I’m not great at this whole “self-care” thing. Scratch that – if we’re being completely honest here, I’m probably the worst person in the world at practicing self-care. When my therapist tells me to keep working on my “self-care” techniques, I think she pictures me meditating under a willow tree by a peaceful stream, a breeze gently tousling my perfect curls and an expression of complete serenity on my face. (The curls are perfect, by the way, because they are no longer weighed down by self-hatred, no longer frazzled by the constant current of electric anxiety running over my skin.) But I don’t think she’s able to keep the picture going for long, because sooner or later she realises that she has never (and nor have I, now that I think about it) ever seen me with an expression even remotely close to “serenity” on my face. At best, I think I’ve gotten close to a “fuck this, I’m done” face – although that probably looks closer to “the hairdresser just burned my ear with the straightener but I can’t let her see my pain” than “I am made whole by the fullness of life.”
That being said, on the rare occasion I do manage to pull myself together enough to even think about practicing self-care, I immediately get stuck on the “how?”. The term “self-care” is at this point so saturated with meaning that I don’t know whether I’m supposed to be spending an inordinate amount of money on some sort of massage that will just make me uncomfortable (bodily and existentially), or painting my nails (badly), or doing a skin-care routine that will probably make me break out in hives. Nonetheless, the spirit of the new year (read: two years of intensive therapy, topped off my a sponsored Instagram post or seventy encouraging me to change my lifestyle in 2020) moves within me. I can take care of myself, goddamn it. I am an adult. If bloody Kylie Jenner (seven thousand cockroaches in a skin-suit, confirmed) can find a way to transcend this state of crippling existential dread, to escape this hopeless reality in which the world is literally burning, then I can take fifteen minutes out of my day to tell myself that I’m maybe just a little bit worthy of love.
So here are three ways I’m going to take care of myself this year. I was going to do twenty for 2020 because I’m a unique spirit driven by original ideas, but that seems like far too much of a commitment.
#1: Rituals and Routines
(Okay, I can’t take credit for this idea because it’s what my therapist has been telling me to do for a solid 18 months. But this year I’m going to listen to her for real.)
Establishing routines is generally accepted as one of the most effective ways to combat anxiety, largely because they allow us to create time and space for important activities that otherwise get jostled around by stress. If you’re anything like me, you heard the word “routine” and your iron-clad little brain did a brief happy dance – but hold tight because it turns out that (gasp!) too much structure can actually be a negative thing. That’s right. My habit of organizing my life into neat, perfectly spaced blocks of time is apparently “unhealthy” and “a coping mechanism for my crippling fear of an uncontrollable world.” Who knew?
If the goal is to create routines that give us space to breathe and function, it turns out that the solution lies not in routine itself but in the ways we interrupt our existing (not-so-healthy) structures. And that’s where rituals come in. When my mental health was at breaking point, the routines that made me feel so safe and secure were sabotaging my sleep, my relationships, my body – but abandoning them completely would have destroyed me. So, my therapist and I tried a different tactic. If it felt like the last thing I could do was take a break, I had instructions to get up and make myself a cup of tea. Ten minutes. Ten minutes away from the task that had to be completed in the allotted time, and ten minutes of focusing on something else entirely. The key to this ritual was being mindful of each action in the tea-making process: the sound of water boiling, the feeling of the mug against my hands, the smell of the leaves… It seems like an insignificant thing, but this small ritual would give me the space I needed to gain just a shred of mental clarity, to reflect on my current state and to combat the stress I was most definitely ignoring otherwise.
So in my journey to establishing a routine that supports rather than sabotages my mental well-being, I’m going to implement a range of little rituals throughout the day. Ten minutes to make a cup of tea, to wash my face, to comb my hair, to pet the cats – and to bring awareness to each of the actions rather than surrendering to some abstract timetable.
#2: Find excuses to be outside
This one speaks for itself. And I’m sure everybody’s aware of the huge benefits of “finding peace in nature” by now, so I’m not going to waste your time by telling you to go for a hike! watch some birds! lie in the grass! get bitten by a million tiny bugs! fling yourself into a waterfall!
While I’m great at doing things outside, I’ve never quite nailed just being outside. I love walking through parks, or going jogging down quiet streets, or hiking up mountains, or reading on the beach – but ask me to sit still on a rock and something in my brain short circuits. In practicing the same mindfulness that is so crucial to rituals, I’ve promised myself to make some time in my day to just be. To breathe fresh air and concentrate on the sounds of the birds in the trees, the smell of damp grass, even the feeling of several million bugs eating me. Mindfulness.
(Oh, and also it’s a good idea to get outside while there is still an “outside”. I think I mentioned this before, but the world is literally burning to the fucking ground. Everything’s dying. Might as well get bitten by bugs while we still can.)
#3: Take up a hobby for some down-time
2020 is the year we take back hobbies from the rich. I’m calling it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my hobbies over the past month, and I’ve come to the realisation that all the things I do “for fun” are somehow connected to the things I do “for work”. Over the past four years, I’ve spent my “working” time reading books and writing essays – and I’ve spent my “fun” time reading books and writing reviews. So… the very complex mathematics would suggest that I spend all of my time using effectively the same part of my brain. Don’t ask me how that happened. It’s not like I found something I thought I was maybe a little bit good at and allowed it to take over my entire life.
Somehow I’ve managed to engineer a scenario in which I never actually give myself a break from reading and writing. No matter how much I enjoy those things, there needs to be something in my life that allows my brain to function in a completely different way – otherwise I’ll continue this lovely cycle of hyper-activity and burnout that has characterised my young adult years. My ex used to tell me to play games (and I found a passion for Stardew Valley along the way, so I can’t begrudge him that idea) but gaming isn’t really a hobby for me. Instead, I’ve decided to get back into playing piano, seeing as it was one of the things I “just never really found time for” at university. Time away from a screen, doing something with my hands, hopefully getting to a stage where I can actually listen to the sounds coming out of the instrument without cringing… I think it’s a great way to break with routine and think in something other than words.
And that’s it: One long post about the three little ways I’m going to take care of myself this year. God, now it almost sounds easy enough to try it. Almost. But again, if someone like like Gwyneth Paltrow can love herself enough to put a crystal up her vagina or whatever Goop is selling these days, then I can damn well sit myself down on a patch of damp grass after a piano lesson and drink a hot cup of tea. Bugs and burnt tongues and blistered fingers and all.
Take care of yourselves out there.