Self-care – it’s a fairly well-known concept these days, and a particularly relevant one considering it was International Women’s Day this week.
But hang on – why am I being so sexist about self-care? Shouldn’t men take care of themselves too?
Yes, absolutely. But the sad fact is, even in this day and age, women remain the chief carers for children, the elderly, and, well, pretty much everybody – except for themselves.
I find the vast majority of the clients that come to me suffering from anxiety and stress are female. And a lot of their issues stem from simply having to DO too much for others. So it’s useful to remember how important it is to look after ourselves too.
So, what exactly is self-care?
You might think of it as having a bubble bath… getting your nails done… going on a shopping trip, and so on.
Yes, these are all nice ways to get away from it all, reward yourself, and relax. I myself had a little spa weekend recently (a treat for my birthday) and I enjoyed it immensely.
But what about the grittier side of self-care? That part that says NO to doing things for everybody else every once in a while? That part that looks after herself and strengthens her own boundaries so that others can’t take advantage?
Does the thought of doing that make you wince? Then this is especially for you.
Here are 6 ways you can exercise some real self care for yourself and start saying NO when you need to.
Sound scary? Selfish even?
You know what’s really scary? The chronic ill-health that can manifest when you burn yourself out from doing too much for others.
And as for being selfish, just imagine how much better equipped you’ll be to look after your loved ones if you’re relaxed, calm, and healthy.
1. Tell your phone who’s boss
Ah… the telephone. Once upon a time it used to sit in the hall minding its own business, except to jangle every once in a while when your friend wanted you to come out and play.
Now it lives in your pocket, bleeping, buzzing, and generally tugging at your sleeve whenever anyone wants a piece of you. That person might be your nearest and dearest, a random Facebook acquaintance, or even a stranger trying to sell you something – but they all get equal attention from you.
Do you respond immediately to every notification? Have you been trained, Pavlov’s Dog-style, to drop whatever you’re doing and attend to that exciting noise that tells you someone’s paying attention to you?
Let’s be honest – it’s usually not that exciting anyway. A facebook group chat… an email telling you your insurance is due for renewal… a text asking if you’ve thought about PPI…
So how about putting your own priorities first for once? Make the decision to send a clear message out that you’re unavailable.
Turn off all those notifications and allocate a certain time of day to check your emails and social media. You’ll be amazed at the amount of time you free up during the day if you do this. And you can spend that time on YOU.
If you need a bit more help on unplugging from the social media circus, check out my blog ‘How to cut down on Facebook‘ for more tips.
2. Keep your night (and your sleep) sacred
Sleep is the most important thing you can do for your overall health. It affects focus, mood, and even weight. So it’s important to do what you can to avoid jeopardising it. Or more to the point – to avoid other people jeopardising it.
Fed up of being everybody’s number one emergency service? Turn your phone completely off at night (ie – onto flight mode) and send a clear signal that you’re unavailable until the next morning.
A client of mine was very resistant to the idea of turning her phone off at night. She told me it was impossible, as she was the primary contact for her mother, who was ill and in a care home.
Sometime later, after her mother had passed away, I mentioned again the idea of turning her phone off at night. Again she was adamant that she couldn’t, as her son might need her. I suspect that there would always be someone else down the line ready to become the recipient of that emergency hotline.
I completely understand that sometimes there are practical reasons why you have to be on stand-by all night. But if you’re doing it all the time without a single night off, consider how that might be affecting your sleeping patterns – not to mention your relationship with that other person, on a subconscious level.
Was this ever a proper arrangement that was made between the two of you? Or has it just become an unspoken agreement over a period of time? Why is it always you who has to be there for them? Could somebody else take a turn, even occasionally, and give you a night off?
Another important question to ask yourself: are you perhaps disempowering that other person by allowing them to think they can rely on you to bail them out whenever anything goes wrong?
Now, of course, if that other person really is dependent upon you – for instance a child, or an elderly person who needs you – then it’s completely understandable to want to be there for them. And if this is the case, a good solution is to get a cheap spare phone – one that simply accepts calls and texts (no fancy Smartphone stuff). That way you can give this emergency number only to the people who really count. Think of it as your Batphone.
Another advantage to this situation is that you can leave your ‘real’ phone downstairs well away from the bedroom, and avoid any temptation to check messages etc in the middle of the night – another no-no when it comes to a good nights’ sleep.
3. Set your boundaries at the deepest level
When it comes to setting boundaries (and that’s basically what this article is all about), meditation is the key to it all. Because when you meditate, or when you practice mindfulness, you are setting boundaries at the most significant and basic level: that of your own thoughts. You are teaching your mind that YOU are in control of what you think – not that monkey brain that jumps about from thought to thought with no cohesion whatsoever.
There are many local support groups where you can learn meditation and mindfulness. Or if you prefer one-on-one coaching, book a session with me and I’ll show you how. It’s a simple process in itself – the real challenge is in setting time aside each day to practice. But you will reap many many benefits from it, I promise you.
4. Can’t say no? Then buy yourself some time
Next time somebody asks you to do something, it might feel a bit strange to just give them an outright no – especially if you’re currently looked upon as the go-to person when it comes to doing stuff for everyone.
So here’s a bit of a ‘cheat’ – if it feels too difficult to say a big fat NO straight away, then just soften the blow and buy yourself a bit of time by saying something along the lines of “Hmm, I’m not sure. Can I check with my diary and get back to you?” Or instead of your diary you might say you need to check in with another person first, such as your partner, or boss, etc.
This tactic is useful in two ways: firstly it gives you the time to consider whether their request is really something that you really feel ok about doing, rather than going with that typical people-pleasing kneejerk reaction of “YES! Of COURSE I’ll look after your Shetland Ponies while you go to Australia for a month!”
Secondly, it gently eases your friends away from thinking you’re everyone’s yes-man (or woman) and guides them into realising that you’re not available to do everything they ask at a moments’ notice.
They’ll also realise they need to give you sufficient notice, which is hugely important (have you ever noticed how those ‘boundary-pushers’ love to spring things on you at the last minute..?)
5. Ease yourself in gently
If all this ‘saying no’ business strikes fear into your warm fuzzy empathic heart, then try practicing on something easy at first.
I often suggest to clients that they could start with baby-steps by taking control of the TV remote every now and again, and practice having their own needs met by choosing their favourite program.
I always assumed this would be a very easy task, but when I suggested it to one client she was horrified at the very thought. So you might have to think about your own particular baby-steps, and what would be an easy way for you to try out this new way of being.
6. Find a listening ear
Last but not least, try talking it out with a professional. Ok, I realise some people may feel there’s a stigma to counselling and that it’s only for people suffering with mental health issues, but really, everyone can benefit from it.
It’s amazing how much easier it is to become aware of your behavioural patterns once you hear yourself talk about them out loud to another person who is remaining completely objective. The process can really help you identify unwanted patterns that may have built up over a lifetime, and change them to better ones.
Therapy can be an incredibly rewarding and enriching experience, so it’s worth giving it a try.
Just think – it might be the only time in your life when you’ve been the most important person in the room.
And when you’ve spent your life looking after others – that in itself is worth golddust.
Know someone that’s always doing too much for others and not enough for herself? Then feel free to forward this blog onto her – you know, as a little hint 😉
Lisa Murphy is a counsellor and hypnotherapist based in Cambuslang, Glasgow. Lisa specialises in stress, anxiety, and weight management.