Taking Care of Yourself First is a Radical Act
As they regularly instruct us on airplanes, in the event of an emergency, put on your own oxygen mask first before you help others. For those of us who define our self worth by the quality of the care we deliver to others, putting ourselves first can feel downright criminal. As a recovering self-sacrificer myself, I have been working for years to slowly and systematically build a practice of sacred self care that has allowed me to be more efficient, helpful and beneficial in both my personal and professional life. What is radical self care? Radical self care practices honoring your own truth and needs in the face of scripts and conditioning that rewards self sacrifice above all else. It looks like emailing a friend two hours before you are supposed to meet up and cancelling because your body tells you you are too tired. It looks like taking a bubble bath when you are supposed to be making dinner. It looks like sitting back instead of being the one -again- to organize the board meeting (the bachlorette party, the carpool, the committee, the next vacation) even though you know not jumping in means it will not get done (well or fast). It means asking for what you want, what you need, and taking the time to hear your truth in the first place - even at the risk of being called selfish or lazy or absent or flaky.
When our bodies fail us and our worlds seem to fall apart from one major shattering or another, radical self care becomes all the more important. For years when I would hear staff mention the words "I'm overwhelmed", a clear flag for imbalance, I would immediately drill in on the choices they were making around prioritizing the needs of others versus their own self care: With limited time and resources, what matters most now? What am I saying yes to and what can I let go of now? Who am I willing to disappoint and how will I let them know?
The plate exercise is a helpful mapping tool that illuminates all the competing priorities on one person's plate. It is a great visual tool that forces you to take responsibility for the choices you make daily juggling the needs of others and ourselves. But at a deeper level, prioritizing ourselves in the face of demanding full schedules and very "real" concerns around finances and dependents requires confronting long-held beliefs and scripts that keep us locked in old patterns of behavior. These patterns keep us running from task to task with a gas tank nearly on empty, gasping at the end of the day, often with a long simmering resentment and the nagging feeling we're showing up as increasingly diminished versions of ourselves.
To begin training in the art of self care, the following tools below can be applied:
1) Draw up a list of your preferred methods of self care. I love challenging clients to write a long, long list of their favorite treats and ways to recharge. Get creative: The list should include things that delight and renergize you, paid and unpaid, that appeal to any of your five senses. Feel free to borrow liberally from people you admire and include all your favorite indulgences.
2) Imagine your perfect week. Write out the full schedule of an ideal week: What do your mornings look like? How many nights do you spend out? How much sleep do you get? Add details around self care and descriptive adjectives, as well as time allotted for undesirable tasks. For my part, every day I make a short list of the risks I want to take, my intention for the day, my gratitudes and – most importantly – the treats or self care I am committed to, keeping me on track.
3) Get clear about what you're going to say no to. Start by completing the plate exercise. As you determine 50% of the current activity you will deprioritize, make a list of what you will say yes to and what you will say no to for this coming period. Post this list somewhere you can see it every day.
4) Make it real by telling others. Go back to your community and share: Here is what I will do, and here is what I won't do. You may be surprised how supportive the people who depend on you are, how reassured when they see you prioritizing self care and/or the tasks for this time period. Determine the three conversations you'll have today and commit to having them.
While some may think self care is a privilege afforded only those with ample time and money, without the crushing demands of mouths to feed and serious consequences for saying no, I believe self care is a mindset of reinforcing your own value as well as a practice of implementing tiny, incremental shifts over time. Yes, continue to meet the base level needs of those around you as you work, feed, listen, clean, drive, hustle and hug your tribe daily. But the microscopic shifts proposed here - a moment where you say no, where you pause before jumping in, where you let it be messy, where you take time to hold back and put your on own oxygen mask first - are available to us all. These steps are radical because they presume a self that is worthy of your time and love at the center of the equation - one that flies in the face of so much of our cultural conditioning, especially as women.
So I challenge you: What are you self care practice are you ready to start today and how might this radical act shift the benefit you can bring to others?