Self-care revisited, with a little help from my friend

Featured image: my and Elizabeth’s legs, Oregon coast, circa 2012.

I wrote about self-care five years ago. As I continue to deeply work through the caverns and crevices of my mind, I’m wanting to revisit the idea of self-care and how I might tweak it to suit my 30-year-old needs.

To me, self-care is an intentional setting aside of time to perform an act of personal nourishment. As I wrote about in 2013, acts of self-care are wide-ranging. Showers, movies, food, massages, running, wine, meditation, dancing, being alone, and reading could all be considered self-care (and have all been practiced by me at some point). Ideally, investing in these activities brings a sense of relief, or relaxation, or understanding, or mental space. A regular self-care practice not only assuages daily feelings of stress but can create a foundation upon which challenges and overwhelm slip off your back, like rain off a wee, greasy duckling.

My sweet friend Elizabeth, the woman who introduced self-care to me many years ago and continues to champion its benefits today, agreed to be interviewed for this post. I asked her some questions on how she views self-care practice, how she approaches it, and some of the challenges associated with its maintenance. Her answers were inspiring to me. May they spark a renewed (or new!) interest in you to develop your own nourishing self-care practice.

Sara: When did the idea of self-care first come to you?

Elizabeth: I’m not sure exactly when the idea of self-care arrived in my life, but I do remember taking a workshop from Deborah Eden Tull at a Women’s Permaculture Gathering ( during which she talked about self-care in terms of tending to our selves the way we would tend a garden. We know we have to feed the soil in order to keep reaping a harvest, so just the same, we need to keep nourishing our selves, bodies, spirits, in order to keep going with all the things we do in our lives. Especially as women we often put our personal needs aside in order to care for others, but if we consistently do that we will burn out. It’s not sustainable.

S: Give some current examples of your personal self-care regimen.

E: It probably seems really simple and mundane, but a lot of my self-care routine involves taking time to focus on super basic hygienehaving morning and evening rituals that involve brushing and flossing my teeth, washing my face, etc.

Taking time for my writing practice each week is also important to me, as is making a conscious effort to express my gratitude for things throughout the day. My dad has a little sign that says “You can’t be grumpy and grateful. You can’t be angry and grateful. You can’t be sad and grateful… (etc) … So just be grateful.” There’s so much truth in that! When I’m in my darkest places, having a daily gratitude practice is a lifeline I always come back to. When I’m in a good place it happens naturally throughout the day, but when I need it I have a little notebook and I’ll write in it at the end of the day Things I’m Grateful For.

I also write Acknowledgements, which is a list of things I’m accomplished that day. Often I am so focused on the next thing that needs to get done that I don’t take time to celebrate what I’ve done, but celebrating the accomplishments gives me the energy to keep going. That’s why crossing things off the To Do list feels so good! When I’m super down the accomplishments might be getting out of bed, letting myself cry, calling a friend. But sometimes they include huge projects getting completed!

S: Do you have any past self-care acts that no longer serve you or feel nourishing?

E: Sure! Self-care practices are constantly evolving and changing with me and my life. I like to rewrite my own Self-Care List periodically so that it stays fresh and pertinent to my life. For instance, there was a period of time where my self-care list included “Take time to cook and eat good food.” Then at another point when I revised that list, I was in a phase where I felt like I was cooking a whole lot, and when I was honest with myself about it, having that on my self-care list felt like a burden, and so I changed it to say “Let someone else cook.” Ha!  Another one that changed was “Read inspiring and informational books.” I changed it to just “read something that feels good,” because I felt like I was putting an expectation on myself to always be reading really heady informational books. I hadn’t read any fiction in years!

Self-care is always a dance and a balance, and it depends on the situation. What is self-care at one time might be self-sabotage at another time. Learning to tell the difference between these, and be able to discern what I need in the moment is one of the hardest lessons. For instance, at times being alone might be just what I need, but at other times that might let me wallow in self-pity and what I really need is to go be around friends. Or sometimes eating ice cream and watching a movie might be a healthy indulgence and relaxation, but at other times not. There’s not one right way to practice self-care. It’s an ongoing process of getting to know myself, and of being really honest about what’s best for me at any given time. It’s also about learning to be gentle with myself no matter what. Maybe I chose ice cream and a movie when really the best self care would have been drinking water and going for a run. That’s okay. I’m human. I make mistakes. Having patience, compassion, and tenderness for myself and my mistakes is one constant self care practice.

S: Do you have any advice for those looking to strengthen their self-care?

E: Two things come to mind: the first, and this is so important for me, is to treat yourself as you would treat a small child who you adore. It’s fairly easy for most of us to be kind to small children who we adore, to naturally care for their basic needs, and to forgive them for being emotional if their basic needs aren’t being met. If they’re being emotional, irrational, we first consider: “Are they tired, have they had enough to eat, did they have a hard day today?” We speak kindly, we are patient, we are gentle. Practice doing this for yourself!

The other is a more practical exercise that I really like. Start by making a list of ten to twenty activities that make you feel good. This is a great first step: look how many things bring you joy! I have certainly been so depressed at times that I couldn’t think of a single thing that brought me joy. Now, make several columns next to that list. In the first column note whether this activity feeds your mind, body, soul, or all of those. In the next column note whether it’s something you do alone or with other people. In the next column note whether it’s indoors or outdoors. In the next column note whether it costs money or not. In the final column note how long it’s been since you did this activity. Now use this list to design your life so that you regularly include a variety of things that bring you joy in different ways!

Isn’t Elizabeth the best?

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