Get organic veggies, make overnight oats, get on the yoga mat, journal, meditate, lift some weights, connect with my partner erotically. Oh, and I should get out for that 10k, fit in a massage, do Pilates, and make sure I down a superfood smoothie. I'm overwhelmed and I haven't even done anything yet.
Let's be clear: These are all classic examples of what we call "First-World problems." I'm deeply fortunate that I have the luxury to focus on these kinds of self-actualizing tasks.
But that makes it all the more regrettable that we put so much pressure on ourselves that even self-care becomes hard work. It's indicative of a greater human issue, one that’s universal. Turning self-care into a test of our ability to "do it all" is just an intensely distilled manifestation of being hard on yourself. Just like anything put under unrelenting pressure (and irradiated with a high dose of perfectionism, or underlying fear) self-care can mutate into an overwhelming to-do list that’s no longer about caring at all.
When self-care becomes self-criticism:
The genuine meaning of self-care only really became clear to me in my forties. For a long time, I beat myself up almost constantly about what I should do to look after myself optimally and what I wasn't doing. I became increasingly anxious about getting self-care just right when my former partner died of cancer. The stakes of messing up felt much too high and all the fun went out of things I used to enjoy. Many of the "should-dos" that were supposed be good for me, gradually morphed from self-nurture into exhaustive lists that provoked anxiety and resentment.
It wasn’t so much about what I was doing that wasn’t working, but how I approached life that put me under pressure and robbed me of joy. Gaining some awareness of how hard I was making everything meant I could eventually make some changes. Making those changes meant getting to know myself and how my mind worked more deeply.
Here's what I learned:
At the base of the issue was a lack of self-compassion—a basic lack of kindness—in how I approached my whole life, self-care aspects (ironically!) included. I felt that if I wasn’t always pushing myself, nothing would ever happen. My harshness was based in fear that I wasn't good enough. It had been programmed in me too long ago to remember.
I’ve since discovered that there is a balance between discipline and finding compassionate flow in your life—an attitude of liking yourself and what you’re doing, most of the time. When it comes to taking care of ourselves, we function best as the compassionate ruler of our own wellbeing, not as a slave to a thousand "shoulds."
Here are some thoughts on how to develop a deeper, more authentic philosophy of self-care that doesn’t get so heavy.
1. Prioritize self-compassion.
As I mentioned, the shift that finally relieved the pressure I had been placing on myself was to release the "should"-related self-criticism I'd allowed to invade every part of my world. Having compassion for yourself doesn’t mean not being disciplined in achieving your goals or looking after yourself. It doesn’t mean flaking out on the parts of life that take showing-up and consistency. It means keeping a mindful, self-supporting mental attitude in all you do.
2. Be discerning.
When you find yourself chastising yourself for what you haven't done, ask yourself, "Who said I ‘should’ do this for my health and wellbeing, and why did they say it?" It honestly isn’t possible to take every supplement or do every activity you hear is"‘good for you." And you shouldn't try! You could schedule yourself into the ground and you still wouldn't come close to getting it all in, and it certainly wouldn't be healthy.
Often, where there’s a "should," there’s a resistance somewhere, otherwise the "should" would probably already be an "I am." That resistance is trying to tell you something. Don't ignore it; Listen to it.
3. Audit your to-do list.
Are there a bunch of items on your to-do list that occasion a lot of pressure in you but aren’t having a positive impact on how you feel? Sometimes, less doing translates to more caring. Of course, everyone has to do certain things we don’t love enjoy, but that's not what self-care should be about. When it comes to self-care, joy should always be a priority.
4. Be patient.
A disclaimer about that joy: Be patient with yourself if some of your self-care activities take some time to flower—yoga, meditation, piano lessons—these don’t always give joyful returns overnight. Before you remove something very rich and meaningful from your schedule, be mindful that joy doesn’t always arise at the beginning.
Deep pleasure and fulfilment tend to arise slowly over time as you feel yourself growing in a discipline or skill, so ask yourself, Do I enjoy this enough to push through with my eye on an ever-deepening pleasure and sense of achievement, or is this something that actually doesn't resonate with me?
If you're not sure, keep going a little longer. Eventually, it'll become clear. You may just have reached a plateau, and as soon as you break through it, joy will flood in.
Once you rid your to-do list of all the things that aren't bringing you joy, you can infuse your life with simple pleasures.
What are those moments of pleasure that you can easily afford and almost effortlessly include in your everyday life? I’m talking about no-pressure, no-skill-required stuff like luxuriating in oil baths, sipping delicious teas, stretching out your back muscles over a foam roller, or remembering to laugh. These moments of everyday joy make for a better life.
Here are a few other self-care essentials that'll help you stay calm and at peace in your life, no matter what should-dos or have-tos arise. The most caring thing you can do in any situation, however, is not to beat yourself up if you don't quite get there. If you always prioritize what feels the most caring to you, you'll be making the right choice.
Many high-powered executives become sleep advocates after decades of working themselves to exhaustion. They've learned the hard way that rest is non-negotiable—even (and maybe especially) for super-women who balance competing tasks and responsibilities. Without enough sleep, everything feels like a burden and you don’t get the most out of any of the beautiful rituals you create for yourself.
2. Stop regularly.
Be real with yourself and admit that regularly slowing down won’t end the world, no matter how busy you are or how much you thrive on deadlines.
In taking time to be still, to contemplate, to meditate, and to reflect, we give ourselves the greatest gift we can give: Our own full and loving presence; our complete attention.
Full attention is becoming an ever-rarer commodity in an increasingly distracted world. Taking just a few moments to listen to your thoughts and feelings instead of being bombarded by outside information allows you to gently sort the helpful thoughts from the dross and outdated programming of your internal world.
The self-awareness that grows from stillness is the gateway to the possibility of new, more self-supporting choices. Quiet contemplation, in that sense, is the most meaningful kind of self-care. Loosening the pressure of your day through simple moments of stillness can lead to mindfulness that transcends who you are and what you do.
3. Seek the joy of your own experience.
Balance reflective time with action but, wherever possible, choose action that lights you up. Love is the driving force of life—the experience we all care about most—so seek it everywhere. Seek it in relationships, in your personal passions, and in caring for yourself. Actively give it, breathe it out, and let the return flow look after itself.