What is Self-Care Supposed to Look Like?

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In May, I wrote a bit about self-care within the context of burnout. I mentioned that taking care of myself is sometimes a struggle. I regularly meet fellow advocates and survivors who agree that self-care is a difficult thing to practice. It requires just that: practice.

Maybe you do what I do which is think, “I’m probably going to crash and burn soon…I should probably do some self-care” and then continue doing whatever it was you were doing because you aren’t even sure what your care of self should look like. Or maybe you just hate doing it! Where do you begin when it comes to making sure you’re healthy enough to take care of others? How do you practice self-care when you’re in the midst of abuse? When you’ve just escaped an abusive relationship or are beginning to process an assault? When it’s been ten years since you were abused but something triggered you at work and now you’re feeling the weight of past pain sitting on your chest?

In my experience, unhealthy coping mechanisms tend to seem easier. They aren’t as much work. They are comfortable because so many become habit: maybe it’s an eating disorder, self-harm, or binge drinking. Whatever it may have been or continue to be, you likely have used something unhealthy to cope simply because you did not know a better way or did not have resources or encouragement to find a better way.

You do not need to apologize for how you survived. When you are dealing with abuse and its effects – panic attacks, depression, sleeplessness and nightmares, drug addictions, etc. – you do whatever you can to keep going and no one else has the right to judge you for that. However, you are valuable enough and deserving enough to replace those harmful coping strategies with healthy ones.

Self-care is just that: replacing unhealthy coping mechanisms with healthier ones. Because there are different aspects of YOU – the mental, emotional, physical, etc. – there are also different aspects of self-care. If you find yourself burning out mentally, look for activities that will target that specific part of you (reading, painting, listening to music, etc).

Having said that, the different aspects of you ultimately come together and make one beautiful person…YOU. They’re interconnected. You will find that one self-care technique can treat several different aspects. For example, when you are caring for yourself mentally, you will naturally benefit emotionally and physically.

Take Care of Yourself Physically

Trauma negatively affects your physical body. Stress (even good stress) negatively affects your physical body. Physical self-care is what can help combat those damaging effects.

Physical self-care is literally just caring for your physical body. It’s the list of questions your doctor may ask you at a physical: are you sleeping enough, eating healthy, exercising regularly?

If physical self-care is something you are naturally prone to, great! If it sounds more like a chore, you don’t have to dread the process if you get creative. Anything from visiting a chiropractor for an adjustment to dancing in the kitchen with your dog while dinner is cooking can be physical self-care. Listen to your body; it will tell you what it needs.

It’s important that you take care of your physical body in love rather than from self-hate. Part of your physical self-care might simply be sitting quietly and reconnecting with your body in order to learn how to love it.

I have a long history of hating my physical body and punishing it for not being what I’ve been told is “beautiful”. I have battled anorexia. That means sometimes my physical self-care is making sure I am not skipping meals. It might mean listing off all the incredible things my body is capable of.

Try to celebrate what your body is and what it can do rather than what it is not or what it cannot do.

Here are just a few examples of physical self-care: walk to the community market and cook with the fresh produce you bought, join a yoga or karate class, go to the batting cages, join a community sports team, take salsa lessons, walk/bike to work instead of driving or taking public transit (if your commute is pedestrian/biker friendly).

Take Care of Yourself Mentally

Trauma takes a toll on your brain. So does the stress of everyday life. Mental self-care is not just giving yourself a brain break; it’s engaging your mind with healthy stimulation. I’m guilty of calling a few hours of TV a brain break but the truth is, while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s not healing the mental exhaustion.

My mental self-care improved after I took the Myers-Briggs personality test (you can take a condensed version of it HERE for free). I had long doubted the merits of personality tests but Myers-Briggs was spot on! I am an INFJ and as I have read more about that specific type of personality, I have learned new ways to recharge my mind. Everyone is different so find the mental exercise or relaxation techniques that work best – and feel best – for you.

Here are just a few examples: read, journal, write a story, listen to music, learn how to play a new instrument, make pottery, do Sudoku/jigsaw/word puzzles, play a board or card game with friends, meditate, paint, pick up a new hobby like photography or scrapbooking, bake something to share with your office, rearrange your furniture, learn a new language.

Take Care of Yourself Emotionally

Trauma affects our emotions. When you have experienced abuse or assault, your emotions are in for a roller coaster ride – and no one’s roller coaster track is built exactly the same.

Taking care of your emotional health involves self-awareness. I know that I am paying attention to my emotional health when I am processing the negative emotions (i.e. not suppressing them for burnout later) and then fostering the positive emotions. You can work through the negative by writing in a journal, hitting a punching bag, or talking to a counselor. Then you can ignite and nurture the positive emotions through activities that bring you happiness! Do something that makes you laugh, makes you relax, makes you thankful, makes you feel loved.

When engaged in an activity, ask yourself, “How is this making me feel?” Listen to your body, your mind, your emotions. That might mean saying “no” the next time that one friend asks you to hang out because you know they stress you out. That might mean concentrating on your breathing or doing a grounding technique.

My latest form of emotional self-care: ignore social media for awhile. Social media can be terrific but it can also be toxic and triggering.

Many forms of mental self-care can also act as emotional self-care but here are some other examples: watch a feel-good movie (my go-to is When Harry Met Sally), go to an art exhibit, read a self-help book, reorganize that drawer or closet that has you stressed out.

