A better way to think about self-care

As a graduate student who worked and had a family, self-care became a topic of interest. I did research in this area, presented at conferences, and talked with other researchers and authors. As a psychologist who is every bit as busy as I was in grad school, self-care continues to be something I think about and talk about with colleagues on a regular basis. My wife, who is in graduate school for counseling, and I also talk about this a lot.

After a recent conversation with my wife, I have been re-evaluating my own self-care. I learned something new which I thought was really important. One of her professors gave a very interesting definition of self-care. To paraphrase, “self-care is anything that you do to set your future self up for success”. Further, “self-care doesn’t happen in a spa or in a yoga class…those things are important, but they are really leisure activities- not self-care”.

The important piece here is the distinction between leisure activities and self-care. Self-care is, of course, taking care of ourselves- but this is defined by most people as taking part in leisure activities like exercising, relaxing, pampering ourselves, hanging out with friends, etc. These and more are important for our well-being, but our ability to do them is often limited- to weekends, after work, days off, etc.

In contrast, self-care can happen anywhere, at any time. Self-care, as it is being defined here, also frees up time and mental energy for you to be able to participate in leisure activities. If these are things that set your future self up for success, what does that mean?

To reference the example I was given, this can mean things like:

  • completing your paperwork before going home at the end of the day
  • completing items on your to-do list
  • making your to-do list for tomorrow or for when you get home
  • scheduling time in your day to take a break or to get yourself organized
  • cleaning off your desk at the end of the day

Let me give more examples:

To get ready for the morning…

  • pack your lunch
  • pick out your clothes
  • set your alarm so you have more than enough time to do what you need to
  • get your kids’ things ready (have them at least help if not do it themselves)
  • be sure to get enough sleep!

To plan for the weekend…

  • make a plan if there was something you wanted to do
  • make a to-do list of jobs or projects
  • write out your schedule if you have activities or plans
  • make sure you have what you need (groceries, gifts, etc.)
  • communicate with your partner or family about plans (better yet, make plans with them)

To be ready for any kind of event (and be on time)…

  • make sure you have everything you and your family need (make a list, in advance)
  • plan more than enough time to get ready, to leave, and to get there
  • resist the urge to do too much before the event
  • communicate the plan to your partner, family, or friends (or make plans together)

What I’m talking about here is thinking ahead, planning ahead, getting organized, and avoiding flying by the seat of your pants (which brings STRESS!). This is the true definition of self-care, as it allows you to reduce stress or the potential for it, to be prepared for what lies ahead, and to have more time for leisure and the things that you really want to do. I would also bet that if self-care, as I have described it, is not a strong suit, then you frequently complain about not having enough leisure time or time for yourself. By refining your definition of self-care and putting a greater focus on it, I assure you that you will have more time for leisure than you think, no matter how busy you are.

If self-care is a struggle or if you feel your life is too stressful to really focus on this area, consider talking with a professional about it. Whatever your situation, chances are there are things you can do that would help.

Take care,

Dr. Jesse Matthews

Published by Dr. Jesse Matthews

I'm a practicing psychologist and director of Matthews Counseling & Coaching, a private practice in Chester Springs, PA. I work with clients 18 and older, and my specialties include: depression; addiction/substance abuse; relationships; anxiety; ADHD and behavioral issues; and Autism/Asperger's. Our group works with individuals from tween through older adult, helping them with a variety of life issues. Check out the practice website for information on other clinicians and their services: http://matthewscounselingcoaching.com .

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