pointers for prioritizing self-careToday, self-care has become a buzzword. And when something becomes “trendy” or seems to show up everywhere, we tend to write it off. It becomes a kind of background noise. Maybe you think self-care is a hollow synonym for pampering yourself — and that doesn’t ring true for you. Maybe you think self-care is an indulgence. Something for people with plenty of time. And money. A luxury that doesn’t fit into your life.

While self-care can include pampering yourself, it’s so much bigger. It’s so much more meaningful and important. “Self-care is essential to our survival,” said Jessica Michaelson, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist and certified coach for adults and couples who want to find more joy and meaning in their busy lives.

She defined self-care as: “the practice of taking care of one’s own physical and emotional needs, with the goals of remaining healthy and resilient.” Consider a newborn who cries when they’re hungry. That is an example of self-care, Michaelson said. “That is sensing your inner state, and taking action to get your needs met.” Because when we ignore our needs, over time, we become sick, unhappy and overwhelmed, she said.

Many of us don’t know how to practice self-care. Many of us weren’t taught to pay attention to our inner states — or to trust them. “Instead, we are taught what we’re ‘supposed’ to think and feel, and try to ignore feelings that we think we ‘shouldn’t’ feel.”

Maybe you’re anxious about a certain situation. But you’re ashamed about your nervous feelings, so you pretend they don’t exist. Maybe you’re really upset about something. But you think you should be happy, so you stuff down your sadness. Maybe you really need 9 hours of sleep. But you believe you should be able to function just fine on 6 hours—so that’s what you try to do. Maybe your entire body is saying no to a commitment. But you don’t want to seem rude or impolite, so you say yes.

We also neglect taking care of ourselves because our culture values and glorifies self-sacrifice. According to Michaelson, we promote the employee who works 80-plus hours a week; we idolize the mom who never seems to need a break. “This belief that self-sacrifice is best creates a great deal of shame when we feel like we need something different. And we can label ourselves ‘lazy,’ ‘selfish’ or ‘weak.’” And because we don’t want to be lazy, selfish or weak, we ignore our body’s messages, which can easily turn into desperate pleas for our attention (possibly leading to burnout).

Even though you might be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with practicing self-care, you can learn. Below, Michaelson suggested three valuable strategies for prioritizing self-care in your life.

Rethink self-care.

The first step to prioritizing self-care is to revise your views on it—to realize how powerful and vital it is. Taking care of ourselves is a “basic human need, it’s not weakness,” Michaelson said.

It’s also not selfish. To the contrary, self-care makes us more available and open to others, she said. We have more to give when we’re not exhausted, sleep-deprived or overwhelmed. Plus, “self-care is an ongoing, daily practice, not an every-once-in-a-while splurge.” 

Learn to pay attention to your needs.  

This is a skill you can sharpen. Because, again, many of us weren’t taught to identify, acknowledge and respect our needs. Rather, unfortunately, we’re often taught to dismiss or judge them.

Michaelson suggested setting a timer to go off every hour to check in on how you’re feeling physically and emotionally. “Are you hungry? Are you stressed? What does hunger and stress feel like in your body? How are they different?”

Take small action.

Michaelson noted that self-care is taking small actions that serve our well-being. For instance, if you’re hungry, eat. If you’re tired, take a break. If you’re upset, talk to someone you trust. If you’re struggling with anxiety, see a therapist.

Self-care also is individual. It is “based on the specifics of what works for you to be well in your body and mind.” How do you know what that is? You experiment, she said.

Again, self-care isn’t some empty, meaningless term. It isn’t defined as spoiling yourself. “Self-care means paying attention to yourself, understanding how you work and taking action that serves your personal needs,” Michaelson said. It “means not living only to please others or fit into assumptions about what you’re supposed to think, feel and do.” Self-care is vital for each of us, and it is something we can learn to do.

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