As survivors of abuse, we think that embracing anything that could make us feel better is selfish and wrong. Mostly because our abusers communicated to us—in some way, shape, or form—that we are undeserving of self-care, compassion, kindness, or even to having our needs met. Whether through words or actions, the toxic and abusive people in our lives have convinced us that we are not worth any of these things. So when we do engage in self-care, it feels as if we’re over-indulging. But of course we’re not! What is more likely the case is that we’re barely doing the minimum requirement of self-care because of how we were trained to prioritize our abusers while in relationship with them.
In this space, we are looking at the ins and outs of self-care. I will be giving you lots of ideas on how to build self-care into your daily life. This module’s contents include
- What Self-Care Is, and What It Is Not
- Different Aspects of Self-Care
- The Importance of Self-Care
- Why Self-Care Isn’t Woo Woo (video)
- Self-Care When You Do Not Feel You Can (Podcast)
- Self-Care When It Seems Unnecessary
- 30 Tips for Creative Self-care
- Creating New Self-Care Habits (Download)
- Access to the Healing Academy Workshop
What Self-Care Is, and What It Is Not
I think there’s a misconception about what self-care is. Obviously we understand that it’s caring for ourselves. But in many ways that’s a vague description. Much of the time—when we actually think of what it entails—we get stuck in this idea that it’s indulging in a bubble bath, or allowing ourselves to just sit and binge on Netflix for a day. Sure enough, those things may very well be acts of self-care, but they aren’t really necessarily reflective of its true purpose.
Bubble baths and Netflix are such a one-dimensional way of looking at this topic because they’re often a last-ditch attempt to keep us from reaching our breaking point. And we get to this point by working until we’re just exhausted, or we keep pushing down issues and emotions because we don’t feel that there’s time to deal with them in the moment. In this way, recharging our battery before losing our minds —as a form of looking after ourselves—feels like the commonly-accepted standard for self-care.
But wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t wait until we’re nearly at our wit’s end to make sure we “care” for “self”? In fact, not allowing ourselves to get to that breaking point is an act of self-care in itself.
You see, maintaining boundaries is looking after ourselves. Saying no to things because we already have enough on our plate is, too. Maybe indicating to our boss that we can’t take on an extra project—or letting our partner know that we can’t go for drinks after work on Friday because we want a cozy night in— is what we need to nurture ourselves. All of these things count as using our ability to set up supportive habits that truly help us to self-care.
Different Aspects of Self-Care
There are so many ways that we can make our experience in the world better by taking care of ourselves. This care—this self-care—needs to be included in all areas of our lives. Consider the Healing Academy module around boundaries where we explore the multiple aspects of this topic: physical boundaries, emotional boundaries, intellectual boundaries, and so on. I think a similar method can be applied to self-care. I mean, taking that bubble bath is relaxing and all, but it can’t meet the needs we have in all the areas of our lives. While tending to our physical health is important, it’s not the only part of who we are that requires caring attention. We are not just bodily creatures, but also emotional and intellectual ones with needs in each of those areas respectively.
This is where the bubble baths and mud masks go, right? Well, yes and no. Sure they are part of looking after our physical selves, but they are more in the realm of relaxing and treating ourselves. Like a reward. Important forms of self-care, but not the bread and butter of the physical care we need on a regular basis.
Rather, think of all the things that keep you physically safe: living in a safe house without disaster lurking in every corner, for example. What does this look like? Well, the house should not be full of loose wires, or stacks of dirty plates posing a danger to our health. Keeping our home clean is a form of self-care. When your house feels clean, and you let fresh air in, doesn’t it make you feel better? Doesn’t it make you feel good?
Of course food, rest, and exercise are all part of physical self-care, too. That doesn’t mean we have to be overly rigorous about our diets or exercise routines. In Five Steps to Gut Healing, Heather Dane describes “80/20 Maintenance”: the idea being that we stick to our healthy diets and such about 80% of the time, and use the other 20% for flexibility and indulgence. I like the sound of that! It leaves a good balance between being firm and flexible, and it feels a lot less daunting than never ever being allowed to let loose.
Since we are all human beings here, we are also social creatures. And as such we need to look after our social selves. That can either mean spending some time in solitude, because you’ve been out interacting with people a lot. Or perhaps it’s the opposite, and you’ve been alone so much that you need to go out and spend time with other people.
