Before we dive into the actual tips part, I feel like I should probably give you a run-down of my self-care history (spoiler alert, it’s not great).
My parents got divorced when I was really young, and I have no memory of them as a couple. It’s weird to me when they’re in the same room and they make each other laugh – I forget that they had a fourteen year marriage before I came along. When they split, my sister and I lived with our mom, and would spend every other holiday and a month every summer visiting our dad and step-mom in New York City. When we were little, our dad would fly out to Iowa to pick us up and then fly us back. I have many memories of Dad drawing puppets on the airplane barf bags, or, as I got older, scribbling algebraic equations on the back of them. That right there is a perfect summation of my dad: silly and scientific. He’s a lot of other wonderful things, too.
The first two things that immediately come to mind when I want to describe my mom are resilient and reliable. Like my dad, she’s a complex, ever-growing person. She has never once let me down. We’ve disagreed, but she’s never disappointed me. I love that she is compassionate and empathetic, and that acts of service is her primary love language(as is mine). My dad and I talk a lot about nature versus nurture, especially with regard to anxiety, and I know that my penchant for putting others before myself is a direct result of mom’s parenting.
Self-care is a tricky subject for me. On the one hand, I’m extremely grateful for my mom’s example. Learning how to put others before myself has made me a better partner, a better teacher, a better sister, a better friend. When you add that tendency to Generalized Anxiety Disorder, things get a little rough: putting others before yourself – while mostly wonderful and sometimes heartbreaking – can mean you don’t practice as much self-care as you need to. And it can mean that when you do practice self-care, you’re second guessing it. When you say no to someone, anxiety makes you worry that they think you’re rejecting everything about them instead of just this one thing they asked for. It can mean that you don’t say no, and then you end up at best a little irritated and at worst violated, shamed, and shattered.
When I care about someone, I want to make their life easier. I want to bring a smile to their face. I want to help shoulder their grief, their anger, their sadness, their whatever, and I want to share in their joy. For me, this often means that my own emotions and issues get shoved to the back burner because I don’t want to be that insensitive person who takes everything and makes it about themselves. When I bring up an experience of my own in conversation, I’m forever wondering if I’m helping them feel less isolated or just a self-absorbed asshole.
I spent much of my time in therapy learning how to work through this. I frequently asked how I was supposed to tell my friends that I was saying no to their party/dinner/whatever so that I could go home and watch tv? How was I supposed to tell my partner that I needed to ignore them for a while? How was I supposed to explain that what looked like rejection on the surface was actually me practicing self-preservation so that I could be a better friend/partner/whatever?
Ultimately, I realized that it’s not anyone’s right to judge how I take care of myself. They don’t get to make me feel bad if what I really need to do to feel ok is lay in bed with my dog and be sad for a little while. They don’t get to judge whether or not watching videos of goats and puppies is a good use of my time. This doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped wondering if people are judging me, imagining they are, or catastrophizing. It just means I’ve learned how to remind myself that I’m doing what I need to do and that’s the most important thing. Most of the time it works.
I’ve learned that it’s helpful to have a variety of strategies that require different levels of engagement. I’ve laid out below the different ways in which I practice self-care and what specifically each one does for me. A lot of these are also anxiety management strategies, so you’ve probably heard me talk about them before.
- Massage. I put this one first because, for me, this is the ultimate self-care. I don’t have to do anything – literally nothing – except breathe and turn over when J, my massage therapist, tells me to. This is my favorite of all of my self-care strategies, and if you have the money, I strongly suggest getting massages regularly. I’ve been going to J since I was in college, and the only way you could get me to go to someone else is if I move out of NYC. We have a strangely deep level of trust and intimacy because of the circumstance of massage therapy: J knows that my right hip is kind of janky from a car crash when I was 16. She knows that I do a lot of yoga, so she spends a lot of time around my shoulder blades to help ease my muscles after all of those vinyasas. She can tell when I’m particularly anxious from the way I stand as we talk before she starts, and on those days she uses only light pressure. Appointments with her are the best because not only am I in a safe space, but no one needs anything from me. I don’t have to be cute or funny. I don’t have to know the answer. I don’t even have to talk. I can just lie there, and it is the best.
- Yoga. I mean, really. This was predictable. You guys know how much I love yoga, and I always have. It’s also essential for managing my anxiety. When I haven’t done yoga for more than two days because of a migraine or traveling or whatever, I feel it. Yoga helps me practice telling my brain to be quiet for a little while. It gives me permission to make time for myself. It keeps me physically active and healthy. It helps me clear out my brain by giving me something to focus on that’s not work or my relationship. It gives me a second wind when I’m feeling run down. It’s good for pain management. For me, it’s the ultimate cure-all.
- Walks with the dude. My favorite time of year is spring and summer when the dude and I can start taking long walks together. Once we went to Central Park and walked for five miles before we even headed home because we were so engrossed in our conversation. And that’s really what I love about these walks: they’re time for us to just be together. That’s the whole point. We use them to check-in with each other, to talk about upcoming plans, to work out anything we may be struggling with. I love our walks because they are an intentional reinforcement of our feelings for and commitment to each other, and because they’re a low-pressure way to talk about our relationship or my anxiety or whatever is on our minds. Because we’re side by side, eye contact isn’t as frequent and so not as intense. It feels less like an interview and more like a united front, which, when the anxiety is bad, really helps with feelings of isolation. Not only do our walks mean that I’m caring for myself by doing something physical and getting outside, but they’re a way for me to see that the dude cares about me, too.
- The dog run. We try to take the dog to the dog run together at least once a week. This is one of my favorite things ever because she is so happy when she realizes that’s where we’re going. I love that. I also love it because she likes to sit on my lap a lot while we’re there, and that makes me feel loved. Cuddling with her is often the easiest way for me to get a handle on any anxiety I’m feeling.
- A creative hobby. As you guys know, I’m a big fan of cross stitching. It’s kind of mindless and zen, and I can do it while I watch tv, but I’m also creating something. (spoiler: I’ll be making some to sell soon!) It’s really nice to be able to just sit and do something with my hands.
- Reading. I’m a big reader. As in, there is never a time when whatever I’m reading isn’t within 10 feet of me. I love getting lost in the world my book has created, and that escape is so, so valuable. It’s a wonderful form of self-care to be able to let go of my own life for a time and not think about anything that’s going on with me. I usually read on my commute home from work and for about 20-30 minutes before bed, and it’s my favorite part of the day. I love most kinds of books, but these especially are wonderful depictions of characters with anxiety.
- TV. Sometimes it’s really nice to just check out for a while, and I’m fortunate that I have a partner who is totally cool with me plunking down on the couch and ignoring him for a while. I prefer to watch things that are either really funny and light and/or character driven. I keep coming back to: Firefly, The West Wing, Parks and Recreation, Psych, Call the Midwife, Top Gear, I could go on and on.
- Doing my nails. It’s actually been studied as a coping mechanism, and I kind of love it. The ritual of removing old polish, filing, and painting a new color is soothing, and it helps me feel more put together when my nails are done. My nails are usually an indicator of how I’m doing: if they’re painted and have few or no chips, that means I’ve had time to do them recently and have been able to give some time to myself. If the polish is half gone, then things are crazy or the anxiety is bad and I haven’t been able to sit down and spend the hour and a half that it takes.
At the end of the day, self-care is whatever helps you unwind. What works for me may not work for you, and vice versa. But if you take a minute to sit and think about what you do when you practice self-care, it’ll make it easier to recognize when you’re not doing that.