Sweat the small stuff: the little things can count

Today was the first day since starting the 100 Day Project that I’ve a) felt a bit un-inspired about what to write and b) like perhaps skipping a night of writing.

However the latest issue of Women’s Health landed this eve with a section dedicated to self-care. It reminded me of the blog I wanted to, well, blog yesterday about connections, so never one to skip a sign, here goes.

Self-care is everywhere. It’s something I have always believed I was very good at practicing. I cook for myself, I ‘treat’ myself, I occasionally – well more than occasionally – splurge.

Recently though I’ve begun to redefine my definition of self-care in two, for me, really important ways.

Firstly, and I was very pleased to read this in WH’s ‘WTF is Self-Care’ spread, it’s now about going back to quite frankly boring basics. The concept of self-care can easily be taken as scented candles and spa days. Of course it can be; I have lovely smelling candles burning right now. But actually I find really small daily habits – and they are habits now – more meaningful to my mental well-being than those one off infrequent lavish gestures. They also keep me much more regularly ‘topped up’.

This is actually more than a little embarrassing, but amongst my new favourite things to do are making my bed, drawing the curtains every morning, and washing my face properly every night. I was all too guilty of skipping this after a night out, or if I was too tired or quite frankly just not feeling up to it, but my evening routine of brushing, flossing (yes, my lovely hygienist if you are reading this, I am keeping that up) and my four-step face washing routine means at night feels like I have ‘done me’. My sleep ritual which I wrote about last night is another such thing. Making my bed in the morning, every morning, sounds so small but it has genuinely been game-changing. I only started doing it last summer, previously subscribing to the school of thought that making it didn’t matter as I’d just mess it up again that night. But the novelty hasn’t worn off and it still gives me a boost, and a small satisfied smile, when I take that final glance at my bedroom before I leave for the day, and when I walk in at night.

Secondly, I’m learning that for me at least self-care is not just alone about the self, but actually very much about others. I’ve recently finished reading a very interesting new book by Johann Hari entitled ‘Lost Connections’, examining how some of the ways in which we now live are contributing to depression and a decline in mental wellbeing. The chapter on a loss of meaningful connections with other people really struck a cord. (P.S. Expect more blogs on Hari’s book not least because I am going to hear him speak on Wednesday).

Perhaps coming from a similar mentality that led to my previous views on self-care, I’ve always equated being alone with being strong and actually have often believed that asking for help, saying you need someone, is a sign of being weak. As Hari notes

We have begun to think: I will look after myself… nobody can help you but you. These ideas now run so deep in our culture that we even offer them as feel-good bromides to people who feel down – as if it will lift them up…this is a denial of human history, a denial of human nature. It leads us to misunderstand our most basic instincts. And this approach to life makes us feel terrible.

This chapter focuses on the work of a neuroscience researcher John Cacioppo which started back in the 70s. Read the book if you want to learn more (I do recommend it) but through various studies Caccioppo has found that

Feeling lonely caused your cortisol levels to soar… as stressful as experiencing a physical attack…loneliness is not merely the result of depression… it leads to depression.

He traces it back to evolution, where we began by living in small hunter-gatherer tribes, and our survival as a race, our lives, continued because we learnt to co-operate and connect. It is meaningful connections to other – not just physically being with others through, actually connecting with them about something that mattered – that we need.

Lately my self-care has expanded to include much more meaningful connecting with others. I still like time own my own, but in the past month I’ve joined a new group, made up of people who were strangers at the start, and it’s amazing how being kind to others, even people you don’t really know, and having them be unconditionally kind back in return, is some of the best self-care I have ever found. Just to clarify though, don’t confuse this with sacrificing yourself for other people’s well-being which is the opposite of self-care. You’ll know the difference.

So whilst I generally liked WH’s tips for self-care, which does include volunteering as well as taking time to be alone, I do think we should try to balance the word ‘self’ in ‘self-care’ with more of a recognition that we were not meant to do all of this alone.

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