Take Care of Yourself Socially

Trauma most certainly affects a victim’s social life. You may no longer go to your favorite restaurant with your friends because it’s near the apartment of the guy who raped you and so you don’t feel safe. You might not see your best friend anymore because she says she doesn’t believe you. Or you might be so depressed that leaving the house to socialize sounds absolutely painful. The truth is, alone time is good but humans have to socialize. We are social creatures whose health depends upon good, healthy, fun human interaction.

I mentioned that I am an INFJ. That means I am an introvert who becomes easily exhausted by socializing but I also love people. It’s a tough balance! If you need to be alone to recharge, that’s okay. I often find myself needing my own space and my own time. That’s part of my emotional and mental self-care. I do not allow myself to over-commit anymore (i.e. I don’t make plans at the cost of my own well-being) and have finally [almost] lost that feeling of guilt when I say, “No, maybe next week?”

In order to be sure I’m taking care of myself socially, I have a planned, weekly get-together with two of my closest friends and our husbands. We meet up every Sunday afternoon to eat supper (one husband cooks for us), have dessert (my husband makes homemade ice cream) and we then either go for a walk, watch a funny movie, or just talk. It’s the highlight of my week. If I get to see them – or other friends – during the evenings after work then that’s great. If not, I know I won’t be isolating myself on the weekends, either.

Find a social life that works for you and positively impacts your mental, physical and emotional health, too. Surround yourself with people who support you and make you feel good about yourself.

Other examples of social self-care may include: host a cookout for your friends or family, leave your kids with your partner or a friend and grocery shop alone, call someone you’ve been missing, join a book club, schedule a bi-weekly hang out night with a few close friends, go sit at a coffee house with a book (sometimes just being around people without necessarily interacting with them can feel healing).

Take Care of Yourself Spiritually

Trauma deeply affects your soul. Spiritual self-care is literally caring for your soul. Spiritual self-care can be practiced in religious contexts but it does not have to be. It can be yoga (also physical self-care) or meditation (also mental self-care). It can be volunteer work. It can be taking one day a week and saying, “I’m unplugging today!” It may mean taking a look at your schedule so that you have a healthy work-life balance (also social and mental self-care).

As I said, you do not have to be a religious person to practice spiritual self-care. Personally, I am a follower of Jesus Christ. Therefore, my spiritual self-care in the past has often involved praying, reading the Bible, attending church, volunteering to teach Sunday School, etc. However, my most recent spiritual self-care has been taking a break from church and daily Bible reading. Why? Well, honestly, it’s partly due to the results of this past US presidential election, which made me want to cut ties with the evangelical church culture I grew up in. It’s also because church was triggering me. I’ve experienced spiritual abuse and have been assaulted by men who claimed to be Christians. That really sours the typical, American idea of Sunday morning church for me so I have allowed myself to skip church. And it’s been healing.

In my experience, people who are regularly taking care of other people have the hardest time taking care of themselves. If that’s your natural inclination – make sure everyone else is taken care of – that’s great. Our world needs the caretakers, the nurturers, the givers. Which is why self-care is so necessary. You cannot give to others if you are not giving to yourself.

A few more examples of spiritual self-care: join a Bible study, pray, attend a local house of worship or religious event, seek out a safe environment for self-expression, attend a support group.

Take Care of Yourself Sexually

Trauma – especially sexual trauma – can seriously affect your sexual health. You deserve to be sexually healthy. Sexual self-care goes beyond STD tests or GYNO exams (although, please do pay attention to the physical side of your sexual health). If you are healing from sexual abuse, sexual self-care may involve therapy. Or trauma-informed yoga, which could double as physical self-care.

Sexual self-care may involve learning to appreciate your body, whether that’s through exploring yourself – what feels good, what you like, how everything works – or  working toward a healthier body-image. It may be finding help to kick a porn addiction [which can do serious harm to your mental and possibly social health]. Or maybe it’s as simple as getting a trusted babysitter and renting a hotel room for the night because you and your partner need time to be alone.

You do not have to have sex to practice sexual self-care. In fact, abstinence may be the sexual self-care you need. It doesn’t matter who you are; taking care of your sexuality is important. Healthy sexuality means different things to different people so find what works best and is safest for you.

Self-care is not selfish. Self-care is allowing yourself the time and space to feel safe, happy, and healthy…

…so that you can heal. So that you can thrive. So that you can continue to take care of everyone else around you.

I believe self-care is supposed to look like whatever is most beneficial and healthful to you in the moment. The ways in which you take care of yourself will naturally grow and change as you do.

Maybe you struggle with self-care because you struggle to believe that you deserve to be cared for. Perhaps you do not love yourself or feel worthy of love. I encourage you to talk to someone about it, whether it’s a trusted friend or a therapist, while putting self-care into practice. You do deserve to be cared for. You deserve to feel good and be healthy. You deserve to be taken care of. You are worthy of love – including the love you give yourself.

If you tend to feel overwhelmed at the thought of taking care of yourself, create a list of ways to do it! Have a plan in place for when you really need to focus on you.

How do you practice self-care? What have you found most effective?

I recently found a great printable from Laura’s blog Those Positive Thoughts which provides a breakdown of 90 different ideas encompassing each dimension of self-care. You can check that out here! You should also check out RAINN’s pages for Self-Care After Trauma and Self-Care for Friends and Family [of Victims]. For TEDtalks on the topic of self-care, check out this playlist on YouTube.

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