Why you should be look­ing af­ter NUM­BER ONE

Feel­ing fraz­zled? Then put your­self first. It isn’t ego­tis­ti­cal; it’s es­sen­tial for your health and well­be­ing, says Jayne Hardy


De­pres­sion stole large chunks of my life. I was un­able to work, leave the house or look af­ter my­self. Learn­ing to man­age my de­pres­sion only started when I be­gan to prac­tise self-care. When I in­cor­po­rate ways to look af­ter my­self, I feel much bet­ter for it.

But it is dif­fi­cult to pri­ori­tise my needs. I de­test the in­ter­nal di­a­logue that starts when I take time out for my­self; it high­lights all the other things I should be do­ing, peo­ple I could be spend­ing time with. We’ve all been there – we agree to do some­thing for some­one and then in­stantly re­gret it, re­sult­ing in feel­ings of re­sent­ment. In­stead of say­ing, ‘No, sorry, I can’t,’ we put the other per­son’s needs or ex­pec­ta­tions above our own. We al­low our own sense of self to take sec­ond place.

Self-care is not a fluffy con­cept about spend­ing more time in spas; it is about con­sciously tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for your phys­i­cal, emo­tional, psy­cho­log­i­cal and so­cial needs. It could in­clude mak­ing an over­due doc­tor’s ap­point­ment, get­ting enough sleep, tidy­ing your home, clean­ing your teeth, sort­ing your fi­nances or eat­ing a nu­tri­tious meal. When we put our needs first, we sup­port the things that really mat­ter – health, re­la­tion­ships, re­silience and work. It is not self­ish; it means we have more to give to oth­ers.


We need to lis­ten to our body’s in­ter­nal com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem; the phys­i­cal alarm bells that warn us to slow down and look af­ter our­selves.

IN­ABIL­ITY TO SWITCH OFF When our brains won’t stop plan­ning or wor­ry­ing it is of­ten a sign that we have been over­do­ing things. When the world feels in­tim­i­dat­ingly loud, when ev­ery­thing feels too much to han­dle, or we start fan­ta­sis­ing about es­cap­ing our lives – that’s when we need to re-pri­ori­tise, rest, ask for help, say ‘no’, del­e­gate and stop.

BE­ING PRICKLY When life looks like a mass of prob­lems and chal­lenges we snap at oth­ers, feel af­fronted by the small­est things and lose our sense of hu­mour. But this pre­vents oth­ers from be­ing able to ap­proach us to com­fort and re­as­sure us.

ACHES AND PAINS Per­haps the loud­est of the alarm bells. It is not nor­mal to be in pain un­less there is an ob­vi­ous ex­pla­na­tion. And it is not nor­mal to feel lumps and bumps when your skin was pre­vi­ously smooth. These are phys­i­cal alarm bells of foghorn vol­ume which re­quire med­i­cal at­ten­tion.

CAN­CELLED PLANS It makes good sense to ditch plans we didn’t want to com­mit to in the first place. But if you find your­self can­celling things you would nor­mally find en­joy­able, or dodg­ing im­por­tant med­i­cal ap­point­ments, that is a worry be­cause it is a sign that you are putting your­self at the bot­tom of the scrap heap.

FEEL­ING LONELY We are wired to be so­cial, so if you are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing lone­li­ness, you are jeop­ar­dis­ing your health. Lone­li­ness


causes a rise in the body’s stress re­sponses, sup­presses the im­mune sys­tem, in­creases the risk of dis­ease and raises blood pres­sure.

IR­RA­TIONAL BE­HAV­IOUR When our brains are over­loaded, self- con­trol and self- dis­ci­pline can of­ten van­ish. Things such as tak­ing more risks, in­dulging in im­pul­sive be­hav­iour or act­ing out of char­ac­ter can all be signs of ex­haus­tion and a warn­ing that you need to step back and take some time out for your­self.


It is one thing to un­der­stand the need for self- care but an­other to achieve it. Much of the time we self–sab­o­tage by get­ting in our own way.

GUILT This is the big­gest ob­sta­cle to pri­ori­tis­ing our needs. Guilt about who we are, what we did or didn’t do. Guilt tells us we’re wrong. But self- care isn’t a guilty plea­sure – it’s nei­ther in­dul­gent nor self­ish. We can’t be ev­ery­thing to ev­ery­one. And there’s noth­ing honourable about be­com­ing so de­pleted that we have noth­ing left to give.

