What comes to mind when you think of “Self-Care?” Do you imagine a person sitting in a peaceful, quiet space? Does it make you picture a fancy resort? Maybe you think about someone smiling as they exercise? Those images might be wonderful, but they are also difficult to achieve, especially on a daily basis. If self-care is associated with such unattainable ideas, it’s easy for us all to dismiss them as, “Too expensive, “ “Too time-consuming, “ or, “Not for me.”
As a clinician who has worked with parents, teachers, colleagues, and administrative staff for many years, my perspective of self-care is very different from those images. Instead of picturing something luxurious, self-care makes me think of the speech flight attendants give about oxygen masks. “Always put the oxygen mask on yourself before helping others.” Why is that sentence so important? Because you can’t help others breathe if you run out of oxygen first.
I feel lucky to have worked with so many people who prioritize children and their needs. Parents care for their kids and advocate for them across systems of health and education. Teachers bring their energy and creativity to help their students learn. Administrators listen to the concerns provided by parents, doctors, and educators, connecting them with systems of care. Clinicians support kids and families as they play, grow, and learn new skills.
However, as the last few years have emphasized, putting on our own oxygen mask first must also be a priority. We cannot provide what children need if we are burned out and have nothing left to give them. So what does this look like? How can self-care be attainable and meaningful? Researchers across different fields have tried to answer this question. Based on my own education and clinical experience, here are the ones I prioritize:
· Health: It can help to pick just one area and start. Drinking more water can be a fast and low-cost option. Going to sleep a little earlier can be another one worth trying.
· Movement: Try to think of something easy and enjoyable if this isn’t part of your routine. YouTube can be a great place to look for free at-home dance or exercise routines that are 10 minutes or less.
· Challenge: Is there something outside of work or parenting that makes you feel proud, curious, or joyful? A hobby you would like to try? Listening to a podcast or an audiobook is something many clients and colleagues have incorporated into their daily routine.
· Gratitude: Our brains are wired to focus on the negative, since that helps us avoid danger and discomfort. Practicing gratitude is a quick and helpful way to balance it out. “I’m grateful for running water” as you brush your teeth in the morning is one easy example.
· People: Intentionally connecting with family, friends, and members of the community can be part of daily life. Listening to music together as a family, texting a friend, and holding a door open for a stranger are all examples of connecting with others in ways that are time-friendly and low-cost.
· Present-Moment Awareness: This may be one of the trickier areas, especially for people who prioritize the needs of others. Awareness of the present-moment means being able to pause and ask yourself, “How am I right now?” and, “What might I need right now?” This check-in with yourself covers the range of human experience. It can be something like, “I feel grateful, and I might want to call my friend to share the good news.” It can also be, “I feel overwhelmed, and I might need to ask my neighbor for help finding a babysitter.”
Here are some easy self-care combinations, which help integrate self-care into our routines:
· Health & People: Finding a primary doctor and committing to getting an annual physical might help you find ways to feel better, and your doctor may know of other local resources in your community.
· Movement & Challenge: Going for a walk while listening to an audiobook or podcast can be a great way to combine exercise and curiosity.
· Challenge & People: Many communities offer interesting classes that can help people connect over shared interests. Music, cooking, chair yoga, gardening, and painting are just some common classes clients or colleagues have joined.
· People & Gratitude: Expressing appreciation for others can strengthen relationships while also balancing our human tendency to focus on whatever might be going wrong.
· Present Moment & Health: Checking in with yourself and noticing how you feel can help maintain your health. It might help you recognize when it’s time to hydrate, get some rest, or see a doctor.
If helping others is a significant part of your identity as a parent, teacher, administrator, or clinician, imagine how self-care can positively impact the people we care about. Let’s put on our oxygen masks first, so we can continue to bring our energy, creativity, and support to the kids we serve.
Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of RAIN by Tara Brach
The Thriving Adolescent: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Positive Psychology to Help Teens Manage Emotions, Achieve Goals, and Build Connection by Louise L. Hayes PhD & Joseph V. Ciarrochi PhD
The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength, and Thrive by Kristin Neff & Christopher Germer