3 Steps to Get Started
Self-care is a relatively new concept for me. For most of my life, I had never heard of it. I learned in my work as a psychotherapist that its importance is still not understood by many people, but its benefits are tremendous. Interestingly, the number of Google searches for ‘self-care’ has nearly quadrupled since 2018.
I have been challenged in my own self-care during these recent weeks of mourning and grieving my partner Peter who died on November 1. It has been hard and complicated. It is the holidays, of course, so I feel out of sync with all the fa la la joy around me. I try to remember that I am not alone and many others are living with losses. And, honestly, it has been a bit scary for me because I can’t count on being my “steady, reliable self.” My mind feels foggy some of the time and my mood is unpredictable. Sometimes I can’t listen to whatever is being said. One minute I am fine being at a meeting or a dinner with friends and the next moment I need to be alone and do nothing for a while.
On the positive side, I knew what would be helpful. I gave myself time off from my writing and other commitments for at least a month. I’m normally very busy, but I’m mindful of my pace now. I’ve been doing things that soothe me, taking walks outside, listening to guided meditations, and reading. This allows me to focus on something besides my sadness. I flew to California to visit with a beloved cousin who has health challenges and our time together was healing for both of us.
But most helpful of all has been when I can feel my feelings of sadness and just be with them for a while. It sounds simple but it isn’t for many of us. And, of course, I know I am nowhere near the end of grieving.
What is self-care?
Self-care is what we do, and the choices we make to ensure our well-being and happiness. Self-care can be hundreds of different behaviors. It can be scheduling time for yourself, resting, working on a hobby, calling a friend, eating a cookie, or not eating a cookie. It is whatever behavior fills your inner wellsprings.
Self-care begins with understanding that your own well-being is important, as important as the well-being of others. We can’t be helpful to others if we are depleted, running on empty with nothing to give. And, as we age, self-care continues to be a priority because we face new and unexpected challenges. What used to work may no longer be helpful.
How do you start? Let me tell you about Ethan, 72, who is a good example of a person who cares for himself even though he never used the term during our recent interview. Ethan told me, “It seems my use-by date has come up. Several old injuries are bothering me and I need another hip replacement. And I have way less energy than before.” He continued, “I probably have already lived most of my life.”
Ethan, a college professor, is seeking a new balance and he wants a good life as he ages. He and his wife have frequent video calls with their grandkids who live three thousand miles away, but they can’t be his only purpose. A huge grant has come to his university, but he realized he does not want to be responsible for another big project. As a tenured professor, he has a lot of control over his work. So he went on sabbatical instead of joining the new project team. And now he is in the process of throttling back to half-time.
He doesn’t have a cadre of friends although he has colleagues at work he likes. He remains active in the Conservation Trust of his town and he is passionate about his garden where he has begun growing native plants and pollinators. He is making choices consciously and very deliberately. Of course, he is extremely fortunate to have the financial stability to choose how much he works.
Shockingly, Ethan’s security and choices are so rare in this rich country of ours. There was a recent story in the Washington Post about the dramatic rise of suicides among older people, especially men. In 2022, there were twice as many suicides of men over 75 compared to suicides of men of all ages. Among women of all ages, there were only about one-quarter the number of suicides compared to those of men of all ages. A stunning difference between men and women.
While there are a host of causes, including loneliness, isolation, poor health, and the death of a spouse, these facts suggest to me that our culture doesn’t encourage men to consider ways to care for themselves. Most men lack close friends compared to almost all women who have many friends. This makes life harder for them. And most men are not aware that depression is not a normal part of aging. In addition, men as a group, are less likely to seek help than women. Ultimately, some of them decide the best solution is to end their life, often by gunfire. It is really sad because the right medicine and some therapy might have prevented their premature death.
Self-care begins with understanding that your own well-being is important, as important as the well-being of others.
We each need to design our pathway of care but there are some basic steps in the process that I think will be useful for you.
Three steps to take
Step 1. Commit to self-care.
You need to decide that you will care for yourself and commit to that. When you commit to self-care as a principle of your life, you begin by choosing a lifestyle of behaviors that will lead to well-being. These may include healthy eating, regular exercise, and wise behavior in terms of nicotine, alcohol, and drugs. It makes sense to create some routines and at least make a few decisions so several issues in our lives are settled for a time.
Step 2. Have regular check-ins with your emotional self.
Maybe daily. Maybe less often. Ask yourself, “What is my mood? My energy level? What is my inner weather? Am I peaceful and sunny or tense and stormy? Am I feeling safe, sad, happy, worried, fearful, purposeful, lazy, sleepy, wired, anxious, hopeful, down in the dumps, angry, overwhelmed, or lonely?” Just identifying what’s going on inside is so helpful and saying it out loud to yourself is good, too.
Step 3. Ask yourself “What do I need to do right now?" and “How will I change my behavior in the future?”
This means doing something, however small, and seeing how it makes you feel. For example, if you are exhausted, you can close your eyes and rest for three minutes. Also, plan to go to bed a bit earlier than you’ve been doing recently. If you feel lonely, call an old friend. Did the call help you feel better? And then ask, again, what do I need now?
I will close with this thought from Socrates who said “Know thyself, for once we know ourselves, we may learn how to care for ourselves.”