If you’d have asked me 10 years ago what I thought it meant to “take care of myself,” I would’ve said something along the lines of clean eating, exercising every day, maintaining a certain body weight, and keeping an appealing outward appearance…i.e. wearing makeup and nice clothes.
If you’d have asked me what I thought self-care meant, I’d have answered something along the lines of clay facials, no-chip manicures, and balayage hair color.
Fortunately, I’ve evolved beyond that limited mindset. While I previously believed that “taking care of myself” required perfection (i.e. a “perfect diet”), I’ve since learned that there’s a lot of nuance in terms of what it means to take care of ourselves. In other words, I’ve found the process of self-care to be holistic rather than specific, extremely individualized, and flexible. Here’s what I mean by that:
Self-Care Is Holistic
Just like self-care doesn’t only mean keeping a fresh & clean hair style, it also doesn’t mean we have to exercise the same number of minutes every day. Rather, self-care means taking a full-scope view of our health, including mental/emotional, relational, spiritual, and environmental factors as well as physical. Sure, in order to maintain our wellness, we need to eat well and move our bodies, but we also need a healthy sleep schedule, strong relationships and community support, a balanced spiritual practice, and a sense of peace with our environments.
Here’s an example: I generally run on the cold side. I don’t tolerate winter very well, or windy days, and I find that I feel more depleted of energy and emotional bandwidth on days when I have a lot of exposure to those elements. Self-care for me on those days means taking a few extra steps to avoid extended periods outside, or maybe taking a few extra minutes to have a hot bath rather than a quick shower.
Other examples of holistic self-care means sometimes balancing a push-pull of different needs that I have. If I’m really running low on sleep, I might prioritize an extra hour of slumber rather than meal prepping my breakfast and lunch, choosing to get takeout or fast food on days that I work. I still make food choices that help me feel good in those instances, but I maybe lend myself a little more leeway in terms of getting an extra serving of vegetables or saving a few bucks so I can prioritize sleep.
Self-Care Is Individualized
What’s good for you isn’t necessarily what’s good for me—and vice versa.
As I mentioned, I’m cold-averse. To help combat this, I take extra effort to drink hot teas and soups in the winter and layer my clothes. My husband is the opposite of me, however, and it’s not as important for him to pay such close attention to his clothing choices or the temperatures of his food in order to maintain his sense of well-being. He regularly leaves the house without a sweater or jacket because if the temperatures drop and the air gets chilly, it doesn’t affect him the same way as it would affect me. For him, the convenience of skipping the extra item benefits him more than staying prepared because the weather doesn’t make him feel threatened.
Another example I like to give comes from my work as a Functional Medicine Doctor. If you’ve been around my blog for any length of time, you know that I have struggled with an eating disorder in the past, and I am careful to protect the boundaries surrounding my food freedom and recovery. For me, the healthiest thing is to regularly eat “fun foods” like desserts and snacks so that I don’t feel deprived. Even if a certain food causes me a little GI upset, like milk for example, I prioritize my mental/emotional sense of food freedom above temporary physical symptoms much of the time. However, as a healthcare provider, I know that not everyone does (or needs to) prioritize this aspect of eating. With patients who suffer from inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis, a little bit of milk can trigger profuse diarrhea that confines them to the bathroom all day. For these individuals (and other similar situations), dietary modifications and even restrictions are high on the priority list. Self-care practices are highly individualized in this way, among others.
Self-Care is Flexible
Truth: I ate macaroni and cheese for breakfast last week.
Here’s what happened…I woke up early for a morning shift, and my appetite was nil first thing when I got up. I just could not stomach the idea of breakfast. It was the end of the week, so our groceries were dwindling, and the only breakfast option we really had left in the house was eggs. Since I was planning to pack my breakfast on account of my non-existent appetite and reheated eggs sounded revolting, I served an extra dish of the mac & cheese I was adding to my lunch, called it good, and zipped out the door. When my hunger surfaced around 8 am, I enjoyed my Annie’s Shells and Cheddar, resumed my schedule, and carried on with life.
The next day, I found myself craving lighter fare like soup and salad after my noodle-heavy meals the day before. So, I responded in kind. Self-care doesn’t have to be so cut-and-dry, or quite so ‘perfectly’ preventative (avoiding feeling off, and proactively taking steps to prevent discomfort.) Sometimes self-care means recognizing what our bodies are telling us later. Allowing ourselves this sense of grace is important because it keeps health and wellness in its proper place as a tool for living our lives rather than becoming the main pursuit of our lives.