I love when certain subjects become trendy topics of conversation. Self-care falls into that category for this post. Major news articles have recently published stories on the importance of self-care, its value in preserving our mental health and well-being. You can learn from one those articles here.
Often these posts talk about self-care from the viewpoint of reducing stress. There are some great recommendations out there. Self-care is certainly not a new idea, and many others write about it more eloquently and more frequently.
But I'm going to do something a little different in this post. I want to talk about what happens when you burn out and don't have any motivation to take care of yourself. What happens when self-care comes too late? Or when you don't have any space for self-care, even if you tried?
What I've noticed is that when people burn out they turn toward things they call "self-care" but actually end up doing "self-harm". There are objectively things that can turn into bad habits and addictions. And when we're feeling stressed and burned out, turning to those things can lead to bigger problems down the road.
So when do people burn out? Demanding jobs, long hours working, stressful relationships and constant conflict tend to lead to burn out. But so does anything that requires a lot of sacrifice.
Parenthood necessarily requires sacrifice.
Many things in life require sacrifices, but few are as extreme as parenthood, especially modern parenthood. Parents today report fewer connections, fewer resources, and more internal and external expectations. Children necessarily require a lot of attention, care, and nurturing. Because they mature slowly, children need significant supervision and basic care for extended periods of time. And without a "village" of invested adults, new parents shoulder these responsibilities alone.
Many modern parents feel overwhelmed by this responsibility, particularly in light of recent research on the value of attachment. More about that in another post...
To make matters worse, we're constantly surrounded by temptations that lead us toward unhealthy habits. I'm talking here about sweets, screens, and substances. Unsurprisingly, obesity, screen-addictions, and substance abuse rates are sky high. When we're stressed, we reach for things that help us feel better right away because we cannot invest in things that will help us feel better eventually. We literally struggle and cannot invest in long-term self-care.
So many self-care advocates glibly make recommendations for treating yourself to a Netflix binge-session, ice cream, or a glass of wine. I personally like all of those things. In fact, that sounds like a wonderful evening (Outlander, I'm looking at you...).
Each of those suggestions for self-care may seem fine and inviting to you. On their own, there's nothing wrong with them. Even in combination, there's nothing objectively wrong with watching several episodes of your favorite show while eating a red wine float. But single actions can turn into habits, and habits can turn into dependence. While you may benefit from a burst of energy, the high is short lived. And you've created a path in your mind and body, connecting comfort to something that could end up being bad for you.
I know. It's hard. I've fallen into bad habits too. And these bad habits are so hard to break. It takes a lot of energy, commitment, and thought.
I want to be really clear:
I am not judging you. Or any parent that has fallen into a bad habit.
Every once in awhile I'll see a parent of a young child watching a tablet or phone screen while their child claws for their attention. It seems sad at the time, but I don't judge these parents. What I see is a parent who feels overwhelmed and needs a break. I imagine that this parent may have been feeling overwhelmed for a while, and this little moment gives them a reprieve. They are taking care of themselves. They need care too. And taking a break is not child-abuse or even damaging to your child AT ALL.
Technically, when I see this parent, I know I'm witnessing self-care. But I also know it's fleeting. And I think they do too. After that moment, they are back to their stressful life and they don't feel refreshed.
So what kind of self-care helps in the long-term?
Humans are social creatures. Even introverts need adult connection and a sense of community. Many new parents in the digital age find connection through social media. There are so many helpful parenting groups on Facebook (look for supportive communities and leave if it gets judgmental) where parents can come together, ask questions, get advice, share highs and lows. Digital connections are great. But they pale in comparison to in-person, face-to-face relationships. Making friends as an adult is hard. Luckily, you could find many opportunities to meet other people through your children and their activities. Go to parent events, talk to other parents in your activity class, see if there's a support group in your area.
I am not a meditation expert. And you don't have to be one to begin to feel the amazing benefits of meditation. Just start with five minutes a day. One of my favorite resources is "Start Here Now" by Susan Piver. The takeaway from that book is in the title: start small, start now. Sit on a pillow, focus on your breath, don't judge your straying mind, reconnect and bring your awareness back to your breath. For five minutes.
I started with five minutes a day. Now I meditate before every appointment, in the morning before I start my day, and at night. Most of the time. I'm certainly not perfect. You don't have to be perfect. Your practice can be imperfect AND helpful. Everyone starts somewhere.
Why do I love meditation? Well, meditation gives you the opportunity to regulate your body. It stabilizes your baseline sympathetic nervous system and your heart rate. If you can get into the habit of meditation, you are more likely to live your life in a grounded state.
I say physical care because this could mean many things, including exercise, pedicures, haircuts, massage, hot shower, etc. Taking care of our physical bodies provides emotional and mental relief. Grooming is a primal need, and all animals respond strongly to poor hygiene and physical care including humans. Take some time to care for your body in any way that serves you. You may not have much time, but you do need to shower at some point. Make your shower extra hot, add some essential oils, shampoo your hair twice, shave your legs! Make a healthy meal and eat it slowly, tasting every bite. Schedule a yoga class or plan to go for a run once a week. Whatever you do, do it slowly and intentionally. Your body does amazing things. Treat it with respect, kindness, and compassion.
Creating these habits will serve you in the long run. It takes time, patience, intention, and kindness. But in the end, you will have habits for self-care that really do help you feel refreshed, energized, and empowered. You'll walk out into the world feeling more capable and grounding. You can do it.