Give a Care to Self-Care

As a family caregiver, I understand that we need to take care of ourselves to be able to care for others.  There is a lot of talk about “self-care” in the world, but what does this really mean?  When I hear the word “self-care,” my mind often conjures up images of hot rock massages and 90-minute manicures and moose tracks ice cream, but is this all that there is? And is this really self-care?

When I was at my most stressed, I told a friend that my then-secret indulgence was lying on the couch and watching hours of HSN or QVC programming.  I told her that I enjoyed this because it asked nothing of me, and was a way to shop without moving at all.  Her reply to me was stunning – she didn’t poo-poo my habit because I was watching QVC, but she asked me how did I feel after an evening of indulging?  I had never really considered this, and when I thought about it I realized that while I had escaped from my world for a few hours, when I returned to my reality, I was in exactly the same frame of mind as before.  This mind-numbing practice did nothing to make me feel better in the long run.  What I saw as self-care – taking minutes of down-time – she made me realize was only a momentary numbing of my anxiety, but not helping my crazy life.

What is self-care for me? I would define it as any activity that makes me feel better, not just in the moment, but in the longer-term.

But what about those massages and manicures and ice cream?  I have also had periods in my life where I have adopted these versions of “self-care.”  Massages are great if they help you truly relax or make your body feel better for the tasks in your day, but they also must fit within your budget, or else you will have more stress in the long run.  A manicure, I have found, is both a good short break that produces at least two weeks of pretty nails and is reasonably budget friendly.  Ice cream is my favorite escape, but is only effective when used as a way to experience joy, not as a route to numb pain.  Eating ice cream often makes me feel worse in the end, because when I have finished the last spoonful of deliciousness, I am reminded that my treat was not a part of my healthy eating plan, and the sugar has made me feel sick.  Not used thoughtfully, my self-care ideas sometimes wind up making me feel more stressed, because I have put off important tasks, or because I spent money that I shouldn’t have, or because I indulged in things that were not in my long-term best interest.

So, what is self-care for me?  I would define it as any activity that makes me feel better, not just in the moment, but in the longer-term.  I was sick last week and I didn’t go to work.  This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it was for me.  Of all the voices in my head with competing demands, I often don’t listen to the reasonable, calm and quiet voice.  The voice that told me that “You are sick.  Stay in bed and you will feel better sooner.  Don’t go to work and get your colleagues and clients sick, too.”  Last week I listened to this voice.  I was home for a day and a half – OK, I didn’t listen to her solely, and the voice that said, “Go to work; there are things to be done; don’t be a baby” did get some airtime.  But in the end, the extra time that I allotted to care for myself did make my cold end sooner; the world did not stop spinning on its axis, and my clients were thankful that I did not see them while I was sick.

Self-care is not necessarily indulging yourself – although indulgence can be fun in small snippets – but it is about doing small things that can still make you feel better the next day.  I have realized that if I am physically tired, I should take a nap to revive my body; I have realized that if I am mentally exhausted, I should take a walk, thinking only of the beauty around me to regain my mental focus.  This is “self-care.”  Now, don’t get me wrong – there are still times when I lie motionless on the couch watching the fascinating world of “huggable hangers” getting sold, but I also recognize that this is not a solution to any long-term problem – except maybe that of closet organization.

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I am a family caregiver. My father has dementia. I repeat myself a lot. It’s not easy. Like a lot of you, I have my challenges – I worry that I don’t have enough time for myself and my job and my family while worrying that I don’t give time to my father. I get frustrated and overwhelmed, but caregiving is a responsibility that I cherish. I’m also a CPA and an attorney who’s spent 25 years practicing law. I believe that we as a nation need to have a deeper and more involved conversation around caregivers and our devotion to the loved ones who need us so much. I hope that this site will help that conversation.