This post was originally written for The Ascent.
Up until not too long ago, I thought self-care was some sort of pseudo-psychology and that I could neglect my physical and mental well-being as much as I liked, and be sure to always bounce back.
While I’ve never been the hard partying type (that’s an understatement), I have a tendency to forget that rest, human interaction, and purposeful stress management are essential for retaining any semblance of sanity.This has lead to many bizarre and ridiculous situations.
Like the time I spent Christmas alone at university, subsisting on my housemate’s expired protein powder mixed with water because I forgot to go grocery shopping.
Or the time I worked flat out for about five months without as much as an evening, let alone a day, off, nearly lost my mind and showed up at my brother’s ex partner’s house possessing the mental acuity of a pigeon, then didn’t leave for three days. Three days.
Or the time I worked for two days and two nights straight without a minute’s sleep, fuelled by maybe 30 cans of Red Bull, accidentally set fire to my desk, then started hallucinating from exhaustion before passing out in a coffee shop.
I’d pass out in public or find myself crying on the beach at 5am or go weeks without talking to anyone and wonder why I hated myself. But I burnt out on being like that pretty fast.
There was no one around to tell me when I was taking things to counterproductive extremes so I was forced to learn that self-care is not optional and no one is indestructible and if you’ve started building sculptures out of empty Red Bull cans, something is wrong.
Self-care is hard when you don’t like yourself.
All the more so if you associate it with babying yourself or with being frivolous.
The trick I’ve learned is to change the way you think about that. It shouldn’t be a means to an end, in theory. We should all just know how to be nice to ourselves. You’re a human being. You need to eat and sleep and stuff.
Except, that’s not easy for everyone. When you’re depressed or anxious or brimming over with self-hatred, sometimes it is simpler to see looking after yourself as a means to an end.
I still don’t particularly like myself. It’s not as bad as in my late teens when, as I just described, my understanding of my own limits was wholly skewed. But I do like my work and the writing I do here. I like reading. I like my cat. I like leaving my house, something which is a rare luxury these days.
And if I want to be capable of working and writing and reading and being a good mother to my cat, I need to be a functional human being who isn’t burnt out or exhausted or plagued by brain fog.
That is, for me, an easier way to frame it: think of the things you want to do. Think of the state you need to be in to do them. Think of the things you need to do to be in that state. Then do them.
The basics are probably: drink enough water (whatever what means), get enough sleep (whatever that means), consume food with ingredients you can pronounce (at least some of the time), maybe lay off the alcohol and don’t go too wild with the caffeine, move around sometimes (getting out of bed is a start), and try to see other human beings at least twice a month (which, from my experience, is the minimum tolerable without going seriously nuts.) John Gorman has already nailed the list here.
Then you move up to tier two self care: aiming to do work that fulfils you, maybe building healthy relationships if that’s your thing (it’s not mine but hopefully it will be one day), keeping other living beings alive, nourishing your brain with books and the like, spending wisely and saving, and so on. Except, you need to master the basics first.
Here’s how I deal with the basics. I have a spreadsheet.
Yes, I know, it’s gross and corporate and a functioning adult shouldn’t need a spreadsheet to remember to drink enough water. But if it works.
For each day I have a list of what I need to do, then I mark squares green or red to indicate whether I’ve done it or not. That’s it.
There’s the start of day stuff. Get up at 6am. AM skincare. Take any medication and supplements. Drink 500ml water. Drink green tea before coffee. Plan the day. Meditate.
There’s the anytime stuff, which is work related so I won’t list it. The afternoon stuff: practice French, practice Spanish, log any expenses. There’s dinner time stuff: drink 500ml water and green tea and a tonic with apple cider vinegar and turmeric.
When I start winding down at night there’s another list: read for an hour. Take ashwagandha and probiotics. Write a summary of the day. Write 3 things I’m grateful for, which is painfully cheesy. Drink 500ml water. Tidy up for 5 minutes. Shower. PM skincare.
And there’s one more checklist for my diet: vegan, no refined sugar, no fizzy drinks or alcohol, and at least 5 lots of vegetables because that’s what works for me.
Oh, and I have a weekly list: grocery shop, laundry, tidy room, finish at least 3 books, clean out bag, write summary of week, plan next week, etc. And a monthly one which I won’t go into because it’s even more boring.
The point here is not that you should use my system, but that there’s no shame in having a system. Most days you won’t even need it. On bad days, you’ll be glad for the structure.
The other point is that this stuff can require active effort to put in place. I only understood recently that you need to manage stress, it doesn’t dissapitate by itself and if you’re not feeling it, it’s going to manifest as some sort of physical health problem. Stress is a normal part of life, sure, but it still needs managing.
I’ve gradually built this up bit by bit. All that matters is that it works. I’m eating better, sleeping better, drinking more water and less caffeine, and feeling less chaotic than I have done for years. There’s a lot left to work on, of course.
We’re not invincible. There’s a limit to how many times we can bounce back or how long we can spend powering through.