For some of us, practising self-care is more like a trial and error; a hit and miss exercise.
There are plenty of articles, lists and inspirational photos on the Internet telling us 123 ways to practice self-care ranging from bubble baths, putting papaya bits to soothe your face, journaling to stroking a pet. That last one tells me if I don’t have one, I should go to the park and find one. I am still undecided whether to laugh or take that suggestion seriously.
Let’s be crystal clear about something. We are not short of ways on things to do to take care of ourselves. Or advice sprouting from all corners about the importance of self-care.
What I find difficult to grasp is the notion that self-care is this simple act of priority for everyone. That everyone knows how to practice self-care, like we were all born knowing just how to do it. That self-care is created equal, accessible and straightforward.
I don’t know about you, but growing up, I wasn’t surrounded by outward expressions of self-care. When things were hard at home or when she was tired, I don’t see my mum taking bubble baths surrounded by candles or having a downtime. In her own quiet resilience, she put everyone else first.
As an adult, not everyone is entirely familiar or conditioned to the idea of self-care. My self-care journey has been pretty much a weave of trials and errors, experimenting, and figuring it all out. Often times also messy because life is messy.
I get that these articles and advice are well intended. But I am also aware it may not be widely applicable to many people. The truth is, most days, my self-care process is probably not Insta-worthy and that is just fine with me. So let me show you some of the self-care practices that I’m still in the midst of mastering:
1. I’ve stopped trying to fit in and create my own routine
For a long time, I was militant about what I needed to do so I can recovery from burnout. A lot of it is based on what’s being peddled out there - what I ought to be doing to prevent and manage my burnout. It was hard trying to fit in and keep it together every single day. Eventually I realised I need to find my own routine of self-care - my own version. I do notice that when I stopped trying so hard to fit into the mould, I am better able to take care of myself with more ease.
2. Getting enough sleep is important but sometimes I fail
Every single day I tell myself I will go to bed early so I can get a good night rest and maybe finally be one of those people who pursue a morning routine, and carpe diem the shit of the life. Most days, I do OK and some days, I fail because I want to binge-watch the entire season of Queer Eye in one sitting. Sometimes I don’t follow my own rule, and I tell myself that’s OK. I don’t berate or punish myself for not being more disciplined. But I keep reminding myself of it, and I endeavour to keep pursuing that important habit.
3. Trying to calm my monkey mind is a work-in-progress
The mind is a powerful space and when you have one that often goes into overdrive, it can tire you out. I know this all too well — the constant chattering about everything and nothing, the self-talk, the doubt can all seem endless sometimes. I’ve slowly incorporated daily mindfulness and meditation practice. I don’t make it complicated, just 15 minutes (or more) to pause and calm my mind. Somedays I find it hard to focus and get annoyed with myself, but over time I’ve learned to accept whatever comes to mind and let it go. The less I fight it and the less I try to control how things are, the easier it gets. The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer was a great source of help on this.
4. Finding joy in the most mundane stuff
I love grocery shopping. Big time. There’s something about strolling down the aisles, taking in smells, comparing and reading ingredients. Occasionally, it’s just fun to goof around with your shopping trolleys. Other ordinary activities that I’ve enjoyed doing have included tending to my houseplants, cooking, making homemade everything (from ice-cream to deodorant), trying out new recipes every weekend, or even reorganizing my tea collection. For me, part of my mindfulness practice (and habit) has been to take some time for these simple everyday activities. The main point is, I’ve stopped chasing that shiny self-care routine or the latest fad in self-care commodification and instead put my attention on the everyday things that really matter. That, in my opinion, is the harder work of self-care.
5. I take responsibility for my personal development
For me, self-care isn’t only about taking physical and mental care of your body for right now, it’s also about giving space for yourself to grow, explore and be the best human you can be. Looking back, I spent much of my adulthood chasing ideals and dreams that weren’t exactly mine. I now carve out time to check in with myself where I am, tweak what’s not working, research, read and educate myself. The aim is to figure out for myself what ‘down the road’ looks like so I can really be excited about it versus being sucked in by other people’s version of a successful productive life.
6. I’ve stopped waiting for things to happen
Too many of us sit around waiting for things to happen for us, for friends to invite us to social events, for flowers to be bought for us, for someone to notice and appreciate the work we do. When they don’t happen, we get disappointed and it can hurt. Taking responsibility for my self-care essentially means I have to be proactive in making choices and taking actions. It means making an effort to check in with my friends, making time for people I love (not just when I need them), and learning to acknowledge my efforts. Sometimes my invitation comes to nought, or I don’t get invited to events and I may feel slightly left out but hey that’s life. I’ve learned not to be so hard on myself. I keep trying.
7. Learning to let go isn’t always easy but it must be done
In the big scheme of things, there are things we all should learn to let go like grudges against ex-boyfriends, a hurtful word, pent-up pettiness, and expired friendships. These are not always easy to do but part of taking care of ourselves means unburdening our shoulders of all the past, bad and negativities that weigh us down. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel things or sweep them away. I feel, and I acknowledge them but I don’t hold on to them for long, overthink or dissect every bit of it. One of the ways I work this out (and still do) is reminding myself that when I hold on to things that truly don’t matter, I won’t have space (and energy) for the good ones to come in.
8. I don’t turn self-care into a performance
Social media has also turned everything we do into a performance for the world see and reaffirms it via a like button. We need to show society we are putting ourselves first and we give them labels #mefirst #sorrynotsorry. Of course, I post on social media about the day I spent baking that fabulous tasting albeit sunken soufflé or when I’m having fun with my friends. It feels good if I get likes but I really don’t give a hoot if no one likes it. Do you? Self-care has to be about you, not the version you curate purposefully to be liked.
9. Loving yourself is not an icky thing to do
I used to cringe when I read or hear about people who talked about self-love and the importance of loving yourself. It sounded icky, New Age rah-rah, corny and rather self-aggrandising. Least to me then. Of course, I love myself but wasn’t that a given and obvious? Was there a need to make it more pronounced? Turns out I did take for granted the obvious. Recovering from my burnout, I learned that loving myself meant more than just a feeling, words or just simply knowing it. It meant putting that love into real actions, doing the hard work and putting self-care back into the everyday living agenda, not just a sideshow I eventually get to when I happen to have time.
10. Self-care has to be bigger than you and me
This might contradict the term itself but when we think of self-care as just a ‘me’ concept, we lose an opportunity to make the world we live in a more compassionate and loving place. In that sense, I’ve always been grateful for my Asian upbringing, which emphasises the notion that care is and should be bigger than just the individual, than just me. It is also caring for the community you live in and those around you. For me, this has been volunteering or mentoring others, getting involved in social causes and donating time or resources to causes I care about. Maybe it isn’t such a bad idea, after all, to be part of a collective that takes care of each other versus slogging it out on your own.
What I have shared here has been a product of self-care practices that I have refined, tested and reworked to fit me, my lifestyle and my vision of my future. The world around us is quick to have us believe that self-care comes only in certain forms, activities and glamour shots.
But the real work of self-care is often unglamorous, unsexy and definitely more than just lighting up lavender-scented candles and stroking a pet (no offence to pet owners).
You don’t always have to get it right the first time. That’s just fine. You don’t give up.
I encourage you to discover what works best for you. Be an explorer in your self-care adventure. Make it work for you. Because when you finally find your feet wherever you end up, that journey itself is possibly just the self-care transformation you need all along.