Redefining and Prioritizing Effective Self-CareMar 20, 2023
I live and breathe psych strength. I think about our minds, how they influence us, shape our life experience, the importance of maintaining a helpful mindset, the glitches in our thinking EVERY SINGLE DAY. I believe wholeheartedly in the science I share through Peak Mind and in my clinical practice.
Then I have weeks like this past one that are humbling.
They are humbling because they remind me that thinking about something is not the same as doing it. This week reminded me that I have the same human mind with the same unflattering tendencies that requires the same regular upkeep and care as everyone else.
It's not that I think I'm special or somehow different. I just got a fierce reminder that our minds are part of a complex system that requires regular care and maintenance to run smoothly. Our habits and actions count for more than intentions and beliefs.
The Importance of Self-Care
Over the last few months, I've experimented my way into some daily routines that really work for me. I (finally) have a solid morning routine in place that helps me feel calm, focused, and effective. I have some guards in place to promote better sleep, which ties into the next morning. In other words, my self-care game has been pretty on point.
This past week, though, due to a confluence of events, much of that went out the window. I was experiencing more stress than usual AND not doing the things that help mitigate it.
The morning routine went out the window. My screen use bled later and later into the night, which tanks my sleep. I didn't get outside or move as much as normal. I didn't prioritize my mindfulness practice. I allowed the behavioral anchors that root me in peace and the present to fall by the wayside, and the result was quite noticeable.
My decision-making capacity went down as I circled around, getting caught up in self-doubt and indecision. My mind fell into negative thinking patterns like comparisons and catastrophizing. It amplified things, turning up self-imposed pressures and deadlines that weren't actually necessary. I struggled to be present and to take effective action (which meant productivity was pretty shot). In short, I was definitely not the best version of me.
It was not my finest moment.
It was, however, a wake up call. A stark reminder that we are all human, constrained by our biology, and that self-care is not a luxury. It is a must.
Understanding What Self-Care Actually Is
When it comes to self-care, think of a pyramid with three levels. In the top level of the pyramid are the indulgences, the luxuries, the bubble baths and brunches. These are the things that most people envision when they hear the word "self-care." These are important, sure, but they are the icing on the self-care cake. They are simply not enough, nor the most important aspect of self-care.
The base level of the pyramid includes the fundamental, bare minimum requirements to stay alive and reasonably functioning. These include eating well, sleeping, resting, hydrating, moving your body. Ignoring this level of self-care is not sustainable. You'll eventually crash. You might be able to get by despite skimping on these, but you will absolutely not be functioning optimally.
The second level is the one that took the biggest hit for me this past week, and it is arguably the most important one. The second level of self-care is made up of the habits, routines, rituals, and practices that support you in showing up the way you want in terms of quality of mind and energy.
That's what self-care is really all about. It's not about indulging yourself (though that's important!) or relaxing (again, also important, just not the key to effective self-care). Self-care is the set of practices that help support you functioning optimally, in the state of mind that works best for you.
What Is the Quality of Your Mind?
Ask yourself that. "What is the quality of my mind right now?" Is it peaceful? Busy? Focused? Scattered? Decisive? Full of doubt? Negative? Stressed? Angsty? What does it truly feel like inside your head right now?
Now consider this: What is your ideal quality of mind? For me, it's a clear, calm, focused state that skews toward optimism and levity. What is it for you? How often do you find yourself in that headspace? When you are, what are you doing or not doing that helps you get there?
Figuring out what quality of mind you're shooting for, then experimenting with practices until you reliably reach it is what developing a self-care routine is really about. Don't be mistaken. While we can think our way into and out of some pretty awful states of mind, it's our daily rhythms, habits, and practices that really impact the quality of our minds overall.
How Energetic Do You Feel?
Are you constantly running on E? Do you feel a frantic, stress-driven energy that propels you through your day? Or do you feel a solid, steady energy level that you can sink into and rely on?
Self-care supports our energy as well. Again, it's the daily habits we do or don't do that help our systems run the way they're supposed to.
We take the time to plug in our cell phones to let them recharge because we know it's a necessity. We gas up our cars, change the oil, (ideally) do preventative maintenance to ensure they get good gas mileage and don't break down. We must do the same things for our bodies and brains.
Leveling Up Your Self-Care
Think about the things you have done today to take care of yourself. Think about the things you've done over the past week. Now ask yourself, "Is it working?" Are you pretty consistently experiencing the quality of mind and energy that you'd like to? If not, it's time to level up your self-care.
First, let's update old beliefs that self-care is a luxury, an indulgence, or something that you don't have time for. Self-care is a necessity for functioning optimally in all areas of your life.
Second, look at the three levels of the self-care pyramid. Where are doing a pretty good job, and where do you need to put in some work?
Third, brainstorm some small tweaks you can start to make that might help you move closer to the desired state you want to be in. For level 1, get back to basics. Eat well. Hydrate. Move your body. Sleep.
For level 3, think of the activities that feel like a treat yourself kind of thing. Is it unstructured time? A sensory indulgence? Something extra for your body or your brain? Is it an outing? Try to get at least one of these in this week.
Level 2 is often where people struggle because they either don't think of it as self-care, or they let life dictate their daily routines instead of being intentional about them. Level 2 takes some trial and error to figure out what works for you. You might consider:
- Book ending your day with screen-free times. I find that waiting an 1 - 1.5 hours after waking up before I look at my phone or computer is a really important contributor to the clear, calm, focused, skewing optimistic zone I prefer to be in. Similarly, sticking with a screen time curfew has a noticeable impact on my sleep.
- Practice mindfulness. Whether you choose to do a formal meditation, just have a few minutes of silence to "be" instead of "do," single task, color, listen to music, or any other way that works for you, a mindfulness practice really makes a difference. I have yet to hear someone say, "You know, I tried this mindfulness thing for a month, and my life was worse." Instead, everyone I've talked to who has given it a real go (that is, more than just a one and done effort) said it made a real and positive impact.
- Laugh, leisure, or play. Finding ways to incorporate fun into our days, even the busy stressful ones, can be an important part of self-care.
- Learn something. Stimulating your mind can often be enjoyable and might contribute to your self-care.
- Connect with others. Human connection is a need, and you might even argue that it goes in level 1, not 2, of self-care. Regardless of where you put it, what are ways that you feel connected to others, whether that's your closest people or to humanity at large of somewhere in between? How might you build those into a regular routine or practice?
What other self-care practices are important for helping your system run smoothly? What helps support you in showing up in life the way you want? (If you're not sure yet but want to get it sorted out, our Self-Care [by Design] mini-course can help you with that. We no longer offer this program publicly, but you can still access it here.)
I'm back on the self-care wagon and already feeling a shift. I hope you'll join me.
"Self-care takes effort. It doesn't just happen. The body and mind need to be maintained. Similar to a garden, without effort, weeds will pop up and overtake everything."
- James Clear
Written by Dr. Ashley Smith
Peak Min Co-founder
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