PRIDE Too of­ten we per­ceive ask­ing for help as a char­ac­ter flaw, an ev­i­dence of weak­ness. We worry that we will be a bur­den or that the per­son won’t care enough to help, or that we don’t de­serve it. But we aren’t meant to be a self-suf­fi­cient species. We flour­ish with mean­ing­ful con­nec­tions and the fastest way to deepen re­la­tion­ships is to swal­low pride and hu­mil­ity and share ev­ery­thing, not just the best bits. From time to time we all need help. The irony is that we’re of­ten more keen to help oth­ers than our­selves – we treat friends and fam­ily with more re­spect and kind­ness than we treat our­selves.

DE­CI­SION AVOID­ANCE We live in an op­tion-rich world. But with so many choices to make, is it any won­der they get tire­some? De­ci­sion fa­tigue isn’t a fig­ment of your imag­i­na­tion; it’s a sci­en­tif­i­cally proven state. We’re more likely to pro­cras­ti­nate over de­ci­sions when we’re fed up with mak­ing them. Our men­tal ca­pac­ity is like a car’s fuel tank: the more you use it, the more de­pleted it be­comes. If you drive a car with­out stop­ping to re­fuel, it will even­tu­ally splut­ter to a halt. Our minds are no dif­fer­ent.

LACK OF SELF-AWARE­NESS So much of what we do is either on au­topi­lot or in­flu­enced by oth­ers. But self- care and self-aware­ness are in­ter­linked, and the lat­ter comes from self-knowl­edge, which is an un­der­rated su­per­power. Know­ing the nitty gritty of our true selves helps us to join the dots, to spend less time dither­ing over triv­ial de­ci­sions and to pri­ori­tise. It also helps us to un­der­stand the ‘why’ in all we do and think.

PEO­PLE PLEAS­ING On the face of it we’re be­ing ac­com­mo­dat­ing, self­less and ex­press­ing kind­ness. But dig deeper and peo­ple pleas­ing can come from a place where we are not com­fort­able in our skin and where the ap­proval of oth­ers holds more weight than our per­cep­tion of our­selves. Our hap­pi­ness feels con­tin­gent on the hap­pi­ness of oth­ers. But we’re not the sum of our use­ful­ness to oth­ers. A con­scious ges­ture of good­will is a gift from one per­son to an­other; we need to feel in con­trol of good deeds with no strings at­tached.

OVERCOMMITTING Mod­ern life is hec­tic and loud. We are avail­able and con­tactable 24/7, we com­mit to more than we can man­age, shave time from the things we en­joy and get by on as lit­tle sleep as pos­si­ble. We are try­ing to cram too much into a 24-hour day, ev­ery day, and some­times the balls we’re jug­gling are enough to top­ple us. We also have a ten­dency to strive for per­fec­tion in all ar­eas of our lives and find it dif­fi­cult to del­e­gate or to say ‘no’.

OVER-PAR­ENT­ING Par­ent­ing is as fun as it is mun­dane, as re­ward­ing as it is test­ing. There are so many things to con­tend with, of­ten all at the same time: sleep de­pri­va­tion, end­less ne­go­ti­a­tion, pa­tience-test­ing, stress, chores, hy­per-vig­i­lance. But that doesn’t have to mean the end of self-care; if any­thing it in­creases the need to make room for it. Al­ways putting our chil­dren first doesn’t teach them about bound­aries, self-re­spect or re­spect­ing the needs of oth­ers. As par­ents we are the lead­ers of our homes: our chil­dren learn more from what we do than what we say.


The thought of do­ing some­thing new can feel gi­gan­tic. But when we don’t know where to be­gin, of­ten we don’t be­gin, we feel paral­ysed. In­stead, try tak­ing back power in mi­cro mo­ments. The more of these we can ac­cu­mu­late, the more com­fort­able and con­fi­dent we can be­come

about the idea of change. The smaller the ac­tion, the more achiev­able it feels and the eas­ier it is to build into our every­day lives.

