Self-care continues to be a popular buzz-word.
But while it persistently grabs headlines, it also remains a fuzzy concept.
Though a relatively new phenomenon in the West, self-care has a much older tradition in far Eastern cultures, reaching back to antiquity. Marked by a preventative rather than a reactive approach to health, many Asian cultures seek to manage our energy economies before they become depleted.
The therapeutics of Traditional Chinese Medicine, for example, revolves around preventing the exhaustion or blockage of “qi,” our vital life energy. Qigong, meditation, and yoga are all techniques designed to restore our inner balance and to prevent us from burning out.
Combining self-soothing and relaxation with resilience-enhancing strategies, Western-style self-care, too, promotes a proactive approach to our physical and mental wellbeing (see Lee, 2019).
A sustainable and holistic investment in our minds and bodies, it includes taking good care of our physical health – most notably, by eating healthily, exercising, and sleeping well. But it also entails looking after our minds and emotions, which can take the form of setting time aside for activities that nourish our spirits and learning to understand how we can best replenish our energies.
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Why Is Self-Care So Important?
If we do not practice basic self-care, we may quite simply burn out. We will be unable to decompress and to find outlets for our stressors. The less good care we take of ourselves, the less we will have to give, for, from an empty cup, we cannot pour.
Often, self-care advice takes the form of prescribing specific relaxation activities to clients. But this misses the point. The true essence of self-care is two-fold: it involves self-knowledge and positive self-talk.
First and foremost, we need to understand our true needs. What restores us and what does not differs substantially from person to person, depending on our tastes and preferences. Our key task is to stimulate our clients to reflect on what it is that they need – their own unique and special sets of self-care activities.
The second core part of self-care is about managing the way we talk to ourselves. Denise Fournier (2019) rightly highlights the importance of adjusting our self-talk as a crucial component of self-care. For there is nothing more energy-draining and destructive than our inner critic, the bullying voice that tells us we are lacking.
To take better care of ourselves, we need to work on cultivating a kinder, more compassionate voice. Awareness-raising and self-compassion (see Neff 2004), then, are the central features of self-care.
Our 5 Favorite Self-Care Worksheets
A solid starting point for embarking on a self-care journey is to take an inventory of how good we are at it already. The Self-Care Assessment questionnaire by TherapistAid breaks self-care down into physical, psychological, social, spiritual, and professional self-care. Checking how we score in each domain provides a good first indication for what we should prioritize.
An even better first calling point is PositivePsychology.com’s Energy-Management Audit, which invites us to understand from which activities we gain energy and how we can best replenish it. It reminds us that our energy sources are tied up with our basic human needs, and encompass the mind, body, emotions, and spirit. It gives a clear indication in which domain we may most struggle to care well for ourselves and where we may lose most of our energy (see Schwartz and McCarthy, 2007).
Our lack of energy may be the result of simple and easy-to-fix habits such as skipping breakfast or not taking enough breaks during the day. Or else it may be down to deeper causes such as not living by following our values or not engage in activities that are truly meaningful to us.
Given that self-compassion is such a vital part of any self-care regime worth its salt, another great stock-taking worksheet is PositivePsychology.com’s Taking Care of Myself. It is based on the idea that the most effective pathway to greater self-compassion is understanding how much we care for ourselves already. For example, it asks us to reflect on how we already care for our emotional wellbeing, and which other activities we could add to do so even better.
An excellent resource for self-compassion-based self-care exercises is Kristin Neff’s website. Her How would you treat a friend worksheet is particularly significant. It urges us to remember how we would interact with a struggling friend. What would we say to them? What tone of voice would we use?
Next, we are invited to think of how we speak to ourselves when we are struggling. Do we notice a difference between the way we talk to ourselves and the way we would speak to a friend about whom we care? If so, why? The aim is to treat ourselves as caringly and kindly as we would treat our friends.
In her Changing your Critical Self-Talk exercise, Neff invites us to notice when we are talking to ourselves in a critical voice. Whenever we feel bad, we are asked mindfully to notice that voice – what it says, which phrases it uses, its tone, and whether, perhaps, it reminds us of someone in our past.
As a next step, Neff asks us to soften this inner judge and to reframe the observations it makes in a friendlier, more positive way. We may even want to supplement endearing and understanding self-talk with warm physical gestures.