Social self-care can really be a bit of a balancing act. I love hanging out with people, but I definitely need plenty of alone time to recharge. I also prefer small groups or individual conversations over large gatherings. Figuring out your preferences, and discovering what works for you can take a bit of experimentation. Not to mention that our preferences tend to change over time—along with the weather, the conditions of our physical health, or whatever it is we may be going through in our personal lives.
It is important to check-in with yourself regularly to figure out what it is you really need and why. Are you in need of some company? Or are you not comfortable being alone? Those are two very different things. Hanging out with some friends would be considered self-care in the first instance, and self-sabotage in the latter. The key is to develop some self-awareness and intuition around the motives you have around your social needs and wants.
Caring for our intellect is vital; having new experiences, going new places, and reading books, etc. are the kinds of things that spark our intelligence and creativity. They inspire us to gain a greater understanding of our world, and invite us to open our minds up to new ideas and insights.
Although it can be quite triggering and frustrating to open ourselves up to ideas and opinions that clash with our own, it does get us looking at issues from a different perspective. This can help us develop compassion—as well as more rounded and informed opinions.
But even if you cannot bear the thought of following people on the opposite side of the political or religious spectrum (which, admittedly I very rarely find even remotely doable), there are many ways to expose yourself to new ideas and—perhaps less polarizing—opinions than those found in the Twitter-sphere. Doing an online course or reading a book are less dangerous-feeling methods of broadening your horizons. Pro tip: if you are “too busy to read”, check out Blinkist. It’s a super quick and easy way to take it some new ideas!
For me, nurturing my emotions is a delicate balance between allowing myself space to feel and/or moving on. Sometimes the best thing to do is to wallow in your pain (a little) and sometimes you just have to kick yourself in the emotional behind and get over it. The choice between the two may be influenced by our understanding of our emotions.
In order to care for ourselves emotionally, we have to allow for all our feelings to play their part. Too often we try (or are told to try) only to focus on the positive feelings. Positive thinking in that context becomes the repression of more complex—and perhaps darker—emotions. This idea stems from a misguided notion that emotions are fixed states of being, and that some states are better than others. But are our emotions really that simple?
In How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, Lisa Feldman Barrett argues that emotions are not innate or fixed but instead a construction made by the relationship between culture, the brain, and our interpretations of our bodily sensations. She describes that we really only experience the differences between pleasure and displeasure as well as agitation and calmness. So if we feel displeasure and agitation, we may interpret that as anger. But we can equally interpret that as fear. How we label the feeling depends on our circumstances and previous experiences.
If we subscribe to this idea, then it makes sense that in order to care for ourselves emotionally we have to explore our complicated emotions. And we have to deal with the imbalances they are trying to highlight. Maybe the imbalances are triggered by tiredness, maybe you are suffering from mental illness that causes chemical imbalances in your body, or maybe you are in a situation that causes the body to fire off some emotional flares. There can be a hundred reasons you are feeling the way you are. So in order to care for your emotional self, you have to figure out what is going on. This means we need to consider it a myth that emotional self-care is the habit of finding ways to only ever feel happy or joyful. We need to look at it as becoming aware of the way our brains and bodies communication with each other—then nurture ourselves accordingly.
As survivors of abuse, we have many memories and previous experiences that trigger strong emotional responses. Once we learn to really check in with the emotional communication system, we can begin to have different interpretations of our emotions. Suddenly we can understand that what we are experiencing is based more on memory than our current situation. These emotional flashbacks could be part of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is an effect of the trauma of abuse that many survivors experience. Many people think of PTSD as an emotional disorder, but PTSD is a physical alteration that takes place in the brain and actually influences the way it functions.
Spiritual self-care involves including, into your life, the things that feed your soul. This is an important part of our recovery, and we often overlook it when. I previously described spiritual healing as follows:
“Consider the term ‘soul destroying’. We hear this term when people refer to the trauma they’ve experienced. This term is quite literal. The inner fire that once burned pure, joyful, and full of purpose is extinguished through the consistency and thoroughness of abuse. The source of our life and happiness goes dark and empty.
Spiritual healing—not to be confused with religion—nurtures the soul; reigniting the spark of our passion, inspiration, and sense of belonging. You know what I’m talking about. It’s the stuff that gets you excited. The stuff that makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning and get stuck into your day. Spiritual healing leads us to the fulfillment and satisfaction that we need—and deserve.”
