Cup half empty?! What is self-care and why is it important?

‘Self-care’ has become something of a buzz word recently (or is it 2 words?!), particularly with the events of the last year forcing many of us to think more deeply about our physical and mental health. Whilst some may think it sounds self-indulgent and unnecessary, this blog aims to outline what it is and why everyone needs it in some form or another – especially at the moment!

Imagine you’ve got an important zoom meeting coming up (I know, that’s so 2020/21 isn’t it?!) that has to be done on your laptop. The call is at 3pm and at 2pm you check your laptop and it’s on 17% battery life – what do you do? Obviously, if you’re able to you put it on charge. If you’re not able to then you probably start to worry about how you’re going to make it through the meeting with so little battery life. You might even become angry at yourself for not realising earlier that your laptop was low on energy and get angry at the laptop for not being able to do what you need it to (tech rage is real!) All in all, not a positive situation to be in and you probably won’t feel good for it.

Whilst our phones and other electronic devices have a very clear way of showing us how much energy their batteries have left, humans aren’t so straightforward. Yes, we can all look in the mirror or at our friends and family and notice signs of tiredness, but other signs of low energy aren’t obvious to our eyes. We’re not just talking physical energy here either, but also emotional, psychological and even spiritual (if you’re into that kind of thing!) With the constant demands of everyday life including caring for friends and family, maintaining our careers, trying to keep fit and healthy, making sure we don’t neglect all social events, remembering appointments and birthdays, trying to keep a clean home and so on, we often put ‘none essential’ tasks to the bottom of the list. As it happens, the ‘essential’ tasks are quite often the ones that require a lot of our energy whilst the ‘none essential’ tasks tend to be the ones that help us to rest and recharge. These can be thought of as ‘drainers’ and ‘sustainers’ respectively.

If you’ve ever heard of the saying ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup,’ this is exactly what I’m talking about! Drainers are the chips in your cup or the sips you take whilst focusing on everything else you have to do –  things that allow your energy to leak away slowly or disappear in gulps at a time. Once the contents of your cup have gone, they’re gone! Sustainers are the waiters and waitresses that come along regularly with a smile on their face to refill your cup and make sure it never runs dry – the things that bring you joy, calm, relaxation, comfort and so on. Try keeping a journal of roughly how you spend your time each day for a few days and you could even note down screen time as part of this too. Once you have a list of the tasks you’re doing regularly – try and categorise these as ‘drainers’ or ‘sustainers’. Do you see an imbalance? If so it may be essential that you include more regular sustaining activities in order to support your best self. 

Another step you can take is to categorise the ‘drainers’ further into things you can ‘do, delegate or delete’. There are some things that require our time and energy that won’t or can’t change. We may have to go to work, run our children to school or extra-curricular activities, we may be the only ones available at home to make dinner and so on. These are the things we must ‘do’. There may be ways to reduce the time it takes to do some of these such as cooking twice as much on a Sunday so there’s no food preparation to do on Monday evening, but generally these tasks are unavoidable. Things we could ‘delegate’ may include tasks at work that are in addition to our usual workload, chores around the house, getting our food shopping or someone’s birthday gift delivered rather than venturing out on a shopping trip, sharing lifts with other parents to give everyone the occasional night off and so on. These may even be things that if we have the means to, we could pay other people to do for us such as business accounts, garden maintenance or cleaning at home. Lastly, things we can ‘delete’ often include mindless activities such as scrolling social media, making every last item from scratch for dinner (check ingredients for healthier options if this is a priority for you), scheduling meetings that could be an email and drying the washing up (a personal favourite of mine – it’s more hygienic to let it air dry you know?!) ?

