Many thanks to Loraine Van Tuyl for this guest post sharing her wise, warm, and empathic thoughts about self-care, even when we feel like we’re too busy to take care of ourselves. For more information about Loraine ad her work, see her bio at the end of her article.
This used to be the extent of my self-care after a long and exhausting day: I kicked off my shoes, grabbed anything edible out of the fridge, kerplunked on the sofa, and vegged out behind the TV. My kids and husband knew to leave me alone and fend for themselves until my vital signs were relatively normal again.
You may be saying to yourself, “What’s wrong with that? I do that too! Doing anything other than this feels like a chore, and the last thing that I’m in the mood for right now is another to-do.” At least, that’s how I used to feel.
When I finally examined this pattern, I realized that despite being so busy and constantly on the move, I was actually stuck in a vicious cycle and not going anywhere.
Any self-care I did was just an after-thought, except that when I was so tired, I didn’t even have the energy to give this after-thought any thought. And no self-reflection is no good. It means no growth, no awareness, and no ability to set any deliberate intention or work on any thought-out plan.
This realization motivated me to do something different. I became more interested in my inner world and started to tune out the TV and the filler in my life—all the chatter and “urgent” matters that really could wait and needed to be put on the backburner more often. This is the first step in self-care. Here are ten more.
One: Listen attentively to yourself
When I listened, my deepest self responded with tears of gratitude. It liked being heard and began to unfold and show me more parts and layers of myself that I’d taken for granted. It was like playing a game of “You’re cold, you’re warm, you’re hot,” in recognizing my buried feelings and needs.
Two: Celebrate your feelings and needs
I used to feel surprised when, “out of nowhere,” words like, “I’m tired of picking up after you guys. I’m not your maid!” flew out of my mouth because I was out of touch with my feelings. Of course I felt taken for granted. I put my needs last which gave everyone else permission to do the same. I thought this was reducing conflict and making everyone happy. It was making everyone happy except for me. I realized that the loyalty of our “negative” feelings is a beautiful thing. They stick around despite being rejected by us over and over again. Embrace them and welcome them back in. Celebrate your reunion. They are truly your best friends and will tell you the truth.
Three: Explore your resistance to change
I wish I could stop here and tell you that step 3 is, “Express your needs and all will be well.” Unfortunately, dear friends, most of us have a few barricades to clear from our path before we get to this point. This is what I discovered: a part of me resisted making any changes. It liked what I was doing, even felt proud, important, productive, and accomplished for nearly working myself to death.
Four: Unpack social and cultural conditioning
Sound familiar? If you’re a woman, you’re probably nodding along. Especially girls are spoon-fed with societal expectations from the moment they’re born, able to walk, and help mommy and daddy out with this or that. Kids who are sensitive, whether female or male, don’t even need any kind of coaching or discipline to understand what makes “a good girl” or “a good boy.” They may learn to please through daily approval and praise for being helpful, generous, giving, and abandoning their own needs and feelings. Other kids may get a strict low-down day after day what’s expected of them. If there’s a history of alcoholism or abuse, mental health issues or emotional imbalances in their families, pressure and punishment to “behave” can be so intense and painful, any self-care decision could feel like a life or death dilemma.
Five: Examine the shelf-life of approval energy
When we’re burned out and depleted, sprawled out on the sofa and eating or watching anything that could make that empty feeling go away, guess what? We are not really getting fed. Even if we’re no longer couch potatoes or were never into that—maybe get a mani and pedi and do other typical “self-care” things when overwhelmed instead—we could still be skirting around the systemic changes that are required to truly nourish our hearts and souls. How do we know when we are fooling ourselves? Notice how dependent you may be on approval energy. It has a short shelf-life. Some people never realized that they were “addicted” to it until they discovered that they experienced “withdrawal” symptoms—insecurities, anxious ruminations, depression—when deprived from a constant stream of emotional support and validation from others.
Six: Let the “But that’s selfish” monster emerge
You may feel stumped at this point. What are you “supposed” to do instead? Perhaps, like me, you’ve always felt a calling to serve others. Isn’t self-sacrifice in the job description? How can you serve people or a cause if you don’t put their needs ahead of yours? You may also be thinking, “If I really start to pay attention to my needs, I’d be outta here in no time. Who’d want to do all this grunt work? It’s an honor to be one of the humble ones who recognizes what matters. Without us, the world would not be going around.”
Seven: Expose excuses to stay small and hide
This is what tends to happen. Parts of these statements are true but get thrown into one bag. Yes, being of service is a noble calling and the path to enlightenment, transcendence, and all that other good stuff. However, we often confuse self-denial with self-transcendence in the process and actually drive our karmic and imbalanced patterns deeper into the ground. We give ourselves kudos and more incentive to neglect our wounding, avoid hard-core, deep healing that’s needed, and inadvertently, teach others to do the same.
Eight: Take care of your inner well
A path of service means giving out water from our own well—not from the stream down hill—and making sure it’s good for drinking. It also means that we are responsible for ascertaining that it’s continuously replenished, safe-guarded, and structurally supported. Self-care from this perspective means recognizing our importance and value for the greater good, and testing everything on ourselves first, so to speak, before giving it to others. It means walking our talk and recognizing that our needs and happiness are as important as everyone else’s. Not more important, not less important. As important. Which means we need to do some interweaving and taking turns as we go.
Nine: Set limits and say “no” with conviction
Using this same metaphor, would you give others water from your well if you suspected that it got contaminated? Without any stalling or second guessing, you’d probably prevent others from drinking well water if it made you sick, or a part of the well broke off and fell in the water. Look at your service to others in the same way. Say “no” so you can keep the water fresh and clean by limiting what you are doing and who you are serving in terms of energy, hours, days, engagement. This will give you the time you need to listen to yourself, and allow you to make it your priority to get well first if your body, heart, and soul are saying, “Enough.”
Ten: Enjoy your self-care, growth, and transformation
True fulfillment comes from serving others from a robust well spring of love, self-compassion, positive regard, respect, and vibrant health that first and foremost serves us. It allows us to intentionally structure our days to meet the yearnings of our soul and whole self with ease and joy. It’s not that we won’t ever conk out on the sofa or that we can’t get a mani or pedi as part of our self-care routine. Not at all. They just won’t be our last ditch effort to revive ourselves after we’ve spent our best, A-game energy on everyone else. Instead, we look forward to discovering how to make the most of our inner resources the moment we get up so that we can re-source them over and over again, both for our benefit and for the benefit of others.
Loraine Van Tuyl, PhD, CHT, holistic psychologist, shamanic healer, Depth Hypnosis practitioner, and author, is happiest when exploring how the natural world relates to our true nature in healing sessions, on the page, and in her journeys and dreams. She’s guided change-makers, educators, entrepeneurs, artists, writers, holistic healers, and psychotherapists at her private practice, the Sacred Healing Well, the UC Berkeley Counseling Center, the Native American Health Center, and the Sacred Stream’s Space Clearing Society. She’s currently designing Learn to Be (a) Well retreats for nature wisdom keepers to complement her debut memoir Amazon Wisdom Keeper: A Psychologist’s Memoir of Spiritual Awakening (October 2017).