I discuss this type of healing more in Healing Mind, Heart and Spirit.
The Importance of Self-Care
Choosing self-care—when we do something with the intention of making ourselves feel better, when we do something to nurture ourselves when we feel vulnerable, when we do something to make ourselves feel healthier and happier—often means that a guilt trip isn’t too far behind. Despite rationally knowing that it is important, there’s still a part of us—somewhere deep down—that is convinced that anything to with the self is egotistical. Once we become targets of abuse, and fulfill the role of victim, we start to believe that it is more commendable to be look after other people. Looking after other people is definitely praiseworthy, but looking after other people in a way that compromises our own health and well-being is—at the least—silly, and—at the most—dangerous.
You know how they say on the airplane that we need to make sure that our oxygen mask is on first? Well, it’s the same in life. If we’re not looking after ourselves—and making sure that we have good health, positive energy, time, and happiness—then how are we going to help other people be happy and healthy? You can’t pour from an empty cup, as the old saying goes.
I think it’s really important to think about self-care outside of the misnomer that it’s about luxury. Because luxury implies that something isn’t essential, or even that it’s something special that happens once in a blue moon. But here’s the reality: self-care can actually feel like hard work and an inconvenience. Doing dishes, staying on top of your school work or workload, eating nutritious food when you want to eat greasy takeout—all these things require focus and determination that don’t feel fun or luxurious while doing them. But they are the things that ultimately take care of us—which is not so different to emotional healing, either.
Healing is hard work. Sometimes it feels beautiful, but it often feels really painful because we have to go into all the complicated, mucky stuff we’ve been dragging around with us from our past. Healing trauma is often full of discomfort and tears, but this doesn’t mean it’s not good for us. It’s a form of purging that enables us to stay balanced. Without having that level of care for ourselves, we won’t have the energy to actually deal with things that we have to deal with.
In How to Stay Resilient When Bombarded With Negative Emotions I describe how we sometimes need to allow ourselves to shrink away from issues and memories that are too overwhelming for us in the moment. “There is no need to beat yourself up over shrinking away for a time. Yes, sometimes life needs us to push through for a bit. Key word being ‘bit’—not forever.
Sometimes it is not so much the practical circumstances of our lives that prevent us from dealing with an issue, but the social factors. As targets of abuse, we have been living in a constant state of imbalance—we never feel comfortable or safe. But in order to really heal— and confront the most painful memories—we need to gain a feeling of emotional security. While we heal, we build a new support network. That process takes time, and this may mean we need to push certain issues to the side until we feel stable enough to deal with them.”
Practicing self-care is a huge factor in our ability to create the circumstances and feelings of balance. As well as feelings of security that will allow us to deal with the challenges that life will inevitably throw at us. Whether it be complex healing work, moving house, or health issues, by looking after our own needs we create a more resilient self. A balanced self is far more capable of navigating life—along with its inherent celebrations and challenges.
“Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.”
― Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation
It is really important when we are thinking—and engaging in—nurturing activities that we do so with self-compassion (especially when we’re doing the things that feel indulgent). We need to be kind to ourselves because if we’re not, we counteract whatever positive effects those nurturing activities had.
Let’s say that you’ve just spent the whole day wrapped in a blanket watching Netflix because you were tired, and that it was the only thing that you could think of that would help you feel better. At the end of the day, you feel a little better. And you even have the energy to cook rather than order the Chinese food you’d originally planned to have. So maybe in this case binging on Netflix was the right thing to do. Yet, if you berate yourself for being lazy and binging on Friends all day (as a random example), you will soon stop feeling recharged and relaxed. And on top of this you are not even celebrating the big win of having had the energy to cook a healthy meal! Or, as I described in The Art of Self-Compassion.
Acknowledging you are in pain, you made a mistake or you are (emotionally) exhausted is not self-indulgent. Stepping back, resting and asking for help are all good ways to deal with your life’s circumstances. You are not shrinking away from your responsibilities. In fact, you are stepping up to them by making sure you can continue working, caring and loving in the future.
Why Self-Care Isn’t Woo Woo
Heather Dane, 21st Century Medicine Woman and Hay House Radio Host talks to us about self-care and how it isn’t some fluffy woo woo thing, but very practical and essential to our healing.
