Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
“Abigail, you said you were going to bed early tonight.”
“But I have so much work left to do!”
Thus began a conversation which ultimately resulted in my getting enough sleep and being productive the next day. Thanks to this friend, one of many supports in my life, I felt encouraged to prioritize my self-care and let my work wait till the morning.
One of the most important elements of self-care (as with any lifestyle change or personal goal) is to establish a good support network. Support can come from friends, family, teammates, coaches, professors, or even Tumblr followers. The important thing is to find people who:
Understand the importance of self-care
Love you and want to see you at your best
Won’t judge you when you slip up
Let’s start at the beginning. The easiest way to find these people in your life is to start conversations about self-care with the ones you are already close to. If you say, “I only got three hours of sleep last night,” and they respond with, “Oh yeah? I only got two!” they might be more interested in a misery poker tournament than in being supportive.
Keep an ear out for how your friends and family talk about self-care. Do they mention how good they feel after their recent run/nap/impromptu walk in the Crum? Do they complain about stress and lack of sleep without taking steps to decrease their workload? Do they ask about how you are doing (physically, mentally, emotionally, and/or spiritually)? Do they really listen when you answer?
These questions lead us into the next (and perhaps more important) quality: people who care about you and want to see you at your best. While people who model good self-care can often be the best supports, don’t rule out everyone else: even a friend who is not interested in making changes to their own self-care regimen can help empower you to make the changes you want to.
Everything I know about being a good support to others comes from the people who have supported me over the years. When I am stressed about getting work done late at night, my sister asks me, “What would most help your stress? Do you want motivation to finish the rest of this so it’s done tonight, or do you want encouragement to go to bed and work on it in the morning when your brain is functioning better?”
This simple act of asking me how I want to be supported does two important things. First, it gives me control of the situation, empowering me to care for myself however I see fit. Second, it gives me options and the knowledge that I will have her support no matter what I choose. After I opt for sleep-encouragement, I can complain all I want as she replies, “Sorryyyy, I can’t heeear you–you’re going to bed and that’s that.”
But if she had made the decision and insisted I go to bed without asking me first, I would feel annoyed with her and frustrated with myself — it would feel like I needed someone to tell me to go to bed because I couldn’t do it myself and therefore am a self-care failure. Furthermore, it might not actually help my stress or sleep, because maybe I would sleep better knowing that my work was finished and I didn’t need to worry about it any more.
Lastly, it’s important to find people who won’t judge you when you slip up.
If I have a new goal, like meditating once a week, I like to tell my friends about it. Sometimes they get excited and say, “I want to try that too!” and we end up helping each other stick to our new practices. Other times they say, “I could never do that, but more power to you!” and I still feel loved and supported.
Inevitably, though, I get stressed and forget (or pretend to forget) to meditate one week, and then I might start avoiding it in conversation. After all, if they know I made a mistake, they might be disappointed in me (especially because I write a column on self-care) or they might scold me in an effort to hold me accountable. Just the thought of either of those outcomes sends me into a silent spiral of shame which is difficult to escape from.
But the best supporters in my life know the importance of constant validation and unconditional love. These are the people I come to and sheepishly admit, “I said I was going to get more sleep last night but I stayed up watching Orange is the New Black instead.” They offer me a hug and reply, “That’s ok, at least you got some good TV time in! Want help sticking to an early bedtime tonight?” And just like that, the shame vanishes, I start feeling better about life, and I am reminded that I am not alone in this journey.
Featured image courtesy of www.metoffice.gov.uk