Tips on living a healthy and full life

Self care for family caregivers with Silken Laumann

What does it mean to invest in self care? It’s a concept we hear often these days, but I think many of us struggle to understand what it means in practice in our lives.  Does it mean we take it easier, give up some of our responsibilities, take a little less care of our loved ones?  Self care in my mind is an attitude, it is a way that we think about and value ourselves; it is a form of self respect. All of us believe that the people we care for deserve our care and respect, so think of self care as the extension of this same courtesy to ourselves.  We reveal how we regard ourselves in the ways we invest in ourselves mentally, physically and spiritually (and in the ways we don’t).  Just as our actions towards the people we care for comes from a place of love, so must our action towards ourselves come from love.

Love is the key

Love is the foundation of self care, and to love one’s self ultimately forms the basis of our practices of self care.  Years ago, when I said this in a speech, an older gentleman said, “OK, but when you say ‘self-love’ I kind of feel like loving myself would be selfish and egotistical.”  I think a lot of people feel this way; they believe that to invest in oneself and to love oneself is regarding yourself too highly and spending too much energy being selfish.  This is just not true.  Loving one’s self is actually the source of all that we can selflessly offer to others. Being at peace with who we are and taking tender care of that person gives us the capacity to give to others.

When my children were little and I was running from one speaking engagement to another, self care came in tiny little slivers, like a twenty minute walk in the morning and/or a long call with a friend before going to bed.  Today my children are almost grown and my self care time is more extensive.  It doesn’t take any time, though, to speak kindly to oneself, to be gentle when looking in a mirror after a sleepless night, to see our beauty rather than the way of bodies have changed with time. Time no, discipline yes – because most of us have a long history of putting others first, of giving our kindnesses away until we have nothing left for ourselves.

The importance of self-knowledge

If we look at this metaphorically in terms of home building, then self- knowledge becomes the foundation for the house.  We need to know what we need so that we can put our house in order.  We need to tune into ourselves and how we are feeling and what we need to make us at our best. Then we take that knowledge and turn it into the practice of self care, thus forming the bricks that make our house safe and strong place to return to each day.

How are you feeling today?

How are you feeling today? It’s a simple and powerful question. Think of how many times you inquire into how others might be feeling or doing in a day, but how many times have you asked this question of yourself? My guess is not once! And this is normal, but this is a question not only for others, but also (and perhaps most importantly) for ourselves.  When we take the time to check in and really notice how we are feeling, the answer of what to do to take care of ourselves will be much easier to find.

Today when I asked myself how I was feeling the answer was, I feel flat, maybe even a little sad. This answer surprised me, as I am actually away on vacation as I write this. When I enquired further, I realized I was physically very tired.  I had cycled 75km on my bike the day before and I was pretty pooped.  So maybe I wasn’t sad, maybe I was tired.  Once I knew this, I decided to start my day off with a gentle swim in cool water to refresh myself and to pay extra attention to eating good food because I was likely depleted. Rather than guilt myself into doing a workout, I decided to spend my day writing and getting caught up on my emails.

So just this simple question tuned me into what I was feeling, got me problem solving about why I might be feeling this way and gave me a solution about how to best take care of myself. It takes some practice to learn to tune into what’s happening in our bodies and minds. If you’re new to the concept of self care, or you are struggling to divorce the idea of selfishness from self care, you can start with simple questions such as, “Am I hungry? Am I lonely? Am I tired?”  You might be surprised how a simple sandwich or a visit with a friend or a ten-minute nap can make you so much more ready to tackle some of life’s most difficult problems. It’s when we push past the signals our bodies and minds are sending and deny ourselves some much needed restorative time (whatever that looks like for you), that we can get more easily overwhelmed, frustrated and stressed.

Often when we are going through a stressful time, we ‘gunny sack’ our complaints, feelings and emotions.  We put everything we are feeling physically and mentally into a huge sack and then when some unfortunate but well meaning person asks, dozens of seemingly unrelated problems come tumbling out.  Asking ourselves how we feel and assessing our needs on a regular basis helps prevent this tidal wave of emotions and gives us a fighting chance of identifying how we can help ourselves both in the present moment and for future situations.

What can I do for myself today?

Another question I ask myself each day is, What is the most important thing I can do today to make myself feel good?  You might think this means I check into a spa for a massage and facial each day. In fact, the answer often surprises me. Today that answer was to work all day – I needed to get caught up and that meant putting in a long day of writing and calling. Yesterday it was having a good hard workout (hence the 75km bike ride).  Tomorrow it might be calling my husband and spending an hour on the phone together. It is different each day and will be different for every one of us. In his book First Things First, Stephen Covey talks about putting the rocks into the jar before the pebbles. What are the rocks in your life today?  Put them in your jar before the smaller priorities (which are often other peoples), have filled it.  As a mom of four children, putting my needs into that jar first feels mighty selfish some days, but I know from many years of parenting that this discipline makes me a better mom and human.

Acceptance is self care

Acceptance is the third aspect of self care I will talk about today. One of the most difficult things to accept in life is that there are many things we can do nothing about. No matter how much we love someone, or how much we do for them, we may not change the outcome of their health journey. As my counsellor says, “What can you do about something you can do nothing about?  Nothing.”  That’s not something most of us want to hear. As caregivers especially, we want to be able to do something to help our loved ones. But what if sometimes the answer is to do nothing?  What if the best thing we can do is to just accept that we are not in control of the situation, and realize that maybe our most important job is to accept without struggle, to accept from a place of love?  Maybe in doing so we can even find a place on our caregiving path that can be peaceful.

In caring for my special needs stepdaughter, I often ask myself, what more do I need to be doing? How do I know she is getting the best care? Are we monitoring her health closely enough? What could I be missing?  I have lost many nights’ sleep ruminating over these questions. These are all great questions, but sometimes the questions I really need to ask myself are, how can I find peace with her diagnosis? How can I find happiness and peace accepting her and the situation just as it is?  This is actually a lot harder because I’m not fixing something for her, but what I am doing is taking the reins of my thoughts and feelings around what is happening. Which actually happens to be something I can control! And when I do this, we enjoy each other’s company a whole lot more because she senses I am at peace, and I can relax into accepting her or her situation just as she is.

Most of us spend an enormous amount of time grasping for things, holding onto old ideas and failing to see the wonder that is right in front of us.  When we engage in self care on a daily basis, we become healthier, happier, and we become much more open to the gifts and joys of everyday life. Start your self care by believing you are worthy of the same generosity of spirit that you show to others, then make a daily practice of self-inquiry so you can begin to meet your daily needs, and start accepting a new way of responding to the things that are beyond your control. You are worth it.

Four-time Olympian Silken Laumann is one of Canada’s most inspirational leaders, a best-selling author, a child and mental health advocate and a recognizable and beloved athlete.

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