As a psychotherapist in Surrey, I often hear the phrase, ‘put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you.’ It’s an important metaphor about the need to look after ourselves and it seems particularly important given the way we treat ourselves as mothers. Mothering is a full time job, where you are always on call, with no lunch breaks or annual leave. Further, mums are constantly caring, checking, supporting others, usually on little sleep, and cold tea. There are countless demands and sacrifices, alongside the beautiful moments and unending joy.
Yet despite this, there is a felt pressure to ‘get things right’ as a parent; to make sure babies gain weight, have enough tummy time and develop ‘normally’. Mums often resort to feeling guilty about all aspects of their parenting, fearing their children will be damaged in some way or another. We, as a nation, are obsessed with caring for our children, and caring in a way that leads to their emotional balance, adaption into the world and future success.
So what about us? If parenting is an unending quest to ensure the perfection of another, how can we look after ourselves? And what does self-care have to offer us?
Self-care can be defined as the activities and actions we carry out in order to nourish, care for and protect ourselves. The function of self-care is always to improve our health and wellbeing. Self-care involves us tuning into ourselves and asking ‘what we need’ – whether that’s our body or mind.
Many speak of self-care with regard to physical health, so that is noticing and treating pain through physiotherapy, pilates or osteopathy. Or taking medication, and time out when experiencing illness. But self-care can also be preventative as by caring for ourselves through exercise, eating healthily and giving our mind time and space, we are less likely to succumb to illness and emotional stress. Marsha Linehan, a psychologist in the US, speaks about self-care decreasing our vulnerability to negative emotions, so that we can maintain a balance, and stay out of a state of mind where emotions control our thoughts and actions.
And there’s science behind this. Caring for ourselves is more likely to keep our immune system healthy, as we are giving our body what it needs. We are also generally more aware when self-caring, so are less likely to be on automatic pilot, meaning we are less likely to be undermined by negative thoughts and judgments, or pain. Finally, our neurotransmitters involved in feeling good, such as serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline, oxytocin etc., are potentiated by self-care activities.
So what can we do to self-care? There are an array of different approaches and techniques to self-care, however we argue that people are unique and so one size doesn’t fit all. The key to self-care is looking inwards, and asking what you need in that moment to better your physical and emotional wellbeing.
Self-soothing is about comforting, nurturing and being kind to ourselves. It has a real overlap with hygge, promoting a feeling of cosy contentment and wellbeing through enjoying simple moments in life by engaging our senses.
It involves using techniques, mainly physical, which help us feel better when overwhelmed, stressed, sad, or feeling another strong emotion. When self-soothing we try and use our senses, to soothe:
The key is to test out different ways of self-soothing to find what works for you in helping you reach a relaxed state. And when you find what works, keep practising!
The psychologist, Kristen Neff outlines a number of techniques for promoting self-compassion which she would say is a feeling of warmth, caring, and the desire to help. It’s just like the compassion we feel for others (including babies) but directed towards ourselves! We step away from self-critique and judgment and move towards helping ourselves. How about trying some of the following:
We need to listen to what our inner critic is saying, so we can then gently respond rationally, or to find a way to silence the critic. Imagine setting it free, or visualise your critic floating down a stream away from you.
Use books, memes and videos to support you. Remember only to engage with them if they feel helpful to you! This video on the self-care resolution is an interesting watch.
Remember that professional help is available. Here at Dr Jo Gee Psychotherapy, we offer a number of different services and treatments to support you. You can get in touch at any time to book an initial assessment and arrange a treatment plan.