“Sometimes you’ve got to look straight into the tired eyes of the woman staring back at you in the mirror and tell her that she deserves the best kind of love, the best kind of life, and devote yourself to giving it to her all over again.” ~S.C. Lourie
Self-care. An important concept that has become a buzzword. What does it mean? The answer… that depends on you. Google and you will find lists, articles, and suggestions for self-care tasks. These can be helpful as inspiration, but self-care is something that’s unique to you.
I work in suicide prevention and mental health promotion. I talk about self-care a lot. I encourage others to engage in self-care regularly. I have them make lists with self-care tasks that are meaningful to them. You’d imagine I’d be an expert in self-care. Am I? No. But I’m working on it. And I’m way better than I used to be.
How did I get better? I started doing the hard self-care.
What’s the difference between easy and hard self-care?
Easy self-care for me is things like a hot bath or shower. Hiking with my family on the weekends. Texting my sister about daily frustrations. Baking sourdough. Practicing meditation.
The easy self-care is doing the things that fill your bucket, the things you make time for without excuses and that make you feel better in the moment.
This is the first type of self-care I focused on when I was feeling burnt out. Most of my twenties consisted of my working several jobs at a time, filling my unpaid time with volunteer work and seeing friends, going out, staying so busy that I didn’t realize I was worn out. I was known to use the mantra “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
It was when my thirties hit that the mantra started to feel too real.
I had my first child at thirty and my second child at thirty-four, and the go-go-go lifestyle started catching up to me. Working full-time, volunteering, seeing friends, never saying no, and staying busy hit different with two kids and a partner who worked shifts.
I was tired—all the time. The kind of tired that sleep doesn’t touch. The kind of tired that had me sobbing at the dinner table because I didn’t know where I’d find the energy to do the bedtime routine. The kind of tired that had me begging my doctor for tests and wishing he would find something wrong so that I could fix whatever was sucking my energy.
I was getting strep throat every other month. I was having stomach issues. I was burnt out and not well. I would be so exhausted that I didn’t have energy for my kids at the end of the workday. The kind of exhausted that no number of hot showers or meditation was fixing.
I had been to my doctor several times in eight years, explaining my symptoms, and was turned away with the rationale that I had young kids; I should expect to be tired.
At some point, I decided that this was unacceptable. I declared 2019 to be the year of health for myself and booked an appointment with a naturopath. In my first appointment, she asked me to rate my energy levels on average each day from a scale of one to ten.
I told her that on average, my energy levels were at a two, but sometimes I would be a three on a good day.
She looked at me in shock and clarified: “You are a two on average, on a daily basis?”
I said, “Yes.”
She told me, “Honey, this is not normal.”
I burst into tears: I felt validated; I felt seen and not ignored. Fast forward to a few rounds of bloodwork, and I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, which explained many of the symptoms I had been struggling with, including the crushing fatigue that left me in tears most days.
This is where the hard self-care kicked in. Hot baths, meditation, baking sourdough—all things that continue to fill my bucket and that help me to feel better—were important. But the self-care I needed to feel better in the long run, to have energy for my family, to live life instead of getting through life—the hard stuff—this is where I shifted.
Knowing that I could make changes to how I was taking care of myself was empowering. I finally felt like I had some control over how I was feeling. And shifting my perspective to see this as a part of self-care helped me to prioritize the hard stuff.
Advocating to my healthcare providers, changing my diet and how I exercise, changing how I rest and recharge my body, setting boundaries, choosing what I use my energy for—these are necessary choices to alter my symptoms and help me to feel better, but they do not come easily for me. Yet, they are all a part of my own self-care. If I wanted to feel well, I needed to start doing these things—and continue to do them if I wanted to continue feeling better.
And I do feel better. I am now on thyroid medication. I know that dairy makes me feel not great. I can now feel when I’m going into a Hashimoto’s flare, and I know when I need to rest more.
I know what exercise is helpful for me, and what makes me feel worse.
I am honest with my partner when I need him to take on more so I can rest.
I know the difference in my body when I am tired vs. fatigued, and I can take action for both of those feelings.
Doing the hard self-care over the last three years has been worth the work for how I feel overall.
The hard self-care will likely always be something that I’m working on. Some of the hardest things have become much easier as I practice them.
I’m much more likely to advocate for my health with my doctor than I was three years ago. I am much more confident to set boundaries at work with my hours and my capacity. I am much better at listening to my body and accepting the need for rest.
I still have internal arguments with myself in terms of pushing myself to be productive (my trick is writing “rest” on my to-do list—it helps me reframe rest as productive instead of lazy!), but where I am now is vastly different from where I was just a few years ago.
When I talk to others about self-care, I encourage them to think about the self-care that’s easy for them, and to also consider the harder self-care. Both are important and necessary to make sure you are honoring yourself.
1. Think of one easy self-care task you can do right now (or today) that fills your bucket, and will help you to feel good, or better, in this moment.
2. Think of one hard self-care task that you want to take on. It could be something like making an appointment you’ve been putting off or considering how to set a boundary that’s been difficult for you. It could even be something like drinking more water—that can be so difficult for some people, while it sounds easy.
3. Be kind to yourself. Know that everyone’s journey is different. What’s hard for you might be easy for others, and vice versa. Self-care is individual, and some of us have privilege to prioritize self-care in some ways that others do not.
It might not be easy, but you will start to see how things can start to change when you put yourself on your to-do list.