There are myriad ways to practice self-care. Meditating. Stretching. Reading. Running. Getting a massage. Taking a long, hot bath. Taking a walk. Going to your favorite restaurant. Dancing. Deep breathing. Writing. Taking a break. Taking a trip.
But, at its core, the secret to practicing truly nourishing, supportive self-care is to know yourself.
As psychotherapist Kirsten Brunner, MA, LPC, said, “self-care can look very different depending on the temperament and needs of the person.”
Brunner, a perinatal mental health and relationship expert based Austin, Texas, asks clients to think about the activities that feel the most relaxing to them. And their answers vary. For one person self-care may be 30 minutes of reading. For another person, self-care is watching a favorite show. For someone else, it’s decluttering and creating a serene space. And for someone else, it’s going out.
Self-care also varies within each person. Because we need different things at different times and points in our lives—and we have different opportunities and constraints. If you’re a new parent, you’re naturally limited on time. The same may be true when your school-aged kids are home for spring break. You also might be limited on time if you have a number of work deadlines at the end of the month.
In other words, self-care is highly personal and depends on all sorts of factors for each of us. Below, you’ll find suggestions for figuring out the self-care practices that work best for you.
Identify if you’re an introvert or extrovert. In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain notes that introverts tend to feel best with less stimulation while extroverts need higher levels of stimulation (such as attending a large get-together). Extroverts tend to work quickly, multi-task, think aloud, and be assertive. Introverts tend to work more deliberately, think before they speak, dislike conflict and prefer deeper discussions.
Brunner regularly talks to her clients about whether they’re an introvert or extrovert. Because, depending on which side of the spectrum you lean, your self-care will likely look different. For instance, for extroverts, self-care usually means getting together with friends, getting out of the house, or participating in group activities, Brunner said. For introverts, “self-care often looks like stealing a few moments of alone time, cleaning the house in peace or getting a massage [at a] peaceful spa.”
Psychotherapist Ashley Thorn, LMFT, who’s an introvert, has learned throughout the years that she needs and craves alone time. “[W]ithout time to myself, I feel lost and overwhelmed,” said Thorn, founder of 4 Points Family Therapy in Sandy, Utah.
Which is why she and her family have a Saturday morning ritual: Her husband takes their three kids to eat breakfast, run a few errands, or visit their grandparents. Thorn gets a few hours to herself to do anything from lounge around to go shopping to work on a creative project.
(You can take this quick quiz to find out where you fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum.)
Create self-care lists. Thorn makes lists of the things she needs, wants and enjoys physically, spiritually, emotionally, socially and mentally. “[This way] I have ideas of what things are important to me, and what I need to make sure and make time for.”
For example, her lists include: going on date nights with her husband; doing creative projects; attending church; setting healthy boundaries; having regular doctor and dental check-ups; scheduling one-on-one time with each of her kids; getting manicures and pedicures; and traveling.
As Thorn said, your list might look completely different—and “that’s OK!” What do you need and want physically, spiritually, emotionally, socially and mentally?
Focus on what energizes, depletes and frustrates you. These three states are a helpful barometer of your needs—and how you can meet them. For instance, if you notice that your dance class revitalizes you and boosts your mood, try to protect that time every week. If you notice that being around certain people shifts your perspective and suddenly everything looks and feels bleak, start saying no to their lunch invitations.
If you notice that you feel frustrated every morning, try to figure out what’s triggering those feelings. Maybe you need to get more sleep. Maybe you need to create a tranquil space. Maybe you need to evaluate how you spend your mornings or the rest of your days.
Reconnect to yourself on a deeper level. For instance, Thorn suggested considering working with a therapist or practicing yoga to “to become more familiar with who you are as a person.” Therapy can help you gain important insights into your identity. And yoga—and meditation, too—help you to get still and quiet. It helps you to stay with yourself. And how often do we really do that?
Sometimes, we try to be someone we’re not, someone we think we should be. The person who loves to be around a hundred people. The person who has endless energy and rarely needs a break. The person who likes reading literary fiction. The person who goes to the gym five days a week.
Embrace who you are. Embrace your natural tendencies, needs and preferences.
As Cain writes in Quiet, “Spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to.”
In other words, take good care of yourself—whatever this looks like for you. Savor your solitude. Build in many regular breaks. Read mysteries and romance novels. And never enter another gym again.
Give yourself the permission and plenty of opportunities to do what genuinely nourishes you. After all, isn’t that the whole point?