Self-Care Is More Than Spa Treatments

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

This January, my friend and I decided that this year would be the year that we finally make taking care of ourselves a priority. We chose themes for each month, wrote about our intentions, and scheduled daily activities that we could do to pamper ourselves in small ways. I was thrilled. I thought I was in for a whole year of manicures, massages and mimosas. I was wrong.

What was supposed to be the year of self-care has turned out to be the year full of hard truths for me. Sure, I started with the easy stuff. I planned my vacation and booked nail appointments and massages with self-righteous commitment. I was "taking care of myself." I was taking some "me time." I was "making myself a better wife and mother" by religiously painting my toes and investigating every ache and every bad mood. 

So why didn't I feel any better?

My mood was rapidly heading into a free fall. I spent an entire day of my coveted Thailand vacation sobbing and sleeping. I was resentful and angry. I felt like I was trying to put gas in a moving vehicle a teaspoon at a time. The more I did, the more I realized how long I had been running on fumes. This revelation crushed me. How could I be on the trip of a lifetime, have the best-paying job I'd ever had, live in a fully renovated house and still be unhappy?

Self-care is more than spa treatments. Throwing a manicure at burnout, depression and anxiety is like throwing a water balloon on a five-alarm fire. By the time I decided that I was a priority, it wasn't just that I couldn't fix it with a couple hours off here or there. It was that I didn't even know what to fix anymore. I was standing in the middle of the fire and saying "I'm a little warm, let's take this sweater off." I had to learn to care for myself in a way that disrupted the core of how I lived my entire life. I realized almost nothing was working. 

As women, and particularly as women of color, we are taught to "go along and get along," to be strong but soft, to bend but not break, to suffer in silence and keep things together while the world burns down around us. It's a lesson that gets seared into our souls. We don't question it because we don't realize that there's another way to be. Even now, as I am writing this, I'm not exactly sure what self-care really looks like. 

I did realize that I would have to give up some things and habits. I would have to give up being the go-to woman in my family. I'd have to give up being nice at work. I was everyone's secret-keeper even though holding their hurts and mine was too much for me. I had to let go of needing to be perfect, because I no longer had the emotional energy to pretend that everything was fine. I gave up doing it all myself. 

This year I have gotten massages, scrubs, acupuncture, manicures, pedicures and facials. I have lounged on gorgeous beaches, sailed on cruise ships and been to more spas than I can remember. It didn't make a real difference because it wasn't rooted in any real sense of self-worth. And self-care without self-worth isn't self-care. It's asking someone else to be responsible for you.

When you really value yourself, you'll do the uncomfortable things that will make you happy in the long run, because you'll recognize that some sacrifices are worth it. You'll say no more often (and mean it). You'll eat the veggies, work out more, and ask the world for what you want because shortchanging yourself will stop being okay. You'll get to know yourself better and stop weighing the pros and cons of whether it’s worth making the difficult choices on your own behalf in the first place. Knowing yourself is a tough fight, but it’s the only thing one really has to fight for in life. When you know and love yourself, the rest seems to naturally fall into place.

I haven’t gotten this whole thing figured out yet, but I’m finally happy to be on the journey. This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever taken on, and most days don’t look anything like the blissful spa days I envisioned when I started the year. I think of it as weeding the garden and leaving space for something beautiful to grow.

So what does work?

Here's three things that I know I can count on to help me refill my tank:

1. Hit the mat: I'm a hardcore yogi, and I'm not happy if I'm not moving. Now, I schedule work, events, and classes around my yoga practice. I try to get on my mat for at least forty-five minutes, three to five times a week. Life is busy, so I put together a simple home practice that I can squeeze in alone, with my toddler, or while binge-watching Netflix.

2. Disconnect and reconnect: As a writer, teacher and marketing coordinator, I'm always fielding a thousand messages. When I catch myself getting overwhelmed, I put my phone away and take a couple minutes to reconnect with whoever I'm with. As an added plus, doing this has brought me closer to my coworkers--they're so funny!

3. Make time for something bigger: Reconnecting to my Buddhist practice has really helped me feel more grounded and hopeful. I pray for a few minutes every morning and evening. It reminds me to be grateful for all the blessings I have. Buddhism teaches that obstacles are part of the path to enlightenment, so the practice has really helped me to keep my challenges in perspective.

What do you do to take care of you?