Self Care: A Help Guide
The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) is an association for UK-based counselling professionals. It supports practitioners, enabling them to provide a better service.
Self care is the powerful commitment to constantly choose activities and situations that make you feel healthy and good about yourself.
Self care was once seen just as managing your physical health. But physical wellbeing is now understood to be directly connected to emotional wellbeing, and they are both connected to psychological and spiritual wellbeing. In other words, self care is holistic. And it is something you can apply to all areas of your life, whether that is career and finances, home and family, or friends and social life.
It is a misunderstanding to see taking care of yourself as selfish. The more energy you have, and the better your health, the more you can properly help others. Burning out through an inability to make time for yourself, or being exhausted and tense all the time, actually helps no one.
Real self care involves leading a life where you strive to make good choices in all areas. This includes:
Physical health – this encompasses a healthy diet, regular exercise, good sleep habits, good personal hygiene, and a low intake of things like alcohol and tobacco. It also involves seeking health practitioners when required such as doctors, dentists, and optometrists. Taking care of your physical health leads to greater energy, more mental clarity, less worry, and potentially less illness and a longer life.
Emotional health – this involves taking time to listen to how you are feeling, and to process and respect your emotions. It is as equally about finding time for a good cry as it is finding time for laughter. It means striving to be honest with others about how you feel and why. Good emotional self-care also involves cultivating contentment in your life.
Psychological health – connected to emotional health, this includes keeping an eye on your stress levels and not letting them get too much. It then involves making choices that lead to feeling connected to others, such as maintaining a healthy social life with people who respect and support you, and practicing positive communication. And finally, it involves self-esteem and showing yourself compassion.
Spiritual health – this is not necessarily about having a religion. It’s about choosing things in life that make you feel a sense of purpose and give meaning to your days. It involves feeling interconnected with life and others. Taking care of yourself spiritually is also about gravitating towards things that bring you a sense of inner peace, instead of things that cause you pain and drama.
Self care acts as a barometer of your wellbeing. If you struggle to take care of yourself either physically, financially, or emotionally, it’s often a sign of a psychological imbalance or issue, such as depression and low self-esteem.
You can also see self care as a tool for increasing your wellbeing. Every act of self-care you make sends a signal to your unconscious that you are commited to respecting yourself. This raises your self-worth and helps you move away from cycles of low moods.
Self care can also help you with healthier relationships. It shows others that, just as you treat yourself with respect, you expect them to treat you with respect. And if you are practicing high self care you will naturally choose relationships with others who are invested in taking good care of themselves, too, instead of relationships with those who are destructive towards themselves and others.
Developing a solid routine of self care is also important if you struggle with low moods. When stress and anxiety hit a habit of self care can be like a buoy, keeping you afloat when you feel low and ensuring at least a certain level of self-esteem, possibly keeping a psychological issue from spiralling into a full blown disorder.
Low self care is often a sign of depression, and the more depressed you are, the harder it can be to practise self care. The less you practise self care, the more you create opportunities to feel critical about yourself, so it can become a vicious cycle.
Low self-care is also connected to sleep problems, burnout, anxiety disorders, and addictions. It is could also possibly be related to the development of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).
Self care involves looking at the choices you are making in all areas of your life and asking yourself questions like the following:
- Is this a choice that shows self respect and kindness?
- Am I comfortable with this choice?
- Is this the best thing possible for me? If not, what is?
- Is this what I deeply want for myself? Does it bring me a sense of peace and joy?
- Does this decision or action make me feel positive and forward moving?
- What other choice, goal, or action could I make in this area of my life that would help me feel better about myself?
You might want to go through each area of your life separately, looking at your choices and setting new aspirations and goals. These areas can include:
- Health and wellbeing
- Romantic relationships
- Family life
- Friendships and social life
- Home life
- Leisure and hobbies
Here are some important ways to integrate more self care into your life.
