I admit just a few years ago I was more like Ben than Donna or Tom on Parks and Recreation when it came to taking care of #1. I didn’t really buy myself anything except for when I needed new socks (and even then I’d talk myself back and forth about it). I didn’t listen to my body’s cues and eat, drink, or sleep as well or as often as I should. I put everyone else around me before myself and frankly wasn’t very concerned about what I wanted or even needed. It’s probably no surprise that I was a generally unhappy person. The journey from there to here has been a long process over several years, involving a lot of baby steps, but instead of being a self-care/relaxation “novice” much like Ben I’m now closer to Donna and Tom’s end of the spectrum. If you’re anything like I was, you either don’t put much thought into how you treat yourself (which is, most often, poorly) or don’t care enough about yourself to think you deserve better. I’m here to tell you that better is possible, and you absolutely do deserve it.
Everyone’s heard “pay it forward” and “be kind to others”, but why should our kindnesses only be reserved for other people? Think about it, you’re the only person you’ll spend your entire life with, why shouldn’t you at least be friends? Being a friend involves acceptance and kindness, and making yourself a priority. I’m not suggesting that you should put yourself above everyone in your life all the time, but there are sometimes moments when you need to be the priority. Sometimes you need to say no. Sometimes you need to put what you want first. Think about it in terms of your best friend. What advice would you give them in any given situation? Never feel pressured to do something that won’t bring you happiness or grow your life.
Ultimately, if it doesn’t bring you joy, help you grow, support you, or make your life better in any way, cut it out like a tumor. If you can’t, try to reduce the impact it makes. I know this is hard. Negative thoughts aren’t exactly controllable and cutting toxic people from your life isn’t exactly easy, especially if they’re family. But I’m here to tell you it can be done if you set boundaries, both with yourself and others. If you hear that inner-voice say something unflattering about the person in the mirror, correct them. They’re wrong. Name that voice Ursula and tell her to fuck off before you remind her that you’re fabulous (because, let’s be real, you are). If that toxic or abusive person can’t be cut out of your life completely, reduce their impact in any way you can. Don’t add them on social media. Don’t respond to their texts or answer their calls except when absolutely necessary. Don’t give them money or do them any favors. Reduce the time you’re exposed to them. Your boundaries are valid and necessary. Close that door and lock it.
There are a lot of merits to knowing your limits and boundaries, and being able to accept them and yourself unconditionally. Self-acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re totally satisfied with who you are right now and aren’t still striving to be better, it just means that you won’t put yourself down for not being at that penultimate future place yet. It’s knowing that you’re working to one day be there and knowing what you’re doing to get there is enough. It also means knowing when to change or adjust your goals, or cut yourself some slack! You don’t have to love yourself (although I sincerely wish that for every single one of you), but knowing you have inherent worth and treating yourself accordingly is important. I urge you to celebrate who you are now regardless of what stage of growth you’re in and allow yourself to be proud of the growing you’ve already done.
Self care isn’t a perfect science. Your needs are different from mine. The trick is to listen to yourself, your “gut”, and your body. Drink a glass of water. If you’re hungry, eat, and eat enough. Give yourself a well-deserved rest. As simple as it sounds it’s sometimes hard for people to give themselves the basic necessities in a world where burning yourself out is often looked at with admiration. In order to be successful you absolutely do not have to push yourself to your breaking point. You can be a busy, successful, hardworking human being and still make your own well-being a priority. It’s not only doable, but necessary. You can’t put your all into your job or taking care of your family when you’re barely keeping yourself afloat. If you want to do your best in your day to day you have to think about your needs, too.
