Bringing strategy to how we care for ourselves is about understanding what we need to be happy, and being real with ourselves about the blockers we put in our path to prevent it.
I’ve created these five practices to help us stay encouraged on the path toward fulfillment and be compassionate and authentic with ourselves when things don’t go as planned. These pillars are designed to be easy, baby steps toward growing closer to yourself, reflecting on what feels good and what doesn’t, and knowing yourself better.
Celebrating “Small” Wins
Too often, we don’t acknowledge the joy of our successes, nor do we take the time (or have the courage) to acknowledge the sorrow and disappointment of missed opportunities and rejections. What’s the risk? It’s easy to celebrate big wins – like a promotion, a publishing contract, a salary increase. Those are obvious – but they don’t come very often. And without feeding ourselves a steady diet of self-acceptance and daily cheerleading, we can grow cold inside, lose motivation, and start emotionally checking out. We’ve all been there.
A small win could be someone replying to an important email and acknowledging your feelings, finishing a project on time, or asking for something you really want… and getting it. How do you celebrate it? If you’ve received praise, print out the email and tape it to your fridge so you see it several times a day. This will visually reinforce your success, building more self-love and confidence. Or buy yourself a small gift. Every time you look at it, you’ll be reminded of the win, and that success will help you attract more successes.
Disappointment, when unaddressed, can harden our hearts and encourage us to avoid our feelings. Humans are very resilient, which means we’re good at getting back up after a setback and moving forward. Go go go! Right? Wrong. Without taking a few minutes to acknowledge the pain of a temporary disappointment, that avoidance can encourage the desensitization of other emotions – again on the path to emotionally checking out.
Some examples of disappointment could be someone ignoring you, receiving negative or unfair criticism, or not meeting a personal goal. Grieving this disappointment to support yourself is not self-indulgent or frivolous. It’s worthy and necessary. In just five minutes, you can sit quietly and reflect on how the setback made you feel, acknowledge the sting, and identify something constructive you can do to prevent it from happening again – a small tweak or change to your routine or practices. By doing this again and again, you’ll be building a bridge to the most vulnerable part of your heart and cultivating self-love in a profound way. And from there, you’ll likely find that you have more courage for other things as well.
Other than toddlers, who enjoys saying no? Pretty much no one. Why? It’s about disappointing people, and when you’re disappointing someone you care about or someone who’s important to your career, we’d do literally anything to avoid it. The problem, of course, is that when we say yes but feel no in our hearts, we’ve created a misalignment. And when we keep doing that, when we keep lying to ourselves and pretending that something is okay when it’s not, other things move out of alignment. And when enough of our parts are out of alignment, we begin to weaken.
So how do you say no without disappointing people you care about? You can’t. So the trick is to stop caring that you’re disappointing people. The way you do that is by starting with small, inconsequential things. If disappointing your family is too painful, start with someone less emotionally-charged. If someone at work asks you to contribute to a charity event, try saying no. You could say, “No but maybe next time.” I love the no, buts and also the not now but maybe later options because they don’t feel as scary as just flat out No! Do this several times to get used to how it feels. Say no to your neighbor, or to a friend who wants you to go to a movie with them. “Thanks for asking but I don’t feel like it tonight.” If this sounds easy, you’ve never done it before. Disappointing people is hard, and the fear is that they won’t like or love or approve of us anymore. But this small change is worth the risk. Start small and then you’ll feel a little less uncomfortable when it comes time to say no to your boss, mother, or daughter. And pretty soon, you’ll notice that you have healthier boundaries, and your assertiveness is building a whole new level of confidence you never knew was possible.
This one is my personal Achilles heel. And I’ve discovered along the way that perfectionism often accompanies people-pleasing. Fear of disappointing people could be the topical concern, but digging deeper, it’s more related to a question of whether we feel we will still be loved if we’re not perfect. Relearning how we look at ourselves in the world may seem like an insurmountable task. But there’s a small change we can make right now to set ourselves on that path. In the same way that you might practice saying no to certain people and certain requests, you can apply that same method to perfectionism – start doing things imperfectly. This can mean leaving a particular daily task unfinished, or else finishing the task in an imperfect way. Putting clothes in the wrong drawer. Forks in the knife receptacle. A plate left unwashed in the kitchen sink.
You might be asking, “How could this possibly be construed as self care?” Allowing yourself to do things imperfectly, make mistakes, or leave things undone gives a tacit cue to your brain that you trust, somehow, that you’ll be okay in spite of this. And the more you do this, practicing imperfection in small ways, you’ll find that it has some wonderful and maybe unexpected effects. You might discover that you’re a bit more understanding of other’s imperfections, and the cost, the impact, and the risks of not always being perfect will start to shrink. And when this happens, some inner tundra deep inside may begin to thaw. This is strategic self care. This new strategy of cutting yourself slack, of practicing change in safe, small doses will bring you closer to yourself and help you better understand what you need to feel whole.
Asking for Help
There are many things that prevent us from asking for help, and not all of them are artifacts of our egoic mind. Of course, we want to think of ourselves as superhumans always capable of working all day, taking care of our families, and still finding time to work out and buy groceries. But the inclination to push ourselves beyond our reasonable limits to avoid asking for help is just that – avoidance. We might have asked someone for help in the past and they said no. Soliciting support from others can also backfire if it would take longer to explain the task than to just do it yourself.
Asking for help is a rich starting point for self care, because doing so means that we recognize that we can’t hold the world up with one finger – every single day. Some days we need help from others, or we need to readjust our own expectations by removing things from the list.
Stepping back, all of these practices are about the same thing – celebrating ourselves, nurturing when we feel wounded, pushing back when expectations are too high, and asking for support are all about allowing ourselves to be human – and trusting that our world won’t crumble if we slip from time to time. The support structures you’ve attracted in your life – marriage, family, job, friends, are a reflection of the totality of you, not just a perfect, flawless version of you. That means those structures, those people already know that you’re human and not perfect…and they’re okay with it. Now it’s your turn.
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