When you have a demanding job, you’re likely strapped for time. It doesn’t leave many opportunities for caring for truly caring for yourself. You also might hold certain assumptions about self-care, which stop you from practicing it.
Marriage and family therapist Elizabeth Sullivan defines self-care as the “ability to know oneself well enough to understand what experiences or activities nourish and restore your soul.” Self-care is unique to each person, she said. “What works for one person may stress someone else out.”
Therapist Melody Wilding, LMSW, defines self-care as “any intentional activity that you do that in some way contributes to your emotional, physical and mental health and well-being.” It’s anything that’s replenishing, she said.
Below, Sullivan and Wilding shared seven valuable suggestions on practicing self-care when your job requires a whole lot of your time, energy and effort.
Both Sullivan and Wilding noted that people commonly confuse self-care with activities that are “good for you.” That is, since exercise or mediation is good for us, they assume it’s self-care and they should do it. And it feels like an obligation, which then becomes draining, said Wilding, who works with entrepreneurs and top performers.
For instance, Sullivan will tell a client: “Sounds like you need a little self-care.” The exhausted client will reply: “Yeah, I went jogging this morning, but it didn’t help.” They don’t even like jogging.
Self-care isn’t something you force yourself to do, Sullivan said.
The problem is that you already don’t have a lot of time. Then you overschedule yourself with activities that don’t even nourish you.
Also, many high-achieving, top-performing people dismiss self-care. They might think: “I’m a hustler. I’m a mover and shaker. I don’t stop for self-care,” Wilding said.
If you don’t like the word “self-care,” reframe it as “self-optimization” or “scheduled maintenance,” which any system needs in order to run as efficiently as possible, Wilding said.
Similar to the above, if self-care is triggering for you, reflect on why, Wilding said. Maybe it brings up negative associations that are connected to people, traits or values, she said.
Do you see people who practice self-care as “wasteful, lazy or indulgent”? Do you fill your life with busywork because you’re trying to avoid dealing with other issues?
Subtract before you add.
Instead of trying to add a self-care activity, such as reading, first cut something out, Wilding said. For instance, you might cut spending 20 minutes on Twitter or grocery shopping several times a week (and hire a delivery service). This way you don’t add an activity you’re really excited about only to skip it because there’s no time. “You end up feeling worse,” she said.
Wilding suggested asking yourself: “Where do I need to say no? (If you’re beginning to feel resentful toward something or someone, that’s usually a red flag, she said.)
Focus on your basic needs.
Many of us don’t even attend to our basic needs. For instance, we skip lunch, stay uncomfortably hot or cold and even wait to go to the bathroom, Wilding said. And this affects our mood and energy. “You have to take care of the basics first,” she said.
Wilding suggested checking in with yourself. Are you hungry? Are you hot or cold? Do you feel tension in your body? What do you need right now?
Figure out what activities feed your soul.
Self-care can be many things. It might be swimming at night, reading poetry, cooking, seeing live music, sewing, going dancing or taking a nap, said Sullivan, who has a private practice in San Francisco.
To help you figure out what really feeds your soul, she suggested considering: “It’s your birthday and your partner/best friend/mom says, ‘This day is yours, I will take care of everything — what do you want to do?’”
She also suggested this exercise: “There is some kind of emergency or scare at work where no one is hurt but all work has to cease — there’s no Internet or power, phones are out, and your boss tells everyone, ‘go home and rest, don’t work today, I’m just glad everyone’s OK.’ It’s a true holiday, though unexpected. So now you have a day to yourself to do anything. Name 15 things you might do.”
Maximize obligatory time.
“Take something obligatory and figure out how to maximize or hack some self-care into that,” Wilding said. For instance, if you love reading fiction, instead of staying up at night, listen to audiobooks on your commute, she said. Wilding uses meditation apps on the subway, because it makes the ride into a sanctuary for her.
Create a list of low- and high-energy activities.
Your energy goes up and down throughout the day. Wilding suggested creating a menu of activities that you’d enjoy doing at different energy levels.
She shared these examples: Your higher-energy activities might be shopping and taking a day trip. Lower-energy activities might include doodling or using adult coloring books.
When you have a demanding job, self-care might be hard to come by. But it’s important — and self-care can be anything that soothes and satisfies your soul. It’s totally up to you.
Busy career woman photo available from Shutterstock