The bare necessities (eating enough, drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, taking your meds on time if you have them) are important, but — and this may be difficult for some of you to accept — so is not depriving yourself of an occasional treat yo self day like Donna and Tom taught us. Not everyone has the budget for elbow bedazzling or fingernail lasik, but luckily you don’t need to be a heavy spender to treat yourself. For me, a good “spoil” myself day consists of a trip to the used bookstore and maybe getting some fast food on the way home. If I’m on an even tighter budget or just don’t feel like making the drive up to the used bookstore, my nearby public library sells $1 books! I’m just as excited about taking some new finds home either way. Books are obviously my thing, what’s yours? It can be anything! Taking a quiet hike to recharge, cooking a special meal for no special reason, watching Netflix all day, buying a new video game, a dress, or a ridiculous amount of Pokémon socks. Whatever brings you joy. If you feel you need permission, here it is. Buy yourself that thing you keep looking at. Treat yo self.
People tend to look at these things as self indulgences — and constant indulgence isn’t something that I’m advocating by any means — but when it comes to taking care of yourself sometimes a little self indulgence is necessary! There is absolutely nothing wrong with thinking about what you want and making that a priority in your day. Looking forward to a hot bath after a long day at work or buying yourself those heels (that you’ll probably only wear twice a year, but they look amazing on you so who cares) is something that makes life better. And it’s your life, why shouldn’t you do the fun, relaxing, harmless things you want to do? Self-love isn’t about being selfish, it’s about living your life and doing what makes you happy. You don’t have to find justifications for it, just do that thing for the sake of being happy! No explanation needed. You’re allowed to be kind to yourself. So go skydiving, get that tattoo, binge-watch The Office. Self-care is not something you have to work to “deserve”. It’s a necessity in order to be a content, whole human being.
Alongside taking care of your needs and treating yourself (which we could call taking care of your wants or just flat out rewarding yourself for being so awesome), the flip side of the coin is also important. Sometimes you need to tell yourself to get the fuck up, put on your armor and get shit done. In these situations it helps me to think about that “future self” that I’m striving toward. What can I do right now to help her most? Sometimes it’s something seemingly small like doing the dishes so I won’t have to the next day. Sometimes it’s a part of a larger picture, like putting money in our savings account or keeping up with doctors’ appointments. What can you do to make your life easier tomorrow? Thinking of future you is an easy way to take care of yourself and set yourself up for better things. When you’re doing that on a day to day basis, even in small gestures, it adds up. Remember, you’re cultivating and tending to a relationship. You want to keep doing things that make it grow stronger, just like you would with a friend or partner. It could mean working out or going for a walk, doing a few household chores, enrolling in school (or dropping out of school!), making yourself go to that interview you’re really nervous over, or even just drinking a glass of water after you’ve been out all night with your friends. Sometimes self-care isn’t a living-in-the-moment indulgence, it can also be, “What will I need tomorrow? Where do I want to be a year from now?”.
Self-acceptance and self-care, more than anything, are about being mentally healthy. When you’re treating yourself right you just feel better. For those of us with mental and/or physical illnesses it can be particularly difficult to hang in and do all these things for ourselves on top of managing the illness, work, school, family, relationships, etc, but it’s perhaps even more important for us to continue to try. You’re worth the effort. Remember, healthy doesn’t mean perfect and there is a different standard for everyone. You won’t always wake up able to tackle the day the way you want to. Some days you won’t be able to do any of it, and that’s okay. If you need to stay in bed eating ice cream all day, do it. It’s okay to do that! That in itself is another form of self-care. Knowing that it’s okay, and also knowing that tomorrow or the next day you’ll be there to pick yourself up to try again, is what’s important. Be gentle, be understanding, be patient. And always, if you need help, ask for help. Call your doctor, message a friend, ask a family member to come over and sit with you. Sometimes we can’t take care of ourselves by ourselves.
I know if you’re still in the early stages of learning self-care all of this can feel incredibly overwhelming. To some of you it might even sound completely stupid. I remember I felt really silly replacing negative thoughts with positive ones when I first started to try to build myself back up, but over time it became more and more compulsory like all habits do. It won’t all happen at once. Take it day by day, be a little nicer, listen to yourself a little better. Buy yourself those funny socks. Becoming a self-care expert is something that can take years of learning and unlearning, so give yourself the time to grow and trust that you will. Try. I promise it gets easier and the journey is well worth it. I promise that you are worth it.