Katherine Greene Housh, RN, BSN, is a registered nurse, holistic health coach, and community educator in the Sacramento, California, area. Her mission is to offer you support with the social and lifestyle challenges of living with a chronic illness and to empower you to take responsibility for your own health by focusing on self-care.
Do you feel overwhelmed at the idea of creating a perfect self-care routine? Do you feel like it’s just one more chore to add to your never-ending to do list? If so, you’re not alone.
Self-improvement is now an $11 billion industry advertised to you daily on social media as you scroll through carefully curated feeds of ideal nutrient-dense meals, lymphatic drainage massages, therapeutic essential oils, breathing meditation techniques, and high-priced tech devices and fitness trackers.
Achieving work-life balance has become a full-time career and wellness feels like a hobby for the rich and elite, but is all this really necessary?
History of Self-Care
Self-care has evolved over the decades, from the radical political and civil rights movements of the 1960 sto the New Age wellness trends of the 1970s to the healthy lifestyle promotion by medical and mental health professionals that came onto the scene after 9/11.
Today we are all familiar with clichés about putting on your own oxygen mask or filling your own cup first.
However you define it, the goal of self-care is not to obsess about perfect health or to compare your lifestyle to others. You don’t have to spend lots of money or uncover hidden secrets from gurus.
As women, we often spend so much time listening to others’ expectations or opinions about who they think we are supposed to be that we forget to take the time to explore for ourselves.
Self-care is about reconnecting with your own mind, body, and spiritual side.
Self-care is NOT about self-absorption or selfishly considering only your personal desires.
Self-care is NOT about self-neglect or codependently caregiving for others.
Self-care IS a healthy, balanced relationship with ourselves, where we know what we need to do in order to take care of ourselves,and where we are better prepared and equipped to care for others.
Self-care IS an opportunity to experiment with different ways to meet our needs and respect our limitations. Our goals should be flexible rather than pass/fail so that if we don’t reach them, we can readjust rather than give up completely.
I learned this during the development of my own coaching program when women came to me feeling overwhelmed in the beginning. They felt guilty when they couldn’t implement each module perfectly from the start.
For compulsive Type A overachievers like myself (and most of my clients), sometimes structure is a good thing and sometimes it simply causes too much pressure.
If we feel restricted, then it’s usually a good sign we need to take a step back and reevaluate. We can cut ourselves some slack on the days we don’t get as much done as we had planned if more important priorities arose.
Where to Start
Listen to your intuition. The goal is simply to create space for yourself and to feel curiosity about your life experiences as they relate to your overall well-being. There is no one right way to approach self-care, but success comes from tuning into your own physical and emotional make-up and circumstances as they change by the day, hour, and minute.
Schedule time on your calendar. If growth is your goal, it won’t happen by accident. Just as a plant left unattended can eventually wither and die –the same is true with you! Even the basics like drinking enough water and taking a few deep breaths during a busy work day cannot be left to chance. Good habits need to be planned or else other activities with quickly consume your time and energy.
Use your toolbox skillfully. My goal in my coaching programs is to introduce my clients to a wide array of self-care basics so that they can find their own rhythm and pick and choose which tools they need to use at any given moment. Rarely do we need all the tools all the time. Here are some of my favorites that we discuss in the Nurse Yourself Back to Health program:
Partner with a doctor who practices functional medicine.
Cultivate mindfulness by practicing deep relaxation and breathing.
Improve digestion by avoiding inflammatory foods.
Reduce exposure to environmental toxins.
Set healthy boundaries in relationships and avoid codependency.
Avoid negative influences and seek out a positive support system.
Balance rest by budgeting my energy wisely.
Incorporate gentle movement as a natural anti-inflammatory.
Connect to my spiritual practice and community
Grow creativity in the form of hobbies and artistic pursuits.
Find purpose in work to provide for family or to serve others.
What Today Looks Like
Sitting in my Northern California living room, it’s a chilly morning, but the sun shines and my windows are wide open as I enjoy the fresh air. A few deep breaths and lingering congestion cause me to hope that the respiratory virus I’ve been fighting is almost gone.
After weeks of family stress, my immune system is functioning at suboptimal levels and I know I need to practice some self-care.
I call my hospice patients to reschedule for later in the week when I am feeling stronger and can serve them better. My husband kindly responded to my request for help with chores last night and I am basking in the glow of a clean house. I have a warm bowl of sweet potato chili I made in my Instant Pot and I am resting with my feet up on the couch, covered with a soft blanket. The absence of entertainment or electronics is peaceful and I’m just listening to the dogs barking in my neighborhood.
This is what today looks like, but I can’t speak yet to tomorrow’s plan. That is the very essence of my definition of self-care –tuning into my intuition to provide for my mind, body, and spirit’s most basic needs as they arise. What does it mean to you?
If you are like me, you are an empath, a helper, a teacher, and (sometimes) a codependent. This means that it can be a real challenge to separate the facts of a situation from the negative emotions that arise when we feel that we have been treated unjustly or unfairly. Our first inclination may be to accuse or blame the other person for our own internal emotional state.