1. Choose the healthier option most of the time.
It’s very hard to feel good psychologically or have the energy to enjoy your life if you feel poorly physically, so this step cannot be overlooked. A healthy lifestyle includes eating a diet that brings you energy and vitality. It also includes getting regular exercise, which has been proved to increase mental wellbeing. It's not about being hard on yourself or a perfectionist, but making healthy choices most of the time. You might want to think in terms of 80/20 - can you take the healthy option 80 per cent of the time?
2. Recognise and honour your own needs.
Some people mistake self care with being selfish. But just like you are advised to put your own air mask on first before helping others in plane safety guidelines, the truth is that your needs must be taken care of first if you are have the energy and clarity to help others. It’s important to be honest with yourself about what your needs are – do you require an evening alone a week to regenerate? Do you need to turn your phone off at lunch? Work to untangle what works for you from the choices of those around you. If you don't enjoy tennis but go weekly because your friend does, could you stop?
3. Set boundaries and say no to what you don’t want.
Boundaries are really the most important tool when it comes to good self-care. It’s very important to recognise your limits and stick to them. Saying no to others can feel difficult at first. But it can be done nicely, and with time becomes easier and almost enjoyable as you take back the energy and time that is rightfully yours. Remember, every time you say no to something you actually don’t want to do, you are creating time for experiences you do want.
4. Let go of what no longer serves you.
Scaling back on what isn’t important to you in life creates more time for what you do value. Whether that is hobbies you do because your friends asked you, or groups you joined but now attend out of obligation over interest, ask yourself if it makes you feel good. And if not, what would you rather be doing?
It’s not good self-care to hang on to people out of guilt, either, especially if they do support or respect you. If you really don’t want someone in your life, or have outgrown them, let go. If this is hard for you, talk to a counsellor who can help you identify what it really is you are afraid of and how to manage the transition in a way that works best for you.
Keep an eye out for 'shoulds'. Anything being done because it ‘should’ be is something you are doing out of guilt or obligation, not self care. And obligation often leads to resentment, negative thinking, and, in the long run, possibly depression as you become more and more exhausted by going against yourself in order to please others.
5. Set achievable goals and constantly work towards them.
Having a sense of purpose is great self care, and is recognised by positive psychologists as one of the pillars of happiness. Goals keep you constantly questioning what you want and working towards it. Goals don’t have to all be big, either. You can set mini-goals each day to up your sense of achievement.
6. Make enjoyment non-negotiable.
It is impossible to take care of yourself without allowing yourself time to enjoy life. Telling yourself you will take time to do something that you enjoy when the work is done in a few years is a sign of workaholism and often leads right to burnout. Whether it is time with your family, a session at the gym, or a night doing nothing at all, put time for enjoyment in the diary the same as you do any other priority. It will give you more energy for work, not less.
7. Cultivate supportive relationships.
Feeling connected to others has been found to be a cornerstone to good mental health. Relationships matter. Choose yours carefully, and make time for the people you can most be yourself around. It’s better to have a few good friends than many acquaintances. If you struggle with relationships, learning why this is and working with a counsellor or psychotherapist to be better at interrelating can be life changing and is a solid investment in a happier future.
8. Listen to yourself.
Self-care involves living a life for yourself over fulfilling others wishes for you. Find out who you are and what your values and beliefs are. Spending some time alone each week is one way to get in touch with what you are really thinking and feeling, as is journaling and a daily practise of mindfulness.
Every now and then ask yourself questions to help you stay in touch with yourself, such as:
- What activities am I enjoying? What else would I like to try?
- When do I feel the most joyful and energised, and how can I do more of that?
- Who provides me with a sense of connection and strength and how can I make more time for them?
- What makes me feel a sense of purpose lately, and how can I do more of it?
9. Practise self-compassion.
Self-esteem is great, but perhaps more important is self-compassion, the art of accepting and liking yourself no matter what you do, say, or think. Try to notice any thoughts that judge part of yourself as ‘bad’ and others as ‘good’. Could you just accept yourself as a working whole? Could you extend the same patience and courtesy you do to your friends to yourself?
