What does selfcare look like to you?
Instagram’s answer is a bubble bath with candles lit and perfectly placed in the shot.
Sometimes, these things have their place in a self-care routine – a bath can serve to revitalise you and provide a moment of relief from stressful situations.
But we’d be duped if we believed that’s the epitome of self-care or that self-care is always indulgent, luxurious, pleasant.
For some people seeing this bubblegum version of self-care is damaging and compromises their view on their own self-care rituals, which for someone in a particularly difficult mental state, might be as simple as getting dressed in the morning.
Suddenly, that looks subpar to a rose-petal-filled hot tub.
Often the biggest drivers of change in a person’s life are born out of uncomfortable decisions, tough conversations, and actions that at first will cause upset.
As well as the pretty and aesthetically-pleasing side to self-care, there’s the ugly side that’s seldom spoken of.
That might include: saying ‘no’ to a loved one, leaving a relationship, and asserting boundaries.
Dr Roberta Babb, psychologist and co-founder of The Hanover Centre, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Self-care has unfortunately become synonymous with long baths, walks and other activities that people can find quite self-indulgent.
‘Self-care is a much broader concept which essentially includes the practice of taking an active role in protecting your own wellbeing (emotional, physical, environmental and social), particularly during periods of stress.’
Being an active part of your wellbeing can mean doing things you don’t want to do.
For Rina*, who recently changed her career, leaving her previous toxic job was a vital but anxiety-inducing experience.
She tells Metro.co.uk: ‘I left the industry I had worked in for years because of the horrific way that they treated their staff.
‘It was affecting my personal life – I was constantly living in fear of my boss who would make everything personal, tell me I was lucky to work there and yet they would continue to verbally abuse their staff.
‘Leaving was a true act of self-care for both my mental and physical health, even if it meant starting over, and I haven’t ever regretted that decision.’
The initial discomfort Rina felt in making the decision ultimately was necessary in order to make a change that has benefitted her long-term. She is now happy in her new job.
Dr Babb believes there is a place for both kinds of self-care – the acts that are instantly soothing but don’t promise to solve anything, and the acts that are incremental to creating a better future.
‘They work to relieve different types of stress, and use different forms of
energy to help you feel safe in your body, feelings, emotions, thoughts, environment and relationships,’ she explains.
‘However, the tricky thing can be recognising and deciding when to use
behaviours that soothe you and when to use behaviours that actively change a situation.
‘To help you identify when you should use particular self-care activities, it is important for you to understand your stress-response. This will help you identify a range of activities that you can use which work to manage the different areas of your stress response.
‘Activities that soothe you primarily work to calm or reduce your level of emotional and physical arousal.
‘Activities that actively change a situation work to create a space or separation between you and something else (such as person, relationship, emotion, experience or event) which can relieve tension and stress.’
The key to maintaining adequate self-care is to have a ‘variety of strategies’, according to Dr Babb, so that means incorporating both styles.
When Scarlet was unhappy with her body, coupled with tackling mental health concerns, she knew she had to make changes that were initially painful.
It was hard enough for her to get out of bed to make time for the gym, but, she tells us: ‘I had to run to the bathroom to cry the first few times because I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror.
‘It took a good month to feel comfortable again.’
Now beginning to feel better, that challenging first step laid the path to a habit that has benefitted her both mentally and physically.
As the old adage goes, sometimes it gets worse before it gets better.
While these acts may not typically look like self-care – due to the reality that they’re not things we look forward to doing and there’s the risk of opening emotional wounds – they are an important part of sustaining good mental health.
When we know it’s time to get proactive about our self-care, it can be hard to do so – we may even want to put off doing certain things that we know will serve us later on.
‘When we think of protection, one neglected strategy involves boundaries,’ says Dr Babb.
‘Recognising and asking for what you need (through identifying, communicating and reinforcing boundaries) is a form of self-care.
‘These acts can become important elements of your growth and personal change, as they demonstrate the sense of integrity, compassion and respect you have for yourself.’
Whether you’re setting boundaries with yourself or with others, it can be challenging.
Setting them alone means you have no one but yourself to hold accountable.
Setting them with others relies on them respecting your choices, and then, failing that, your ability to rethink your relationship with them.
Dr Babb says we often feel guilty for trying to assert ourselves in this way with other people, but she warns ‘without boundaries you can become vulnerable to being overwhelmed and emotionally hurt’.
She advises, for those who struggle with this, to be clear and focused on your communication and to identify your talking points beforehand.
You should also consider what your desired outcome of the conversation is, what may happen if you don’t get that, and what you realistically cannot control.
Self-care is by no means a simple thing, but it would be foolish to assume that it will always feel instantly good.
Self-care isn’t equivalent to having fun.
Sometimes you’ve got to create space to heal first.
Dr Babb’s guide to figuring out the kind of self-care you need to enact
Developing a ‘five areas’ formulation for yourself. This is a clear way to describe your own thoughts, feelings, behaviour and physiological response to external and internal events and how they may interact.
This then allows you to examine your stress response and find a variety of strategies that may work for you.
*Name has been changed to protect the person’s identity
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