July 21, 2021

Putting yourself first

Putting yourself first

Self-care... You’ve probably heard that we all need self-care. The problem is that somehow, over the past few years, self-care has been turned into grand gestures and expensive vacations. Feeling down? A trip to the spa is in order. Not yourself lately? Get away for the weekend. Burned out? Book a trip to the beach for a week.

But true self-care is something that can and should be done regularly. According to Dennis Fehr, a clinical therapist with Manitoba Blue Cross’s Employee Assistance Program, self-care is about attending to our personal needs through a regular practice of activities. It’s about looking out for ourselves and what we need to function at our personal level. It’s through this self-care that we can function optimally and better meet our personal and professional responsibilities.

“I believe it is normal day-to-day behaviour – activities we can incorporate into our daily routine,” says Fehr, providing examples like going for a walk, connecting with a friend or spending time doing a favourite hobby. “If getting away from it all and pampering yourself is what you consider or think of self-care, you’re actually missing the mark.”

This notion that self-care is about taking an extended break to get away stems from the need to escape all our responsibilities. Fehr says that people often feel like if they stay at home or in the community, the responsibilities will still find them, and it’s common to want to just literally remove ourselves physically and do a larger grand gesture, such as going on vacation or going on a spa day to feel like we’ve done something to take care of ourselves. But the issue is that as soon as you return, all those responsibilities you tried to escape are still there and nothing has changed.

“Oftentimes we indulge in a significant holiday event just so we can take a break only to return to our daily lives probably more tired and with less money in our account,” says Fehr. “We use these kinds of opportunities to treat ourselves when what we really need is the day-to-daycare we can give to ourselves by slowing down; giving ourselves time to relax, doing something to restore our ability to be responsible again.”

Practicing regular self-care

Practicing self-care allows us to look after ourselves and restore ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally, as well as allowing us to get perspective, shift priorities and get balance in our lives, says Fehr. Without it, we lose our capacity to be responsible.

“I think we get caught up in all the responsibilities that come from both work and home, the activities our kids and families are involved in, the challenges that come with relationships, the connections with family and friends. We need to get everything done, and we attend to everything and everyone around us but ourselves,” says Fehr.

When Fehr is counselling clients, he will ask them to make a list of what they are responsible for and it’s often very similar for most –job, spouse, kids, household, pets, friends, family, finances, maybe volunteer activities. But even when he asks, ‘is anything missing’ they don’t think to put themselves on the list.

“What I point out is, if you’re not taking care of yourself, who is?” says Fehr. “All of these other things and responsibilities are getting less than your best, and don’t all of these other things deserve your best? You have to be your best to offer your best.”

Self-care is personal

What you do to practice self-care is up to you and varies from person to person. What self-care looks like to one person can be completely different to another.

“What I suggest to people is to identify activities that attend to and even satisfy your needs to be a healthy, happy best version of yourself, and move you towards being that person. What that means for you, I don’t know – only you do,” says Fehr.

One of Fehr’s favourite self-care recommendation is listening to music – whether it’s intended to calm you or something with a more energetic beat to lift you up, music can match your needs for that moment and it can be done almost anywhere. Other examples of easy self-care activities are going for a walk or making a cup of herbal tea.

A good suggestion that can be done when you’re with people is to take your own pulse and note where you are at in a moment and whether you feel connected to the conversation.  

“Self-care is enacting an awareness of where you’re at and what do you need to move you in a positive direction versus being drawn into a negative one,” he says. To help make you calm and relaxed, Fehr recommends massaging the flesh between your thumb and fore finger. “Most people don’t pay attention to you if you are doing that. It won’t catch attention, but you can do it for yourself if the situation you’re in is stressful.”

If your job is more physical and hands-on, it can be beneficial to do self-care activities that are different and can let your body relax and recuperate. Fehr recommends something that is mentally stimulating or creative. For those who work at a desk and sit all day, self-care that involves being physically active to stimulate your body while you let your brain relax is valuable.

“It’s about finding balance to do something opposite rather than doing the same thing you do every day,” says Fehr.

Self-care is also checking off the list of basic things you need to thrive, like quality sleep, healthy eating habits, personal hygiene and physical activity. It’s what we need to address our physical, mental, emotional and social needs. Ask yourself, “What do I need to be the best person possible and to get the capacity to handle my responsibilities to the best of my abilities?”

Fehr notes that taking a break by engaging in extraneous distraction – think Netflix and video games – is not self-care as it doesn’t help restore energy or take care of ourselves. That’s not to say you can’t do those things in moderation – just know they won’t lead to a balanced life and as a result, you may find yourself in a cycle of procrastination, which can lead to burnout, says Fehr. (See sidebar on burnout.)

Your self-care activities will also vary based on the situation – at work or at home, while you’re driving, on the weekends, when you’re alone and when you’re surrounded by people. If you can find ways to build yourself up in a variety of settings, it will help you find the balance you need.

“Self-care needs to be a priority that we make time for and what we need to do is incorporate self-care into our daily routines. When we experience the value that it has in our lives, that it makes us feel better and we’re more efficient and effective, and we have more satisfaction and more balance in our lives; when we realize those are the things that come from self-care, we won’t want to be without it.”

Self-care wheel

To help you make self-care a regular part of your life, consider creating a self-care wheel.

“Oftentimes we don’t think of all the areas of life that we need to attend to, so the self-care wheel helps bring into awareness parts of life that we may not give as much attention to, so we can have a balanced life experience,” says Fehr.

The major components to the wheel are psychological, emotional, spiritual, personal, professional and physical self-care. Some self-care wheels are filled with ideas to help you achieve self-care in each area, while others are blank so you can create your own. (Find a blank self-care wheel here to print off and start your journey towards a more balanced life.)

Fehr notes that most people automatically jump to the physical and social areas, but the others are given little or no attention. “The self-care wheel helps keep in mind there are other parts of life that we need to be aware of and attend to in order to have a balanced life.”

Start with adding one new thing and keep it manageable. Add or change activities one at a time and as you’re ready to keep your new lifestyle sustainable. You’ll be surprised how quickly small changes can make a big difference.

Want more support and strategies for self-care? Manitoba Blue Cross members with Employee Assistance Program or Individual Assistance Program coverage can get counselling support. Begin the process here.

Unsure of your coverage? Confirm your eligibility in your mybluecross® account.

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