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Demystify Self-Care: how to really make it happen

One of the great ironies of self-care is that when we’re in crisis or burned out, it can be that much more difficult to make self-care happen. When you’re trying to make change, high-pressure situations aren’t uncommon. The weight of the world — the grief of the world — can feel overwhelming sometimes.

The work seems never-ending.

Add to that 24-hour news cycles, featuring trauma from across the globe; and the high level of empathy many change-makers feel, and… you’re getting the picture.

Making change, in the best of circumstances, is difficult.

More often, we’re doing it on tight timelines, with tiny budgets, and less capacity than we’d like. And the stakes are sky-high: climate change, racism and police brutality, sexism and sexual violence, childhood poverty and hunger — and more. If you’re making change, you might be on the road or traveling frequently — which demands yet another layer of self-care (and circumstances that render it even more challenging).

Roughly speaking, left unattended, this can lead to more than what we call “burnout,” exhaustion, or overwhelm. In certain situations, our work can actually leave us with secondary trauma and PTSD.

Oy. That’s rough stuff.

Ironically, the work that creates the need for self-care can also be the impediment to making room for great self-care.

So it’s not a surprise to me that I hear many change-makers either throw up their hands at the idea of self-care altogether — or feel desperate for self-care, but overwhelmed at where to start.

I get it.

It’s not easy to break our own patterns — to claim our self-care — especially when self-care is still viewed by many as “selfish.” (PS: Really: it’s not. We need you to do great work in the world; that can’t happen if you’re not looking out for your own well-being.) But it is possible.

To make it happen, you need a self-care strategy.

We can’t just expect self-care to happen to us. We need to empower ourselves to create the conditions in which self-care can arise. This takes a self-care strategy – a plan. Not through spiritual bypass or luxurious evasion, but as gritty, self-aware healing. That’s where the magic happens.

With a strategy in place, you don’t need to second guess. You’ll never again utter the phrase, “I don’t know what to do.” You’ll be set up for success. You’ll have the tools to act.

So, if you’re ready… let’s get you grounded in the “how to make it happen” and “where to start” part. I have two strategies that I hope will prove useful.

Self-care strategy #1: get it super-customized.

This care has to suit you — your life, your needs, your likes, your budget, your schedule (at least at first), your abilities. This care has to be something that feels actually healing and wonderful. It has to be custom to you and who you are: in your actual life circumstances, budget, and wheelhouse. This keeps self-care from being a “should,” a punishment, or aspirational — or, frankly, ableist.

In order for self-care to feel liberatory, it has to belong to you. It has to be of you. You need to get cozy and familiar with your sweet self — and the healing that your body, mind, and spirit are asking for.

Self-care strategy #2: be proactive.

Don’t wait until you’re in crisis.

Start feathering your self-care nest today (or on a day you feel well). It’s a beautiful investment in your precious future self — but it’s also a way to ensure that you can follow through on self-care.

Once you know what kind of self-care will be genuinely healing, you can start to set the stage for it to happen. You can gather the materials you’ll need. Maybe it’s nourishing foods, art supplies, or the names of folks you can call on. Again — it’s custom — your needs will be different from mine.

When you decide to be proactive instead of reactive, self-care has the space to happen. When you know what you need and you create a self-care strategy to make it happen, then it happens seamlessly. Self-care doesn’t need to be a Herculean effort. It can be simple — second-nature.

So, then. What does this actually look like for you?

You’re in luck! I made you this neat workbook — it’s free!

What are the situations in which you most need self-care?

This is part of knowing yourself well and developing self-care that’s truly custom. Everyone responds differently. There are situations that may leave others energized — and they leave you exhausted. Respect that your reactions to various situations may be different from your peers’.

Self-awareness will only take you so far. Self-respect is a necessary component of self-care. Choose to honor yourself for what you need, rather than disparaging yourself.

How you react? What situations arise that warrant self-care?