Take some time to list your regular ‘draining’ and ‘sustaining’ activities

Stop and think for a moment about how you feel after a day full of ‘drainers?!’ You get up, get yourself ready for work as quickly as possible in order to take the kids to school or reply to the emails that have pinged through already this morning. Maybe you have to stop for petrol or to pick something up from the shop on your way to work (or in your break if you’re working from home). In between calls or once you get home, you put on a wash and hang it out to dry while the sun’s shining and whilst you’re out there you notice the bins need putting out and the windows need a bit of a clean. You get back to your laptop to more emails and tasks to do and before you know it it’s time to do the school run, get everyone fed and so on. There maybe children’s bathtimes, bedtimes and bags to be packed and lunches to be made for another busy day tomorrow. You look at the clock and wonder where on earth the day went. There’s so much you never managed to do and oh look, your exercise gear is still hung up on the wardrobe where you left it with good intentions earlier in the week and your head hits the pillow before you’re even able to start that novel you’ve heard great things about and been looking forward to. Whilst this may sound like ‘just normal life’, many of us know that when we’re run-down, stressed, anxious, overhwhelmed, hungry, sleep-deprived (the list goes on),  we don’t show up as our best selves. We may be less efficient at work, less supportive of our friends and partners or more impatient with our children. Quite often, we compound the effects of our lack of self-care by punishing ourselves for the way we reacted, something we did or didn’t do, and the cycle goes on… We tell ourselves we can’t possibly have that relaxing soak in the bath because the kitchen needs tidying, we won’t relax to enjoy our book until the ironing is done and we can’t see our friends on Friday night (outdoors of course) because we’re going to need to work a bit of overtime as a result of not making it through our to-do list today. 

It’s important that we learn to notice signs that we’re feeling particularly tired, low in mood or demotivated. These can include difficulty falling asleep or waking up, markedly increased or decreased appetite and/or cravings for specific foods (usually fatty and sugary foods), shortened temper or patience, having trouble concentrating, lack of interest in doing things we normally enjoy such as going for walks and decreased interest in socialising. Please note that if you feel that any of these are becoming an ongoing problem and could be linked to mental health issues such as anxiety, long-term stress or depression it’s important to speak to a health professional. 

Look out for signs that you may need to recharge more

However, for many of us it can be ineffective simply to try and notice signs of burnout– especially when we’re particularly busy, as we run on stress hormones and forget to check in with ourselves (because who has the time to think about that when there’s so much else to think about?!) It is therefore of paramount importance that we SCHEDULE in regular activities that help to ‘fill up our cup’ as opposed to waiting until we have time. Go back to the ‘sustainers’ list from earlier and make sure you’re including some of these activities regularly and as a matter of priority. These will be different for everyone but could include time spent in nature, meditation, exercise, getting your hair/nails done, a massage, a lie in or early night and so on. Some things that are drainers for person A may be categorised as sustainers by person B for example cooking a meal from scratch or attending a busy social event. There’s no right or wrong here but you must take time to tune into YOUR needs and not what you think should feel draining or sustaining.

Schedule your ‘sustainers’ regularly as a matter of prioroty

If you’re still not convinced that these things should take priority in our already hectic lives, consider the impact of you ‘running on empty’ on the rest of your life and those around you.. You can’t expect to help others feel calm, supported, loved, confident or whatever else you want to be for others if you’re not nurturing those feelings or qualities in yourself first. Chances are you will feel tired, more impatient and irritable and all together just not on top form if you’re ‘running on empty!’ With the world slowly ‘opening up’ again post-lockdown and events, invitations and activities starting to creep back into our schedules, now is the perfect time to make a change and create firm boundaries with your time and energy to make sure you keep your cup topped up! Remember that self-care isn’t selfish, but actually makes us an all-round better person and much more of a positive contribution to the lives of those around us. Another classic analogy is that of the oxygen mask in an aeroplane – what use are you to others if you don’t fit your own mask first? Self-care is the oxygen to our best selves. It’s all about giving yourself whatever you need to feel happy, healthy, relaxed, energised, calm and so on. So please, take some time this week to check in with yourself – how you’re feeling and what you need. Audit your drainers and add in some sustainers as a matter of routine and treat yourself as you would a child, your best friend or another loved one. You wouldn’t let your phone battery get to 0%, so don’t let it happen to yourself. I’m all out of clichés now so I’ll leave you with this food for thought and I’ll be back next week!

Bev Meakin – Personal Trainer/ Exercise Referral Officer and Complementary Therapist. Instagram @bevs_life