Who’s to blame?
“It’s because of your behavior or words that I feel bad,” we say. Then our next step is to build a wall to protect ourselves from further pain and to try to change the other person to avoid future injury. As instinctive as this reaction is, how helpful has it been in safeguarding your emotions? Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation where you think, “I can’t believe another person is hurting me this way again!”
Pre-programmed responses to specific stimuli
The truth is that emotions are not the same for every person. Are you aware of your personal triggers? We are all unique individuals, characterized by inherent genetic traits, dynamic personalities, cultivated life experiences, and different histories of trauma (physical or emotional). This explains why we can be participants in or observers of a scenario that makes our blood boil, while the person next to us seems to barely blink an eye.
I know that for me, any sort of perceived injustice (especially those perpetrated by a person in a position of power) trigger an immediate anger response.
But before you say, “Well of course it would! Injustice is always wrong,” please understand that there are many different ways to define injustice and many different ways to respond to it. This is not an article on the topics of ethics and morality, but on mindfulness and self-compassion.
Two (or more) sides to every story
I’ve been on both sides of the equation. I’ve been the patient who felt dismissed and ridiculed by her doctors when they didn’t understand my symptoms and I’ve been the nurse accused by a patient who felt ashamed of her condition and perceived a lack of support and understanding from me. I can only control the emotional response in one of these situations.
My experience as a hospitalized inpatient taught me a lot about taking responsibility for my own emotional reactions and better equipped me to know how to respond in situations where I felt disempowered. When I was at my lowest, both physically and emotionally, I accepted that I was not going to hear the answers I wanted from my medical staff.
This did not have to mean that they were evil, abusive, or negligent healthcare providers. They simply were not equipped or interested to hear my complaints. They were busy, overworked, and trying to prioritize their limited time and resources. I was not a priority and if I wanted to be, then I would have to search elsewhere. It was not personal, it was professional. This was their job, not their life.
Can you think of a situation where you showed up expecting a certain response or attention to your needs, only to be met with disappointment?
How did you respond? When you are feeling triggered and need to process your emotional responses, there is a way to do so mindfully.
Try these steps to cultivate awareness:
Take a deep breath. Give yourself space to cultivate the emotion you want to experience for your health, rather than one based merely on instinct. Pay attention to areas in your body where you are holding tension or feeling pain.
Take responsibility. No matter how evil or benign the intention of the person whose words or actions hurt you, only you can decide what intention you have in your response. No other human has the power to affect who you are unless you allow them.
Name your emotion. Place a title on exactly what you are experiencing, whether hurt, anger, fear, shame, disappointment, sadness, etc. Often these emotions feel similar, but if we sit with the feelings for a moment, we are able to differentiate.
Stop the narrative. Depending on our past experiences, it’s easy to begin writing a story to go along with our emotions almost immediately. The problem with this kind of story-telling is that it is not always based on facts if we haven’t taken the time to investigate them. Feeding a story prematurely almost always leads to unnecessary drama.
Remain neutral. This isn’t the time to go on the offensive, blaming the other person. Neither is it the time to defend yourself. This is the time to turn inwards and tend to your emotions. The rest will play out eventually.
Let yourself feel. This is the step that is most often overlooked when we are too hasty in our reply. What we need more than anything is to be our own best caregivers, to sit with our painful wounds, to let the tears fall, and to remind ourselves that despite the discomfort, we can still heal. We can learn the skills needed to tend to our own internal state despite whatever external circumstances we are facing.
Label your trigger. When the initial shock has subsided and you are feeling safe and comforted, notice what chain of events led to your emotional response in the first place. You may find that it was something familiar, an event or phrase that you’ve seen or heard before and that left you feeling the same way in the past.
Make a choice. Since we know intellectually that we cannot control others’ behavior or words, chances are good that we will encounter similar situations that will trigger us again if we don’t address them now. What kind of person do you want to be when you show up in the world? Someone who is miserable and who blames others or someone who is content and at peace with herself?
I decided that when I am faced with a doctor who doesn’t take me seriously, I want to show up as an intelligent, respectful, and kind woman.
Experience has shown me that I am unlikely to change their viewpoint during a 10-minute appointment, since it is one that they have developed after years of medical training and clinical practice. Instead, I want to leave them with the tiny thought that perhaps there are opportunities for them to do more research related to my concerns.
After that, I choose to leave (either the day’s appointment or the entire practice). I would much rather redirect my precious energy in search of a provider with whom I can partner and find the answers I seek.
We are all a work in progress
Despite our best efforts, we all make mistakes in how we act and speak from time to time. This is especially true when struggling with the lasting effects of chronic illness and autoimmune disease. Regardless of how we have behaved in the past, however, these are not reasons to dwell on feelings of guilt and shame.
Forgiveness, compassion, and hope, when directed at ourselves (as well as those who’ve hurt us), can help us to move forward in a way that transforms our minds, our health, and ultimately, our lives.