A few months ago, I read this article and it blew my entire perspective on self-care wide open. Specifically, her idea of indulge vs. nurture totally floored me. I urge you to read the article and the blog as a whole, because it's fantastic, but I'll distill her concept of "indulge vs. nurture," as I understand it, so we're all quickly on the same page.
Essentially, there are two main categories that self-care falls into: indulgent and nurturing. Much of what we think about when we think "self-care" falls into the "indulge" category. If we're in a bad mental place, we get told to "treat ourselves." I want to emphasize that I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with indulgent self-care. Sometimes, you've spread yourself too thin tending to others and responsibilities, and you do need to do something really special just for yourself-- like buying lipstick, or taking yourself to the movies (going to the movies solo is one of my favorite things, by the way).
Nurturing self-care, on the other hand, is all about maintenance. This type includes the boring shit you are wise to keep on top to keep yourself on an even keel, things like: basic hygiene, nutrition, adequate sleep, and a clean home environment. Frequently, when we are feeling depressed or anxious and we think we deserve to "treat ourselves," what we really need is to nurture ourselves. For instance, you can decide to treat yourself to some ice cream, but if you don't have a clean bowl to put it in, what's going to make you feel better isn't having ice cream-- it's doing your dishes. You know?
Again, I want to stress there's nothing wrong with indulging. It's healthy to do nice things for yourself. It's just that treating yourself more than you nurture yourself won't really help your mental health in any lasting way.
I've known about this concept for a few months, and I think about it all the time. That said, it is really difficult to implement. The truth is, nurturing self-care, most of the time, is fucking boring. Indulgent self-care, on the other hand, is fucking fun. While nurturing self-care habits will certainly make you feel better in the long run, indulgent ones come with an instant reward-- maybe short-lived, but instant nonetheless.
And god damnit, I like my things instant: my coffee, my gratification, etc! So when I'm feeling depressed or anxious, if it's the choice between self-care that's nurturing, like taking a shower, cooking something healthy, and going to bed, vs. getting takeout falafel and watching Mad Men in my underwear until my eyeballs bleed, it's a non-decision. I'm already powering up the Netflix.
I was cleaning the bejeezus out of my apartment, and I was thinking of how I could get myself to choose nurturing self-care. In the throes of a depressive episode, choosing healthy self-care is really hard. Then I realized: why not automate the choice? Why not take some of my most powerful tools for nurturing self-care and turn them into non-negotiables?
If I make a list of non-negotiables (based on nurturing self-care) that I must do every single day, then when I'm in that space where I'm feeling dark and heavy, I can run through that checklist before turning to more indulgent solutions. This way, the decision is automated, so I don't have to choose in the moment between something nurturing and something that's frankly way way more fun. If I make sure I've checked off all my self-care non-negotiables, and I'm still feeling low, THEN I can feel confident about treating myself. At least my basics are met.
Defining self-care non-negotiables is tricky, especially if you're a perfectionist or neurotic like I am. You don't want these things to become a source of stress themselves, or a really cumbersome to-do list. They just need to be things that always give you some sense of peace when they're completed, and conversely cause you a lot of background stress when they're not. This is not the place to implement some crazy workout routine, or like, instill an art habit that isn't there yet. Those things can be great, but that isn't the point of the non-negotiables. They need to be manageable and chosen carefully.
I hesitated at the idea of sharing my list, because I don't want to assert that these are the types of things that should go on yours. I just thought about what personally helps me feel calm and relaxed, and went from there. So I share in the spirit of openness, while also asserting that everyone's list will look very different (including mine, at a different time or headspace). Without further ado, my current list of daily self-care non-negotiables includes:
- Doing yoga
- Walking my dog
- Washing my dishes
- Taking a shower or bath
- Getting at least seven hours of sleep
Boring, right? Nonetheless, when I thought of the things that greatly contribute to my anxiety and depression when they aren't attended to, and conversely provide a healthy and comforting foundation of wellness when they are, it was the list above. I also understand that, if I were majorly depressed, my list would look a lot different, and that's okay. Nothing's ever set in stone.
Briefly, I'll explain my reasoning on each non-negotiable:
- Doing yoga: Of course doing yoga is excellent exercise, but like many women, I've used exercise as punishment/body hate before, and so I lean away from that reasoning. The reason doing yoga is on my daily list is because when I'm doing it, I'm so focused on the poses and my breathing that I don't have any space to worry. My mind tends to somersault through fears and anxieties, rinse and repeat. To get a little break from that, even if it's 15 minutes, does wonders for my mental state.
- Walking my dog: Walking is exercise and thus carries the same disclaimer as yoga did above, but the main reasons this is on my list are because it forces me to 1) get outside and interact with my world, and 2) shift the focus off myself and onto someone else [my dog!]. When I take my dog on a walk, it keeps him healthy and happy. Knowing I have the capacity to keep my dog healthy and happy makes me feel like I can certainly manage and advocate for my own health and happiness.
- Washing my dishes: It may sound strange to have a chore like this on my list, but my mental state has a direct correlation to the cleanliness of my apartment. If shit's a mess, so am I. Keeping my dishes clean, even though it's just one element in a clean home, helps me feel like I'm capable and in control of my surroundings.
- Taking a shower or bath: This one's a little embarrassing. Basic hygiene is another element that is directly tied to how stable I'm feeling. Simply put, when I'm really depressed, I don't shower. I could unpack that for days, as it's probably a combination of feeling unworthy or too hollow, but if I'm at least making myself get clean every day, it helps me feel like I'm above water.
- Getting at least 7 hours of sleep: This one's easy. When I'm depressed, I'm so perpetually nervous that I avoid sleep, and then being tired makes my depression and anxiety even worse, and it very quickly becomes vicious and consuming. Making sure my phone is off and I'm in bed with enough time to feel fully rested the next morning is major.
Some of these things may seem stupid, obvious, or childish to you, and that's fine. I'm not super proud I have to make myself shower every day. Sometimes it makes me feel like a little kid. But ultimately, it helps me to set these parameters around my life. It's weirdly and yet immensely rewarding when I've done everything on my list. Then, at the end of the day, I know I've at least taken care of myself a little bit, which is so essential when depression makes me feel like I don't deserve to be nurtured.
And then if, at that point, I want falafel and Don Draper, fuck off, I'm treating myself, understand?