“You need to put your own oxygen mask on first, before attempting to help those around you”.
There is something telling about this instruction from the safety demonstration on a plane. Just like on a plane, you won’t be able to help anyone if you don’t take care of yourself first. One of the things many people struggle with is prioritising self-care. When I mention the need to implement self-care to my clients, I’m often met with reasons why it’s too hard to fit in their already busy schedule. How can I dedicate time for myself? I’m already stretched thin as it is. Or I feel guilty taking time out for me.
Without self-care and doing activities that nourish us, it can leave us feeling overwhelmed, anxious, low, or resentful. We can feel depleted and like we are running on empty. We feel rushed to get things done. By the time our head hits the pillow, we are exhausted, only to wake up and start the same thing all over again. When our schedules become too full, and something has to give, we often look to the things that will cause the least disruption. Work, our kids, our families, our friends, can all take time out of our days. So if we are feeling busy, where do we look first to reduce the strain? Ourselves. Maybe I don’t need to go to the gym, I don’t have to go for that walk, play sport, spend that extra time reading or watching my favourite show. I’m sure we have all experienced putting other people’s needs before our own. The problem is when this continuously happens and we stop doing our nourishing activities. But when the days turn into months and the months turn into years, we put ourselves at a disadvantage, and it’s likely the people around us are suffering from it too. When we don’t take care of ourselves, we can easily feel frustrated or feel physically, mentally, and emotionally drained.
We all lead busy lives – how do we make the time to fit self-care in?
When it comes to anything health related such as exercise, prioritise it. It’s no secret that it’s good for you. But when one activity can provide so many benefits, prioritising it is a must. Exercise can improve mood, sleep and increase energy. Fitting it in can mean waking up earlier, going on a lunch break or taking yourself and the kids for a walk or bike ride.
There are a variety of different things that we can do, when it comes to nourishing ourselves. Whether that’s journaling, being creative, being out in nature or something else, we can aim to fit an activity on a daily basis. Sometimes it can help to attach a new activity, to another activity we are already doing. This way it becomes a habit and it doesn’t feel like another thing to add to the to do list. For example, if our night time ritual includes watching tv, perhaps reduce the tv time by 20 minutes and do some journaling instead. Or when you have your morning coffee, take some time out to unleash your creativity by doing an activity like drawing or colouring in.
Say no to things that don’t urgently need you. This can be a tough one. We grapple with ourselves on why things need to be done in the house or life in general. Sure, we need to feed ourselves or have clean clothes to wear. But there are usually other things that can wait. We need to ask ourselves: in the grand scheme of things, how important is it that I do this? If difficult situations arise, we are much better equipped to deal with them if we have taken the time out for ourselves.
Picture these 2 scenarios: Scenario A: You’ve spent the morning cleaning the house. Your 4 year old then has a tantrum. How do you feel? Scenario B: You’ve spent the morning doing some yoga. Your 4 year old then has a tantrum. How do you feel? Even if you find yourself getting frustrated with either scenario, I think we can safely say, that we will feel much better dealing with a tantrum if we’ve given a little extra love to ourselves.
Say no to people that don’t urgently need you. We all need friends, family, and work for our wellbeing. However sometimes people within these networks can cause stress for us. Sometimes people in our lives can cross boundaries that aren’t acceptable to us. If this is happening, learning to say no can be an important skill, so that we can put ourselves first when we need it.
For example, maybe you have that family member who is capable of doing things for themselves, but they insist on asking you for help. If the option is to help them out for the umpteenth time or go for that much needed massage you’ve been waiting months for, which will you pick?
A happy relationship = Self-care
Decades of research have been done on what impacts our health when it comes to longevity. Robert Waldinger, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School discovered that:
“Our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health. Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care”.
Key points from Waldinger’s research include:
When the researchers collated what they knew about the people in the study at age 50, it wasn’t their cholesterol levels that would predict how they would grow old. It was how content they were with their relationships. People who were more content with their relationships at the age of 50, were the healthiest at the age of 80.
The researchers discovered that relationship satisfaction can have a protective effect on people’s mental health. They found that people who described having happy marriages in their 80s, described that on the days they experienced higher physical pain, their moods didn’t suffer. This was in comparison to people who were in unhappy marriages, who reported feeling more emotional and physical pain.
Biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher, put people through a brain scanner and discovered three essential neurochemical components in people who described having high relationship satisfaction. The components were practicing empathy, controlling feelings and stress, and maintaining a positive perspective about our partner. If you’re looking for ways to enhance your relationship with your partner, you can try something from this list.
The benefits for your children
When it comes to relationships, have you ever wondered why we do what we do? In many cases, it comes down to the way we were parented and how we saw the relationships around us. Elizabeth Lombardo, a psychologist and author, describes the concept of modelling for children. As parents, when we try to teach our children, we become accustomed to telling our kids what to do. When in fact, they are constantly learning through watching our behaviours. And this includes watching the interactions between ourselves and our partner. Daniel Buccino, social worker and cofounder of the Baltimore Psychotherapy Institute says,
“The most important relationship in any family is the marital one, and the best thing parents can do for their children is to love one another".
Children can learn valuable skills about intimacy, balancing home and work, and conflict from their parents. In addition to this, when we think about the most common thing parents say they want for their children, it's that they want them to be happy. But when we think about it, that's a challenging goal. Our children can't always be happy, and when they aren't happy we need to let them be okay with their other feelings too. If we are continuously doing things and saying yes to our children in the pursuit of making them happy, we may run the risk of creating a sense of entitlement. Children need to learn they can't always get what they want. And when children see us taking care of ourselves, they learn to do the same for themselves too.
The upside of conflict
If we have poor conflict management skills this can have detrimental effects on our children. According to Hosokawa and Katsura (2017), research has shown that marital conflict can directly impact children’s social functioning, they can have an increased likelihood of depression, anxiety or withdrawal, show signs of aggression and it can also impact their academics. While some many think we should avoid conflict, it can actually be healthy for us. And in some circumstances when our children see us managing conflict in a healthy way, it can teach them valuable skills. It’s okay to have differences, but it’s how we discuss these differences that are important. When children see parents working as a team to resolve conflict, they learn how to handle issues in a healthy way.
Drink a cup of tea
Listen to music
Go for a massage
Eat your favourite meal
Read a book
Go to individual counselling
Have a nap
Write in a gratitude journal
Have a bath
Do something creative
Go to relationship counselling
Be in nature
Watch your favourite tv show or movie
Now go on, give yourself permission to take care of you.
Hosokawa, R., Katsura, T. Marital relationship, parenting practices, and social skills development in preschool children. Child Adolesc Psychiatry Ment Health 11, 2 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13034-016-0139-y
https://psychcentral.com/lib/learning-to-say-no#when-to-say-it (Accessed: January 26, 2023)
https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/exercise/art-20048389 (Accessed: January 26, 2023)
https://raisingchildren.net.au/grown-ups/looking-after-yourself/communication-conflict/conflict-management-for-parents#:~:text=Conflict%20is%20a%20part%20of,about%20working%20out%20your%20differences. (Accessed: January 26, 2023)
Treleaven, S. (2018). https://time.com/5321262/science-behind-happy-healthy-relationships/