In my last post , I shared some of the key lessons I gained for 2020 and how we might apply them to navigating 2021 and beyond. I did not focus on the self-care piece, because I wanted to dedicate an entire article to the importance of taking care of ourselves and the consequences we face when we do not.
I will be the first to admit that, I have not always honored my own self-care or prioritized it. Until recently, I had a very narrow view of self-care. It was that extra thing I did at the end of a day, week, or month. I took pride in the fact that I travelled for annual vacations, never worked on my birthday, and pulled out all the stops to treat myself on my special day. There is nothing wrong with any of these activities and I am sure that you probably have your very own version of the same. However, the problem with this approach is that, it does not paint a full and proper picture of self-care and its importance to our overall well-being.
So what then is self care?
There are many definitions of self care. One of the definitions I particularly like is from the -UK Department of Health Steering Group. Joining Up Self-Care in the NHS. 2003
“Self care is a part of daily living. It is the care taken by individuals towards their own health and well being, and includes the care extended to their children, family, friends and others in neighborhoods and local communities. Self-Care includes the actions individuals and carers take for themselves, their children, their families and others to stay fit and maintain good physical and mental health; meet social and psychological needs; prevent illness or accidents; care for minor ailments and long-term conditions; and maintain health and wellbeing after acute illness or discharge from hospital.”What is Self-Care? – ISF (isfglobal.org)
This definition emphasizes the fact that, self-care is a part of our everyday life and encourages us to take a broader view of self-care, one that includes the physical, emotional, mental, and social dimensions of our well-being. Therefore, we should not regard taking care of ourselves as a luxury. or as that optional thing we do when we find the time. It is an essential part of ensuring that we are caring for ourselves, as we carry our varied roles and responsibilities. I have often watched my friends, family and colleagues neglect to take care of themselves, as they poured all their time and energy into getting the job done, caring and providing for their families, studying, and meeting all the demands on their time.
The inevitable result is that they get sick, experience burn out, develop lifestyle diseases (diabetes, obesity, hypertension), develop poor sleeping habits, suffer from aches and pains and poor mental health.
For women, the tendency to neglect self-care is compounded by the fact that, society normalizes women as the primary care givers in the home. Women learn very early to shoulder their responsibilities, juggle multiple obligations, to not complain and carry on as best as we can. Men also struggle with self-care as they seek to fulfill their roles of provider and protector. Some neglect doing their annual physicals, internalize their emotions and fail to pay adequate attention to their nutrition. And at times, the stereotypes, and perceptions of what is “manly”, can prevent men from engaging in some types of self-care activities that can enhance their emotional and mental well- being. So, while some of us are better at taking care of ourselves than others, if you are reading this, your self-care practice might need some improvements
As a single mom, working fulltime from home, I have been guilty of neglecting my self-care and the reality of it – hit home for me last year. In mid-March when the COVID-19 pandemic started, my team and I were deployed to work remotely from home. The team was relatively new, and we were still in the throes of group formation (you know how that process is), as well as learning about the agency we were established to support. Around that same time, I bought a new home and was working with contractors, while helping my 10-year-old daughter adjust to virtual school. The fear of getting COVID-19 was palpable, everyone was social distancing, and everything was stressful in preparing for the move. I was burning the candle at both ends and did not have much help.
No sooner than we had settled in our new home, George Floyd was murdered. This single act and the events that followed, affected me and people across the world in ways that I could never imagine. Growing up in Jamaica, I had not had to deal with the reality of race. And when I moved to the U.S. 8- years ago (see my Coming to America story), I had never experienced individual and structural racism, in the way that my black brothers and sisters here in America had. But, just the year before, my daughter had gone through a very painful experience with discrimination. The racial and social justice protests triggered both of us, and we struggled to make sense of how to navigate what it is like to be black in the country we now call our second home.
During this time, my only self-care (more like self-preservation) was wearing a mask, washing my hands and social distancing. I was super stressed, suffered hair loss, felt irritable all the time, and just felt ‘dry” in every area of my life. I was not ok, and I had not put my mask on first. Fortunately, I had a comfort circle to help me work through it. I made some changes and committed to placing a greater value on my overall well- being. Becoming intentional about my self-care worked and I am in a much better place today. So, here are 5 things you can do (right now) as you rethink your approach to valuing and caring for your whole self:
- Identity your stressors and know your signs: We all react to stress differently. And it is important for us to recognize what happens in our bodies when we are stressed. Signs of stress can range from (but not limited to) overeating, aching muscles and pains, tendency to self-isolate, alcohol abuse and drugs, worry, depression, irritability, feelings of anxiety, insomnia, forgetfulness, or spikes in blood pressure. Knowing your sign(s) will help give you a heads- up to take actions to address it. Another key part of this is figuring out, what has helped you in the past to manage your stress and stay healthy.
- Develop a SMART Self Care Plan: There is no one size fit approach to coming up with a personal plan for self-care. We are not all athletes or meditation enthusiasts, so whatever works for you, will not necessarily work for me. The key is to focus on the essential elements (emotional, physical, mental) of sustaining your well- being. Draft your plan by outlining the specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time- bound activities, that you commit to doing in support of the different elements. So, for physical self-care, do not just say you plan to exercise more. Set a goal of walking 7500 steps x 5 days a week or taking 2 x 15 minutes break at work (a.m. and p.m.) and getting 7- hours sleep nightly.
- Find an accountability partner: This is the person or persons you share your SMART plan with and who will help you stay on track (or encourage you when you hit a setback.) This can be someone in your family, friend(s) or a colleague(s) who will check in with you frequently to see how you are working the plan. My biggest accountability partner at home is my daughter. She happily points out -when it is time for me to do my workouts, when to log off from work and how many dark chocolates I have eaten.
- Prioritize Mental Health: Mental health is no joke. The unprecedented events of 2020 brought this issue front and center and revealed that, we are all vulnerable and no one is immune. The grief of losing loved ones or coming close, the fear of getting sick, the uncertainty of not knowing when things will return to ‘normal’, loss of employment, economic challenges and social tensions impacted everyone. Yet, the stigma associated with mental health, sometimes cause us to not seek help, self-isolate, internalize our problems, pretend to be OK and suffer alone. This results in increased rates of depression and anxiety, loss of hope and purpose and the development of lifestyle diseases. So, if you are struggling in any area- please ask for help.
- Be a support for someone else: Truth is we all need people, and we need each other. If we are to be out brother’s /sister’s keeper, we need to be intentional about reaching out to someone that we have not heard from in while. Though your plate may be full, pick up the phone and call that person you just thought about and if you cannot call- text. This is the time to check on your “strong friend’. A listening ear or a quick word of encouragement might be the thing they need to brighten their day or give them the strength to push on.
Folks- it’s called self- care for a reason- you have to do it. Please take good care of your whole self! Until next time, Remember, It’s A Learning Life!