2 Worksheets for Youths
PositivePsychology.com’s Self-Care Vision Board is particularly well-suited for younger clients. This tool is available for free as part of our 3 Self-Compassion Exercises Pack (PDF), which you can download here.
Designed to increase self-care and self-compassion in creative ways, it adopts a playful and intuitive approach to the topic.
Clients are invited to create a self-care vision board. It can be drawn or combine cut-out images, photographs, and words. Clients are asked to brainstorm as many positive self-care activities as possible – both activities in which they are already engaging and those they would like to develop.
They are asked to work intuitively rather than rationally, to discuss their representations with their therapists, and then to place them in a prominent place where they remind them of all the great things they could do to take better care of themselves.
Another fantastic resource, for both the young and the old, is to be found in Jayne Hardy’s book The Self-care Project: How to let go of frazzle and make time for you (2017). Hardy is the founder and CEO of the mental health charity The Blurt Foundation, who struggled with depression in the past.
Self-care is one of the first set of activities that depressives give up, and it is particularly important to watch out for early warning signs of waning self-care in that group.
Divided into ten short chapters with practical advice, Hardy’s book also includes some excellent exercises. They combine drawings and thought-provoking prompts, inviting us to think more deeply about our strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and challenges. They do so in a sweetly playful and gently inspirational way and can be downloaded as a stand-alone resource.
The Self-Care Assessment Wheel
Self-Care Assessment Wheels are excellent tools for several reasons.
- First and foremost, they powerfully visualize the different domains of self-care.
- Secondly, they also show us, at a glance, a more holistic picture of how we are faring in caring for ourselves.
- Thirdly, they remind us that all of the domains of self-care are interconnected, and that, as a person, we are defined by how we do in all the relevant areas.
Frequently, the areas covered in self-care assessment wheels include the physical, the psychological, the emotional, the spiritual, the personal, and the professional spheres.
Assessment wheels are particularly useful for illustrating the importance of balance between these areas in our lives. The best and most widely used self-care assessment wheel is Olga Phoenix’s Self-Care Wheel. It consists of two sheets, one in which general relevant topics have been inserted into the wheel, as inspiration and prompts, and one empty wheel for the client to fill out.
If we want to be less directive and allow our clients to use this wheel more intuitively, we can simply present them with the empty wheel only.
Self-Care Activity Ideas
The list of commonly recommended self-care rituals tends to be topped by nutritional and sleep hygiene advice, and also features walks in nature, taking up hobbies, scheduling “me-time,” various relaxation techniques, and making more time for friends.
It also frequently includes sensual rituals such as bathing, pampering ourselves with luxurious beauty products, and lighting scented candles.
But prescribing specific activities to our clients misses the point. For self-care is all about finding out what we need – what our unique energy-draining and energy-boosting strategies are. They will differ in each case, and often substantially so. What re-energizes an extrovert, for example, may well drain an introvert even further.
The clue, then, is to draw up our unique list of our favorite things. We may take inspiration from the famous Sound of Music song:
Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things
Cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels
Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles
Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings
These are a few of my favorite things
For, to paraphrase Julie Andrews, when life stings, and we are feeling sad, we can simply remember our favorite things, and then we won’t feel so bad.
My personal list of favorite self-care things includes the following twelve items:
- Practicing balanced breathing for ten minutes. All you need to do is sit comfortably, with an upright spine, and breathe in on your count of six, and then breathe out, on your count of six. It is one of the most simple and powerful exercises I know for changing one’s state.
- Drinking in the colors of all the beautiful flowers and trees when walking in nature.
- Standing with my feet in the shore, where the waves break and foam, looking out to sea and filling my lungs deeply with salty air.
- Remembering all the things for which I am grateful.
- Watching my two cats practice self-care – they are the true masters of the art. All-day long, they sleep, clean, and groom themselves. They play, seek the sun, stretch, and purr, and demand cuddles whenever they feel like it.
- Going for a run along the river listening out for bird-song.
- Playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D major on the piano.
- Singing along at the top of my voice to songs I used to love as a teenager (I won’t tell which ones 😉 ).
- Watching films that make me cry.
- Having coffee with a friend.
- Cuddling my daughter.
