. Be empowered. And start taking care of yourself. You deserve it.