10. Accept support.
Sometimes the best self-care of all is letting other people do it. Learn to delegate instead of manage everything that needs to be done alone. And when you are emotionally struggling, reach out to those you love and trust for support, or seek the help of a trained professional.
If you struggle to take care of yourself, or you notice a sudden change in your interest in taking care of yourself, it is not uncommon that it stems from a psychological issue. Support can help you identify what is making your self-esteem drop and help you find solutions. Various talking therapies can help:
Person-centred counselling – this can be a short or longer term form of therapy where you choose the agenda and what you want to talk about.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – known for identifying cycles of negative thought and their link to negative actions, CBT is a time-limited form of talk therapy. It can help you identify what thoughts you are having about yourself that are leading you not to take proper care of yourself, and then help you choose other more helpful actions.
Dynamic interpersonal therapy (DIT) – if your low self care is related to a breakup, a sense of disconnection from others, or because you feel uncared for by those around you, DIT might be for you. It’s a short term psychotherapy that focuses on your relationship patterns, what is not working, and how you can make changes in this important area of your life.
Psychodynamic psychotherapy – if your struggles with self care have been ongoing, this might be a good therapy for you. Psychodynamic therapy looks at how the choices you are making in the present come from your past experiences, including your childhood. By identifying how you developed certain beliefs about yourself and your life you then work with your therapist to find new ways of living that suit you better.
Some final advice for your new commitment to self care:
Don’t overlook little things. Remember, every time you choose self care you are programming your unconscious with self-worth. If you are having a difficult day and feeling bad about yourself, aim for just one small act of self care; make yourself a salad over a take out, go for a walk, run a hot bath.
Have a self care routine. The more you can make self care a mindless part of your daily routine, the better. If you find it hard to fit in, try making some of the activities that make you feel cared for and good things you do with your family, or small things that you can do when, for example, in a queue, such as listening to your favorite music or podcast.
Then make your self care routine non-negotiable. If excercising four times a week makes you feel wonderful, then don’t cancel it because of a social engagement. Make it on par with brushing your teeth. We all have the same amount of hours in a day – the question is what you choose to do with it, not how to have more time.
Keep track of and celebrate your self care. Write down all the things you do for yourself in a self care notebook and once a week read all the ways you’ve taken care of yourself. And keep a growing list of ways you can care for yourself to inspire you on the days the idea seems challenging.
Update your self care now and then. As we grow and learn in life our needs change. Make sure your self care is still serving you. It’s also a form of self care to keep yourself challenged. So if your morning run is secretly boring you, try a dance or pilates class. If you are happy your finances are steady but haven't made changes in a long while, talk to a financial planner.
And again, be open to support. We all have times in our life when our self care falters. The trouble is that too many of us feel ashamed, and try to hide our struggle to be good to ourselves. What follows can be a domino effect. Food bingeing leads to feeling like exercise is pointless, leads to feeling bloated and awful and cancelleing a social event you were looking forward to, leads to not bothering to get your haircut and picking a fight with the person you'd started dating, and on it goes.
If you don’t feel comfortable talking to a friend, consider a counsellor or psychotherapist. You can either ask your GP for a referral or hire a private therapist such as the ones at Harley Therapy. A good therapist will help you get to the root of why you struggle with self care, and can help you identify and change any core beliefs which might be undermining your efforts.
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Harley Therapy Ltd. “Self Care Guide • Taking Better Care of Yourself”. Harley Therapy, 26 Aug. 2019, https://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/self-care-a-help-guide.htm. Accessed 1 Dec. 2021.
Harley Therapy Ltd. (2019, August 26). Self Care Guide • Taking Better Care of Yourself. Retrieved from https://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/self-care-a-help-guide.htm
Harley Therapy Ltd. "Self Care Guide • Taking Better Care of Yourself." Last modified August 26, 2019. Accessed December 1, 2021. https://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/self-care-a-help-guide.htm.