- Applying my favorite body lotion all over my skin. Its orange-infused cedar-almond scent reminds me of a holiday in Tuscany when we were all serenely happy. There is nothing as significant as smell for activating memories and associated positive emotional states.
As my list hopefully shows, our self-care lists will be highly specific, and will not work for others. Our aim always has to be to stimulate our clients to draw up their own unique lists.
Emotional Intelligence Tools
Enhancing our emotional intelligence is another key facet of self-care.
To understand what drains and what replenishes us, we also need to have a basic understanding of our dominant emotional patterns.
In Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ (1995), the American psychologist Daniel Goleman defines the core components of emotional intelligence as self-control, persistence, and the ability to motivate ourselves, combined with the ability to empathize and read emotions in others, and, crucially, an understanding of our core emotional processes.
Insights into our emotional habits yield greater self-mastery.
The keystone of emotional intelligence – and a crucial prerequisite both to self-understanding and the ability to care well for ourselves – is knowing our emotions. It is a form of meta-self-awareness that is manifest in “recognizing a feeling as it happens.”
For the “inability to notice our true feelings leaves us at their mercy,” Goleman writes (1996, p. 43). Those of us who know our feelings are generally better pilots of our lives. There is a crucial difference between simply being caught up in a feeling and developing a metacognitive awareness that we are being submerged by this feeling.
Objective self-observation is, therefore, the key to knowing our emotional selves. Such self-observation entails stepping back from our experience and cultivating an awareness of our conscious thought that hovers above it rather than becoming entangled in it.
Two great emotional intelligence tools for enhancing our emotional self-knowledge are Self-Reflecting on Emotional Intelligence and The Emotion Meter. The first exercises break emotional intelligence down into understanding our emotions, understanding other people’s emotions, regulating our emotions, and using our feelings to improve ourselves. It invites us to reflect on how well our skills are developed in each of these areas and to develop ideas about how we can strengthen them further.
The Emotion Meter helps clients to recognize and label their emotions. It also offers a wonderful set of nuanced words for a wide range of different emotions, encouraging clients to name their feelings much more precisely and thus to expand their emotional register. This is a crucial aspect of emotion differentiating, which, in turn, helps to build resilience (see Kashdan, Barrett, and McKnight, 2015).
A Take-Home Message
The art of taking good care of ourselves includes some basics: Eating and sleeping well, getting regular exercise, and paying attention to our breath are among them, while ensuring that our self-talk is kind is also key.
Other than that, we should refrain from prescribing specific activities to our clients. Self-care means very different things to different people. As the ancients in Asia knew well, self-care is essentially about managing our energy wisely.
Truly understanding what drains us and what restores us is crucial in this process. Our task as psychologists and coaches is to create awareness in our clients about what works for them.
Self-knowledge, including emotional intelligence, is thus a crucial precondition for self-care. It may be that yoga or knitting will help us to refuel, but it can just as well be kick-boxing or kite-surfing.
Introverts will cherish alone-time activities, while extroverts may reenergize by being with others. So let us not recommend people light scented candles or take bubble-baths, but encourage them instead to understand their unique needs and how to meet them – whatever these may be.
- Fournier, D. (2019, January 28). Why a shift in self-talk is the ultimate self-care strategy: Taking care of ourselves starts with changing the way we talk to ourselves. PsychologyToday. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/mindfully-present-fully-alive/201901/why-shift-in-self-talk-is-the-ultimate-self-care-strategy.
- Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. London and New York: Bloomsbury.
- Hardy, J. (2017). The Self-care project: How to let go of frazzle and make time for you. London: Orion Spring.
- —. The Self-care project: Exercises (2017). Retrieved from: https://www.blurtitout.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/The-Self-Care-Project-worksheets.pdf.
- Kashdan, T. B., Barrett, L.F., & McKnight, P. E. (2015). Unpacking emotion differentiation: Transforming unpleasant experience by perceiving distinctions in negativity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(1), 10–16.
- Lee, K. (2019, October 04). Self-Care isn’t selfish or superficial. PsychologyToday. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/rethink-your-way-the-good-life/201910/self-care-isn-t-selfish-or-superficial.
- Neff, K. D. (2004). Self-compassion and psychological wellbeing. Constructivism in the Human Sciences, 9, 27–37.