There are many ways to think of self-care, and many ways to practice it. But at its foundation self-care is noticing and attending to our needs and being kind to ourselves, according to Laura Torres, LPC, a holistic mental health counselor who specializes in self-care, self-compassion, anxiety, perfectionism, relationship issues and highly sensitive people.
Self-care is an art, she said. Because the same thing may not always nourish us. Which means that it’s important to get quiet and fully listen to ourselves. For instance, sometimes a run feels rejuvenating, and exactly what you needed. And other times it makes you feel even more frazzled and drained, because what you really needed was rest. As Torres said, “we won’t always get it right,” and that’s OK.
Self-care also is personal. That is, what feels wonderful to one person sounds awful to another. But there are some activities, actions and approaches that are universal, which help you care for yourself in a profound way. Torres shared three of them below.
Check in regularly. Torres suggested setting a timer to ding at different times throughout the day. When it does, pause, and take a deep breath. Notice what you need in the moment. It might be getting some fresh air, stretching, drinking a glass of water, having a snack, journaling about what’s bothering you, or texting a friend to vent.
“Notice how it feels to check in, notice what’s needed, and offer yourself that very thing,” Torres said.
Create a loving story. What kinds of thoughts run through your mind during the day? What do you say to yourself about yourself? What kind of language do you use? What stories do you spin? What about when you make a mistake or need help? How do you talk about yourself to others?
Maybe your self-talk sounds similar to these examples from Torres: “I should have been able to _____ . If I were really good enough I would _____. What if there’s something wrong with me?”
When your self-talk becomes negative or cruel or callous, “create a new story that allows you to express more love and tenderness toward yourself.” You might start by considering what you’d say to someone you loved or to a younger version of yourself in a similar situation, she said.
For instance, instead of telling yourself, “What was wrong with me that I reacted so strongly? That was so stupid and inappropriate and embarrassing,” you say, “Of course that situation was hard for me because it was the end of the day, I was tired and hungry and tapped out.”
Torres also loves these affirmations: “It’s OK that I_____” or “It’s OK that I feel _____” or “I am OK, regardless.”
Set strong boundaries, no matter how small. “Are there any areas of your life where you’re saying yes when it’s really a no?” Torres said. She stressed the importance of giving yourself permission to change plans, decline invitations, and honor your own needs around time and energy.
There are many different boundaries you can set, from ending a call when you’re ready to get off the phone to telling people you’ll respond to them in the evenings to finding a different time to bake muffins with your child (when you actually have time), she said.
Setting boundaries helps us be more loving to ourselves and to others.
“When you say yes to yourself, you’re also saying yes to your relationships in the long run,” Torres said. “Because when you sacrifice your needs for someone else, over time, it builds resentment, which creates more distance in your relationships. When you honor your needs and feel seen and understood, it builds your sense of safety and security in the relationship.”
This includes something as seemingly small as baking muffins: Torres’s son wanted to make them together before school. Torres said yes, even though they were pressed for time. She ended up getting stressed out, and impatient with her son, which soured the experience. Next time she’ll save muffin-making for the weekend.
Caring for yourself on a deeper level is listening to yourself. It is paying attention to the stories you tell yourself, and realizing that you’re human, and you deserve tenderness, too. It is advocating for your needs in the form of solid, sturdy boundaries. It is exploring what works best for you in different moments and different times. It is forgiving yourself when you get it wrong.