Self-Care When You Do Not Feel You Can (Podcast)
Self-Care When It Seems Unnecessary
There are definitely days when we just cannot bring ourselves to give ourselves the proper care we need. But what about the days when we feel invincible, and as though we do not need any rest or relaxation? Well, that may be true, but self-care should really not be limited to crisis management. It really needs to be part of our daily routine. If you are feeling great, and think that you don’t have to bother with self-care, this is the perfect time to do some maintenance!
Maybe this is the time to clean the insides of the kitchen cabinets, or to finally sort out the boxes of historical financial admin that is still cluttering up the spare room. There are a million ways to improve on your health and happiness that are perfect for the times when you feel energized and ready to rule the world.
30 Tips For Creative Self-care
If we think of self-care as a lifestyle habit that we use to support the different aspects of our life and person, we can really begin to open ourselves up to creative ways of self-caring.
“Be you, love you. All ways, always.”
― Alexandra Elle
Here are some of my favorite ways to self-care:
#1. Make your bed. Preferably in the morning. But even if it’s five minutes before you go to sleep, it is just nicer to get into a bed that is made. When you are having a bad day, change the sheets. Nothing is nicer than clean sheets!
#2. Ask for help when you need it! Don’t try to go it alone. We have support networks for a reason.
#3. Wear nice undies! Not because–as my mother would tell me—you may have an accident and be taken to hospital where they may see your old underwear. Just do it because it feels good!
#4. Declutter. Even if it’s only one shelf.
#5. Do you have some things to give to charity? While you are decluttering, you may find some clothes you can take to the charity shop. Or maybe you have some old towels that could come in handy at the local pet shelter? Doing something for another feeds your soul.
#6. Praise, Love, Yeah! Keep a record of compliments you receive from people. Anything that people say that makes you feel good in that moment! Write them down so that you remember them. The act of writing them down is self-care, but then you also create this lovely, positive document that you can refer back to when you’re a bit down on yourself.
#7. Make a change to your routine. Make a left turn instead of a right on your way to work, shop at a different supermarket, or order a different type of coffee on your commute. Shake things up a little. Try and do something every day—or every other day—that breaks up the routine a little. It will spark your creativity and give you a new perspective on things.
#8. Make a human connection. Just chat to someone. Even if it is just a chat about the weather with your barista. We are social creatures, so making the effort to actually see the people in our lives can make us feel more connected.
#9. Either get up, or stay in bed. Confusing? Let me explain. If you’re feeling super down on yourself, your world and your life, get up. Or if you have been overdoing it and are really tired? Stay in bed.
#10. Get the administration off your desk. The bills need to get paid whether you like it or not. Doing some easy jobs around the house—like the admin—can really give you a sense of accomplishment.
#11. Hide notes for yourself to find. Write yourself little love notes, and hide them around the house. Hide them in places you will sort of forget about; between books, behind storage boxes, or between the cans in the pantry. They will be lovely to write, and even lovelier to find!
#12. Hide notes for others to find. Same principle, just hide them in public places; between the pages of a library book, or maybe at the newspaper station of your local coffee shop. If you need more inspiration, check out the loving kindness coloring cards. They are free to download and fun to use!
#13. Give out some random compliments. See someone wearing shoes you like? Tell them. Let the customer service rep know what a good job they did. We all like to hear those things, and making people smile will lift your spirits, too!
#14. Spend some time in nature. Take a walk in the park, on the beach, or around the lake. Connecting with the natural world (preferably without your phone) is a great way to rebalance and recharge.
#15. Hang out with some animal friends. Whether you go for a long walk with your dog, spend the day at the zoo, or go to a petting farm, animals generally have a way of helping us connect with our inner-self again.
#16. Switch your gadgets off for a few hours. Disconnect from the world, your social media, and the news for a while. Unplugging makes our world go quiet for a little bit, and it helps us quiet our minds down, too.
#17. Call a friend you haven’t spoken to for a while. Chatting to a friend is a lovely way to recharge your social battery.
#18. Say thanks (a lot). Say thanks for all the big and little things that you are grateful for in a day. This will give your day positive focus. Plus, you get bonus points for spreading some kindness around.
#19. Send some snail mail. How nice is it to get a post card or letter through the mail? Right! So get writing.
#20. Smile at the people you meet. Sandi Thom released an album called Smile… It Confuses People. I loved that title, and it is actually true. Smiling at people really does confuse them a little, but in a good way.