There’s no need to add more pres­sure to an al­ready crammed sched­ule. There are pock­ets of dead time in ev­ery­one’s lives – when we’re com­mut­ing, wait­ing for an ap­point­ment or lurk­ing on so­cial me­dia – which we can hi­jack for mi­cro mo­ments of self-care.

IG­NORE YOUR INBOX Self-care means tak­ing back con­trol of what we do and when we do it. Try re­mov­ing the ca­pac­ity to send and re­ceive emails from your smart­phone, or at least si­lence the no­ti­fi­ca­tions so that you con­sciously choose when to check in. Keep the browser and email ap­pli­ca­tion closed on your desk­top so that you only check mes­sages at set times through­out the day.

UP­GRADE YOUR WARDROBE When we feel worth­less we feel un­wor­thy of nice things. But we de­serve slip­pers with­out holes in, un­der­wear that isn’t fray­ing and grey­ing. When we re­place tatty items one by one we’re chal­leng­ing some deeply in­grained thoughts about our­selves.

STEADY YOUR BREATH­ING When we’re stressed or anx­ious our breath­ing speeds up and be­comes shal­low. The in­stant we fo­cus on our breath we switch into mind­ful­ness mode and con­cen­trate on the present. In­stall a free app such as Breathe2Re­lax on your phone.

DRINK WA­TER Be­ing even slightly de­hy­drated af­fects body func­tions, your mood and brain­power. So re­mem­ber to drink wa­ter reg­u­larly through­out the day.


To give our­selves the best pos­si­ble chance of pri­ori­tis­ing self- care with­out feel­ing self­ish for do­ing so, we have to put our plan­ning hats on. We plot ev­ery other area of our lives so why not have a plan that en­ables us to func­tion at our best? Self- care doesn’t ma­te­ri­alise as hap­pen­stance – it only works if we are in­ten­tional about it.

STRENGTHEN THOSE WONKY BOUND­ARIES It is our right to de­cide where our lim­its are and then to com­mu­ni­cate and assert those bound­aries. We know our lim­its have been com­pro­mised when we feel we’re be­ing taken ad­van­tage of or swayed by other peo­ple’s wants and de­mands. If we don’t know what we will and won’t tol­er­ate, we can’t ex­pect oth­ers to know either.

STOP TRY­ING TO MULTITASK Sci­en­tists have dis­cov­ered that we can never truly do more than one thing well at a time. When we multitask we batter our brain and drain its en­ergy re­sources, putting our­selves un­der un­due stress. Ban­ish the com­mit­ments that you do out of a skewed sense of duty, can­cel di­ary dates that you want to back out of. Clock off work promptly and re­duce time brows­ing on your smart­phone. To min­imise de­ci­sion fa­tigue, batch- or­gan­ise tasks such as deal­ing with pa­per­work or plan­ning the week’s out­fits.

PRI­ORI­TISE SELF-CARE We all have things in life we just wouldn’t do even if our lives de­pended on it. Yet we cross those bound­aries ev­ery day with our health when we don’t al­low our­selves time to re­cover from the stresses of life; when we de­mand so much from our­selves that we drain the well dry. We wouldn’t treat any­body else of value in such a shoddy way, yet we fail to ap­pre­ci­ate the value of who we are. We can’t be­come any­one else, so we might as well em­brace the truth of who we are.

Self- care is non-ne­go­tiable be­cause it sim­pli­fies life and de­ters ill-health. It’s our re­hab from the de­mands of life, the self-per­mis­sion to bloom, the re­gain­ing of con­trol, the neme­sis to burnout, the nur­tur­ing of dreams, the re­di­rect­ion of en­ergy and an em­phatic good­bye to the shoulds, coulds and buts that dom­i­nate so much of our days. We all de­serve a big dol­lop of that.

This is an edited ex­tract from The Self- Care Project – How to Let Go of Fraz­zle and Make Time For You by Jayne Hardy, which will be pub­lished by Orion Spring on 14 De­cem­ber, price £12.99*. Jayne set up The Blurt Foun­da­tion so­cial en­ter­prise in 2011 to kick-start con­ver­sa­tions about de­pres­sion and to con­nect peo­ple on­line. Dur­ing Self- Care Week, which starts to­mor­row, Jayne will be launch­ing a se­ries of weekly Twit­ter chats with a dis­cus­sion on Ob­sta­cles to Self- Care; blur­titout.org


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