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The Secret to Effective Self-Care

Summary: A transformative self-care practice can give you the stress relief and greater life satisfaction you want. While deep change requires courage and discipline, the strategies I provide here will help you. Learn to manage the challenges of transformative self-care and stay on track so you can reap the many benefits.

The Secret to Effective Self-Care

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In a previous post, I talked about what effective self-care looks like. The type of self-care I’m talking about helps you reduce stress, clear your mind, and live according to your priorities.

Putting an effective self-care plan in place and sticking with it takes work. It also requires an investment in personal growth and self-awareness. It means identifying your priorities in life and assessing your behaviors and motivations so you can figure out what is and isn’t working.

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”

– Aristotle

How do you gain this type of knowledge? Personally, I’ve found activities such as journaling and mindfulness meditation helpful, and both are flexible enough to fit into my daily routine fairly easily.

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time improving my own self-awareness and trying various self-care ideas so I can live with less stress and more joy and purpose. Here are some of the things I’ve learned. 

Dig a little, rest a little

It’s important to approach self-discovery with the right frame of mind.

It’s tempting to simply put together a laundry list of all the things you’re doing wrong with your life and call it “self-discovery”. But true self-discovery is more comprehensive. Sure, you will likely identify a bad or habit or two that you’d like to change. But be sure to take note of your strengths as well so you can harness their potential.

Speaking for myself, while I’ve discovered that I have habits that hinder me (such as a tendency to dwell on things), I also know that I am both resilient and persistent – qualities that are enormously beneficial. Be sure to take note of personal assets as well as challenges.

And take your time. Self-discovery is a marathon, not a sprint. Do a little digging, take a break, then dig a bit more. At first, just focus on discovering things without judgment. Perhaps you acknowledge that it’s hard for you to say no, or that you can’t figure out how to prioritize your own needs when your kids overwhelm you with theirs. Be sure to be kind to yourself, no matter what you discover. We all have our shortcomings; it’s how we manage them that matters.

The real value of self-discovery comes from an honest look at the big picture and identifying which current commitments and behaviors are serving the life you most want to live, and which aren’t. Self-awareness is an invaluable opportunity to engage your intellect and curiosity in the service of growth and fulfillment. 

Expect More – and Less

Woman naps as a form of self-care

Effective self-care is balanced. It’s about clearing your to-do list of meaningless tasks while also holding yourself accountable to healthier habits. It means addressing unpleasant truths about your finances or sleep habits while also making sure to schedule regular intervals to relax and play. It means giving yourself permission to say both no and yes when you really need to; in other words, when these responses are in service to a more fulfilling vision for your life that you’ve thoughtfully identified and committed to. 

What is authentic self-care for you? I really can’t say. Only you can, and developing self-awareness is key.  

Only you know if a pedicure is what you really need right now. Maybe it will help you pause and relax, which will help you think more clearly so you can take a realistic look at your to do list. But maybe a pedicure isn’t so much what you need as what you’d like; it sure sounds like self-care, but in your heart of hearts, you know it’s really just distracting you from the activity that would truly reduce stress and provide greater peace of mind long-term – organizing your taxes, exercising, or making that difficult but necessary phone call.

It’s different for everyone…

What passes for effective self-care changes depending on the individual and the point in time. One person’s genuine act of self-care can be another’s avoidance behavior. And a nap can be exactly what you need one day, but on another it’s just a way to procrastinate an important task.  

And be aware of the reverse – an assumption that an activity that simply feels good and allows you to relax can’t possibly provide real value. Sometimes, an evening of Netflix or a nap is exactly what you need to recharge.

Woman gazes at sunset from a pier on the water

Sure, you are resilient and capable and can probably press on through the mountain of tasks before you for some time, even though your shoulders are glued to your ears and you’re so tired you can barely see straight. But what are you moving towards, and at what cost? Giving yourself regular opportunities to unwind can help you assess the answers to both these questions. Having time to pause and reflect is real self-care and it can keep you on the right track. 

The only way to navigate the options before you and find a healthy balance is to know yourself well. And for this, self-awareness is key.   

The catch is that developing self-awareness takes time, which is in short supply for most of us. In my experience, though, self-awareness is worth the investment because what you discover makes life easier and more fulfilling in the long-run. 

Greater self-awareness allowed me to establish an internal compass that helps me:

  1. Expect less from myself. For example, I’ve stopped trying to fix things that are beyond my control (well, usually) and I give myself permission to let go of expectations that are important to others but not to me. I also find ways to break important but difficult tasks into smaller, more manageable steps. Rather than trying to accomplish big audacious goals with lightning speed, I constantly remind myself that it’s better to make slow and steady progress towards something I know is important than meet an arbitrary goal.
Man gives a thumbs up
  1. Expect more from myself. Understanding my priorities in life means I have a responsibility to act in a way that is alignment with them. I also work to stick to routines that enhance my well-being over the long-term and abstain from time-wasters that distract me from more important things. 

Self-awareness isn’t a magical fix. I still find myself overcommitted and frustrated more often than I’d like. But the insight I’ve acquired hangs over my head in a good way, a presence that constantly prods me to make better choices over time. 

Plus, expending the effort of self-discovery gives me more confidence. Armed with a clearer understanding of what I value, I have more courage to say “yes” to certain things and “no” to others with more conviction and less guilt. 

Sow and reap

As Tami Forman, Executive Director of Path Forward writes, “It takes discipline to take full and complete responsibility for our own well-being.”

Living well takes real work, and so does effective self-care. Knowing your priorities in life and what makes you tick provides a critical barometer against which you measure what you expect from yourself daily, and just as importantly, what you don’t.

Far from being a waste of time, we’re doing ourselves a huge favor when we make the effort to turn the lens of discovery inward. It’s a necessary step towards taking ownership of our own lives and putting in place behaviors that help us live with less stress and in greater alignment with our priorities in life. 

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