#21. Cook a healthy meal from scratch. Maybe you feel like getting a home delivery is the ultimate indulgence. Sometimes it can be self-care because it lets you take a break from cooking; however, creating a healthy meal will probably leave you feeling much better after eating it.
#22. Tell the people you love what makes them so special. This will make you feel so much more connected to your loved ones, and how wonderful will they feel when you take time to articulate what makes them so special?
#23. Watch a documentary. Watching an inspirational film or documentary can be a great way to kick your mind into a different gear. One of my personal favorites is Innsaei.
#24. Dress to impress! Or, at least, impress yourself. Put on the outfit that makes you feel most confident, most pretty, and visible. You catch my drift.
#25. Go for the whole home spa thing! Get a simple mud mask, color your hair, get a lush body lotion, run a luscious bubble bath, and light some candles and incense to really indulge in your favorite home spa treatments!
#26. Drink plenty of water. Sounds totally boring, but trust me on this one!
#27. Crank up the stereo! Play some of your favorite tunes and dance and sing the afternoon away! Do be mindful of the neighbors, though 😉
#28. Play a video game. I am wholeheartedly in favor of expressing frustration in the place of people that cause us to feel agitated. Oftentimes, it’s not entirely safe or practical to do so. But there are ways around it. After a particularly tough day in his customer facing job, for example, my better half often vents his frustration by playing a video game for a bit.
#29. Make a meal plan. Preparing the meals you are going to make this week, and making the shopping list accordingly. It sounds like a dull task, but it might be just what you need to improve your coping skills throughout the week. Planning your meals ahead of time may help you stick to healthier food choices—or am I the only one who still goes to the supermarket hungry? It may also help you manage your budget better because you won’t be buying food impulsively. Healthier food and less money stress. Now that is self-care!
#30. Plan awards for your small victories. One way to help you stick to better habits and routines is by rewarding yourself for your victories. Try not to undo your hard work with the reward, though. So, if you are trying to eat healthier, maybe a Chinese takeout meal after a week of sticking to the new routine isn’t the most helpful reward. Instead, give yourself a reward in the form of an activity you enjoy. And remember what Heather Dane says: you only have to be good 80% of the time (more or less). So don’t be too hard on yourself!
Creating New Self-Care Habits (Download)
We all have ideas about how we want to make our lives a little better: How can I bring better balance to my personal and professional life? How can I eat more healthily, or incorporate more exercise in my routine?
Many of the improvements we want to make in our lives are rooted in creating better self-care habits. Does just the thought of this feel overwhelming?
Well, I have created a handy tool to help you through that.Download ‘Creating New Self-Care Habits’ Here
Further Resources on the Website
In Cancel Your New Years Resolutions! guest blogger Michael Ballard shares three things to do instead of setting new year’s resolutions. And guess what? They are all great examples of self-care.
In Sick and Tired, Aubrey Cole shares the ways in which the human brain is affected by trauma, and how survivors of abuse need to be kind to themselves when healing. Our brains have literally been changed by abuse, and that isn’t going to be fixed overnight.
In The Art of Self-Compassion, I have written about how important it is for survivors of abuse to have compassion toward themselves as they would have compassion toward a friend.
In The Self-Compassion Miracle, Aubrey shares about how self-compassion opened the way for her to truly heal from her experiences of abuse.
In Why Celebrating Your Success is Important, I explain why acknowledging our progress in all areas of our lives helps us to heal as survivors of abuse.
In Be Kind to Yourself, guest blogger Ese Ark addresses the issue of falling in love or infatuation with an abuser. It’s easily done, and it is not the target’s fault for being abused. We need to place the blame on the abuser, and be kind to ourselves.
In The Comfort Zone, I explain why—for abuse survivors—leaving our comfort zone isn’t actually a good thing.
In Some Resources for Balance, I have collated some resources provided by Michael Ballard for you to use as you begin to seek more balance in your life.
In The Benefits of Color on Health, guest blogger Lynne Geary shares some info on Color Theory, Color Therapy, and how color is a powerful healing tool for survivors of abuse.
More Resources that inspired this Module
How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett
The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin
Make your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life… And Maybe The World by William H. McRaven
Too busy to take care of yourself? These TED talks offer simple ways to stay healthy — both emotionally and physically.