Personally, I’m an introvert, so — even though I’m a top-notch public speaker and group leader — I need downtime, where I talk to no one, after a big event. [This is also part of what I teach mostly online, now.] If it’s been cold and rainy, and I’ve been outside — mega self-care needs ahead!

My self-care strategy, generally, looks like pursuing the opposite of that in which I’ve been immersed. Lots of people? I need solitude. Cold and rainy? I need to be warm, dry, and well-fed. Overwhelmed? I need simple, low-bandwidth activities where I’m not required to make decisions.

What are the situations that create a greater need for self-care? What do you know about yourself in those moments?

What brings you healing in those moments or helps you to feel more like yourself?

Notice that I don’t ask, “What feels good?” Because temporarily, eating a whole bag of those organic gummy bears, drinking a beer and hunching over my computer to watch 4 hours worth of media might feel good.

But if I’m recovering from a big event — or wrapping up a phase of working really hard? What helps me to feel more like myself is taking a hot shower, getting hydrated, putting on clean clothes, going for a walk, and eating some vegetarian protein.

To do otherwise would actually tax my system more than it would repair it. To do other than what I know would be self-care would be disrespectful. Remember, self-care isn’t all bubble baths and bonbons. It’s the sometimes-messy business of be at home in our own hearts.

Self-care strategy #3: understand the difference between pleasure and care

I’ve heard that people don’t like the phrase self-care.

Fine. But here’s the deal: there is a very big difference between self-care and indulgence or pleasure. What is it? Well, pleasure or indulgence would be categorized in Buddhism as, “delusion.”

Self-care on the other hand is survival. It’s resistance. It’s love. It can be a tool for self-knowledge and awakening. Indulgence might feel great at first — but it masks your situation so as to obfuscate it. It doesn’t get to the root of well-being.

What does this mean for you? Start to Sherlock it out: what feels good temporarily? What feels healing? To figure this out, you might actually do one of each and observe the effects.

What we’re aiming for is not luxury, but wholeness: a feeling of contentment and peace. So this isn’t all massages and vacations. It may be simple acts that you could come to see as advocacy for your very sweet self.

(Although, let’s be real: if you can afford it and are into it, go get that massage!)

What do you need to prepare so that you can be ready for those difficult moments?

(This one takes a little strategy and planning, but is well worth it.)

If you’re the in throws of true overwhelm — or even dissociation — it can be tough to act on your own behalf. Stock up on your favorites: nourishing foods, comforting objects, sacred accoutrement. Having materials on hand before the overwhelm takes hold can be key to making that self-care a reality.

Having what you need on hand before the exhaustion hits makes self-care easy to access. It’s literally within arm’s reach.

This gives you the opportunity to access greater resilience — quicker turnaround time when you’re tired, under the weather, or overcoming emotional distress. Surrounding yourself with what you need to support your well-being helps to keep you even-keeled consistently — not just when you have the energy.

So what is that for you? For me, it’s dark, leafy greens and ginger kombucha in my fridge; clean sheets and comfortable, soft clothes; the good shampoo; and a fresh coloring book page. 🙂

So, I made you something:

I’ve created this free workbook to help you clarify your personal self-care strategy in a variety of situations — and map out how to make it happen.

Self-care strategy #4: Get some community around you.

Don’t do self-care alone. Get some community around you; find yourself some people who understand and who can support you when you’re having a tough time. You might even share some of the things you’d like for them to do, if you’re suffering particularly. (I talk about this with my partner all the time.)

We don’t talk about our vulnerability enough in our culture, but you can be part of changing this. Start talking with your community about what is coming up for them: what feels tough? What feels overwhelming? How could you support one another through those difficult times? How you you collaborate on your care?

It helps for me to know that there are people around me who have my back (and know what to do) when I’m having a tough go of it. You don’t need a gaggle — just find a one person (or a small handful) who can be your self-care co-conspirator(s).

Want to dive even deeper?

Find my full resource guide here!

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