The majority of us are living in a self-care deficit. We juggle a million and one things. We struggle to do anything we see as unproductive. We feel exhausted saying ‘yes’ but guilty saying ‘no’.
And I’ve been there too. For years, I thought that self-care was selfish. I thought there was something better and more worthwhile I should be doing instead of caring for myself.
We are a social species so it’s natural to put others before ourselves. But caring for ourselves is what allows us to do this. Self-care means making yourself a priority in your own life so you can give the world the best of you.
Writer, Eleanor Brownn, captures this idea perfectly:
“You cannot serve from an empty vessel.”
And that is how I see things now. Only when we fill ourselves up with self-care and self-compassion and self-love can we serve others from the overflow.
Think of self-care a bit like building a hospital. Hospitals help thousands of lives but you have to put the time and effort into building it before you can do that. In the same way, you have to put the time and effort into building yourself before you can help others.
What is self-care?
Self-care is different things to different people in different situations. It can be summarised as:
- something that refuels us, rather than drains us
- choosing behaviors that balance the effects of emotional and physical stressors
- providing adequate attention to your physical and psychological wellness
- behaviors that enhance health, prevent disease, limit illness, and restore health
- you looking after you
Why is self-care so important in Fear-Free Eating?
Self-care is important all the time. But it is especially important when it comes to rebuilding a healthy relationship with food. Whether you’re trapped in the cycle of chronic dieting or struggle with anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating, self-care is essential in order for you to have the energy to break destructive habits and reconnect with your body so you can begin to eat in a way that feels good and truly satisfies you.
On a fundamental level, self-care is the opposite of self-neglect, self-criticism and self-abuse. Dieting and disordered eating involve all three. So, by caring for yourself, you begin to counteract the neglect, abuse and criticism you have been imposing on yourself for so long and instead start to see your worth.
On an intuitive level, being in a self-care deficit is a barrier to attunement – being ‘in tune’ with your body’s needs. When you are disconnected from your body’s signals, you are more likely to overeat because you won’t be attuned to your body’s signals for hunger and fullness.
On a neurological and hormonal level, self-care is incredibly important in breaking destructive habits related to food. A common outcome of being in a self-care deficit is stress. And stress causes an increase in stress hormones like cortisol which cause your brain to switch from using the higher brain (which you use to make conscious choices that support your health and happiness) to your lower brain (so you begin acting out of habit even if that means taking actions that don’t support your health and happiness) in order to conserve energy (you can read more about the higher and lower brain here: Is your Eating disorder a Habit? ). If your habit is to binge on ice cream, then this is more likely to happen if self-care has slipped to the bottom of your priority list and your stress levels have increased – this is a natural, neurological response to being in a self-care deficit and NOT because of a lack of willpower.
Another consequence of lack of self-care is exhaustion. When you are deprived of sleep, rest and nourishment, your brain shifts to the survival mode of the lower brain meaning it is harder to dismiss any habitual thoughts and urges that might tell you to skip a meal because you feel anxious or binge on cookies because you feel stressed (you can read more about habitual thoughts here: How To Break Unhealthy Eating Habits). Self-care is crucial in giving you the mental energy to separate your true self and your desire for health and happiness (found in your higher brain) from the habitual voice that is keeping your trapped in a cycle of dieting, starvation, overeating and self-hate (housed in the lower brain).
Are you in a self-care deficit?
It is difficult to connect to your body and mind so you can begin eating intuitively and truly nourishing yourself if you are neglecting basic self-care. Answering the questions below will give you a sense of your self-care patterns. Anything you answer ‘no’ to is an area that you might want to spend a bit more time focussing on.
- Do you eat regular, nourishing meals that satisfy you?
- Do you get 7-8 hours sleep a night?
- Do you stay physically active in a way that you enjoy?
- Do you go to the doctors if you feel you are getting ill?
- Do you take time off work when you need to?
- Do you make time for intimacy?
- Do you take steps to decrease stress in your life?
- Do you journal or take time for self-reflection?
- Are you aware of your inner experiences including thoughts, beliefs, judgements, emotions…?
- Do you read (unrelated to work)?
- Do you spend time doing things where you are not in charge?
- Do you say ‘no’ to extra responsibilities which would put too much pressure on you?
- Do you spend time with people you enjoy being with?
- Do you spend time doing things you enjoy?
- Do you allow yourself to experience a full range of emotions and allow yourself to cry?
- Do you love and respect yourself?
- Do you spend time in nature?
- Do you feel inspired by life?
- Do you feel part of something bigger than yourself?
- Do you feel hope?
- Do you trust life?
- Do you feel purpose and meaning?
- Do you meditate?
- Do you live in awe?
Work and study self-care
- Do you take regular breaks during your day?
- Do you ask for help when you need it?
- Do you get regular support or supervision from those that can help you develop professionally?
- Do you have a comfortable work place?
- Do you set boundaries with clients and colleagues?
Overall life self-care
- Do you know where to place your energy in order to stay healthy and happy?
- Do you know how to find balance between work, play, relationships, hobbies, and rest?
Practical steps: How to refill your vessel
Self-care is anything that nourishes you and brings you joy. So, when you find those things, care enough about yourself to make room for them in your life. And these things might change day to day. Some days self-care might look like a walk along the seafront and a morning gym session. Other days meeting friends for coffee and going to a yoga class might refuel you. And on other days having a lie in and reading a book might be the things that make you feel incredible.
Just remember, self-care isn’t about adding a load of stuff to your to-do list. Clients often tell me they practice self-care by forcing themselves to practice yoga for an hour or day or going for a run or reading a self-help book even if they dread doing those things.
That’s not self-care.
Self-care is something that nourishes you. That energised you instead of draining you. It’s not another demand you place upon yourself.
So self-care can be really simple. It’s all about connecting with how you feel, asking yourself ‘What do I need?’ and then honouring those needs. Eating when you’re hungry. Napping when you’re tired. Seeing friends when you’re feeling disconnected. Reaching out when you’re feeling lost.
For me, it looks like this:
- lighting candles when I’m home in the evenings
- going to the beach to watch the sunset when I’m in need of inspiration
- speaking to my mum or my sister on the phone if I’m feeling vulnerable
- meeting a friend for coffee when I need connection
- going to the gym when I’m feeling strong
- eating more vegetables when I feel in need of nutrients
- practicing yoga when I feel like moving and stretching
- meditating when my brain feels busy
- having a hot bath when I need to relax
- cooking myself my favourite meal when I want to nourish myself
- doing my hair and putting on an outfit I feel incredible in when I’m feeling insecure
- doing handstands when I feel like playing
- going to bed early when I’m feeling tired
- sitting and day dreaming when I need some headspace
What does self-care look like for you? Let me know in the comments below.
You can find a printable version of these questions to download here: Self-Care Inventory