Beyond a mani-pedi: Real self-care is all in your head.

Don’t get me wrong - I love pedicures. And I used to think that these were an important part of my self-care routine. Do they feel good? Absolutely. Do my pretty toes give me a small happiness boost? Yes again. But how often does a foot massage give you the insight and discipline necessary to successfully minister to your mental, emotional and physical health on a regular basis?

Pedicure

Probably never.

Real self-care helps us manage stress and navigate life so we can stay focused on what’s important without feeling depleted. Achieving this often means doing things in the short-term that aren’t particularly enjoyable so we can appreciate more meaningful benefits long-term.

Tami Forman, Executive Director of Path Forward, puts it this way: “If we are being honest, self-care is actually kind of boring. Which is why self-care is a discipline. It takes discipline to do the things that are good for us instead of what feels good in the moment.”

A bubble bath or a pedicure are fine as far as they go. Activities like these help us take the foot off the gas of our busy lives and catch our breath. They might even trigger a relaxation response - the counterpart to the fight-or-flight response which we feel when under duress (and that many of us, unfortunately, feel far too often). 

What is real self-care, anyway?

But these activities won’t provide much value over the long-term unless they’re part of a more comprehensive plan. To put such a plan in place, we need to identify what matters most to us and what daily practices provide the energy and discipline necessary to stay focused on these things without getting sidetracked or feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.

Effective self-care, says author Brianna Wiest, “is making a spreadsheet of your debt and enforcing a morning routine and cooking yourself healthy meals and no longer just running from your problems and calling the distraction a solution . . . [Self-care] has very little to do with ‘treating yourself’ and a whole lot do with parenting yourself and making choices for your long-term wellness.”

Healthy meal prep

Putting such a plan in place – and sticking with it – take work. The good news, however, is that a comprehensive self-care plan allows us to live with more meaning while also reducing stress. An effective self-care strategy helps us develop and maintain routines that reflect our highest values while giving us permission to let lesser commitments fall away.

Know thyself

The first step of putting such a plan in place is getting to know what you value most and what daily actions will help you get a more meaningful and less stressful life. We need to seek answers to questions like these:

  • What are your highest priorities? What lesser priorities are sucking up valuable time and need to fall away?
  • What actions reflect these priorities? What small daily steps can you take to move in this direction?
  • What saps your energy?
  • What sidetracks you?
  • What energizes and motivates you?
  • What boundaries do you need to put in place that will help you adhere to your values and take better care of yourself?

Mirror of self-reflection

Answers to these questions form a matrix of important information about you that’s necessary to stay focused and motivated. If I know that long-term health and vitality are important to me, then exercising regularly becomes part of my self-care routine – which means getting my butt off the couch and going for a run sometimes whether I feel like it or not. If I know that spending time with a gossipy co-worker puts me in a bad mood (and is likely to get me gossiping as well, which goes against my values), I’m going to put boundaries in place that limit my time with this person.

But I don’t have time…

Developing self-awareness is the key to discovering the answers to these important questions; but becoming more self-aware has its challenges.

For starters, many of us don’t relish the idea of turning the lens of discovery inward. What we find isn’t always pleasant. Sometimes, we unearth things about ourselves we’d rather not know.

We also tend to think we know ourselves well when we really don’t. In fact, author Tasha Eurich has written an entire book on the subject . The book, Insight, helps us understand how we can develop better self-awareness to achieve greater success. She says, “In my team’s multi-year research program on self-awareness, we learned that even though most of us think we’re self-aware, this skill is in remarkably short supply.”

The truth is, it’s impossible to make real change in our lives when we don’t have all the facts about our motivations and behavior. One research study indicates that “blind spots in self-knowledge can have negative consequences, such as poor decision-making, poor academic achievement, emotional and interpersonal problems, and lower life satisfaction.”

Pedicure

 Developing self-understanding also takes time – something that’s often in short supply. And focusing on ourselves feels selfish. Who has time for the seemingly leisurely pursuit of self-awareness when there are kids to care for, meals to prepare, and work deadlines to meet?

But the insight gained from self-awareness is imperative, giving us the necessary information to shape our daily lives in the most meaningful way. Far from being a waste of time, investing in self-awareness is one of the most valuable things you can do.

How we spend our time and expend energy demonstrates what we value most. Many of us accidentally spend way more time and energy than we mean to on pursuits that don’t reflect our true values – and even run counter to them.

How many times have you said yes when you should have said no, scrolled mindlessly through Facebook rather than going for a walk, or compulsively responded to email when you should have focused your energy on the larger task with greater value?

The only way to make sure that your daily actions align with what you value most is to spend time understanding your values and behaviors so you can manage your time more effectively.

Otherwise, “champion Facebook scroller” might accidentally be your epitaph.