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How to make self-care and self-love a daily habit

Most of us know what we need to do for our own wellbeing. Eat well, exercise and stretch, connect with nature, turn our phones off, sit quietly. We read about it, think about it and plan to do it … one day.

Until, quite often, a health scare or life crisis stops us in our tracks and forces us to re-evaluate our self-care.

Why is that? Why, as intelligent and knowledgeable human beings, do we avoid that which we know will bring us the most happiness and good health?

Because we believe self-care is about huge life-changes — changes that will take up a lot of time that we simply don’t have and that deprives us of things we really love. We add it to our to-do lists, make New Year’s resolutions around it and convince ourselves we’ll be happier, “When…”

Which is precisely why it doesn’t work.

So how can you get self-care off your to-do list and make it an enjoyable part of your everyday life before a crisis forces you to? You start small and stay very flexible, as I’ve discovered on my own journey to self-care.

Theory vs action

As the daughter of a hippie, I grew up with the idea of self-care all around me. My mum would help me fall asleep at night with her simple relaxation meditation and I was always taught the power of positive thinking, healthy food choices and yoga. I even went along to the self-development gurus’ seminars in my teens, but it was always just a “theory”.

Whenever life got tough, I never seemed to put my lessons into action. My bookshelf was full, but my life was not. And I’m not alone.

Megan Dalla-Camina is a strategist, coach and author of Getting Real About Having It All (Hay House). She, too, found herself facing the realities of finally putting the theory into practice after years of pushing herself to exhaustion.

“When we say we have to change, there is an underlying assumption that there is something ‘wrong’ with us. We’ve got to drop the beating-up on ourselves.”

“For so many of us, myself included, it takes a big wakeup call in the form of a health scare or life crisis for us to stop and realise we really need to do something. Many of us live in a place where we have cognitive knowledge of what we ‘should’ be doing for ourselves, but many of us don’t do it — or at least not with any regularity.”

Dalla-Camina says there’s a number of different ways people approach self-care in their lives. “First, there is the category of people who don’t even think about this stuff. They are so busy, so wired, so driven that they’re not even conscious of what they really need. There’s no level of awareness whatsoever,” she says.

“I used to be in that category a long time ago. I had 20 years in the corporate world as a workaholic, which culminated in a total burnout after pushing my body for 15 years and I was at the brink of exhaustion. I was travelling overseas a lot: at one point I was three weeks out, one week back home, and I did that for about five years — which for anyone who has done that knows how brutal that is on your body. I just didn’t have the tools to know how to heal myself.

“Then there’s the category of people who know some ‘stuff’, read a little bit, pick up a magazine like this, say they’d like to follow it but then don’t do anything about it.

“And then there’s the category of people I like to call the ‘drifters’: they really want to be doing this but they don’t know how to make this a part of their everyday lives. They are open, interested and truly believe in the benefits, but they are either too busy, don’t have the support or don’t really know how to start.”

And often, for the “drifters” the biggest hurdle to starting a regular self-care practice is the misconception that it has to be all or nothing, Dalla-Camina says.

Self-care is not about changing everything at once

Life has a funny way of showing us what we need to learn. After years of writing about it, studying it and talking about it, I found myself at a point in my life when I had to start walking my talk. As a self-care blogger and journalist, it was more than a little ironic that I found myself in hospital, stressed and rundown with a threatened pre-term labour at 28 weeks pregnant.

My superwoman lifestyle had finally caught up with me.

So why, after more than eight years of writing about self-care and a lifetime of “knowing” it, did it take me this long to actually start practising it? Over the past 18 months, the answer to that question has become very clear to me: because I thought I had to change everything.

And that is a big scary concept. No wonder I kept putting it off!

Connie Chapman is a successful Sydney-based certified life coach and host of Awareness Radio. Connie works closely with people on their idea of self-care and says many of her clients have the same misconception.

“The moment you make the most loving choice for yourself, you are practising self-care.”

“Many people think it’s an all-or-nothing approach, a bit like when you start a diet,” she says. “The minute they eat something bad they say to themselves, ‘Oh well, my diet is ruined. I may as well write off the whole day.’ The same thing happens with self-care. The minute we set really high unrealistic expectations and then notice we haven’t achieved them, we almost go further into self-sabotage and proving we’re a failure.

“When we say we have to change, there is an underlying assumption that there is something ‘wrong’ with us. We’ve got to drop the beating-up on ourselves and start focusing on what’s already right in our world.

“The real key to this is realising that self-care is actually just self-love. The moment you make the most loving choice for yourself, you are practising self-care. You are that person in that moment. You can pat yourself on the back in the moment and say, ‘I am the best person I can be because I just chose the best thing I could to nourish myself.’ And that’s what it’s all about.

Where to start with your real self-care journey?

So where do you start? Whether you’re a drifter, a novice or a reformed workaholic, how can you start to get the self-care off the wish list and into your real life?

“First of all, we get to choose what self-care means to us,” suggests Chapman. “It’s different for everyone. Start exploring what feels good to you, not what you think you should be doing. Ask yourself, ‘How am I feeling and what do I need?’ Write out a love list or a joy list of the things that make you feel good and feel like self-care to you — it could include having a hot bath, walking along the beach, cuddling with my child, playing with my dog — and you’re free to choose whatever you want from that list!

“It’s the intention of self-care that has to be clear — and the intention of self-care is to feel good! The intention of self-care is to love yourself, to nourish yourself, to support yourself. I tell people it is moment to moment, and it’s all about the choices you make in each of those moments.”

Dalla-Camina agrees. “Start by asking yourself, ‘What is the smallest thing I can do today for my health and wellbeing? What is the smallest thing I can do for my restoration right now?’ And start with that. It could be as simple as sitting down with a cup of herbal tea and really sitting and tasting it. It could be five minutes of meditation. It could be colouring-in with your children! Find what works for you and feels good for you now, and start there.”

There is no right or wrong way

Meditation is not sitting in the lotus position and chanting om. Nor is it reserved for monks and hippies. You can be a corporate lawyer and meditate and you can make it work in your life. It was that very simple realisation that gave me the freedom to first start “playing around” with meditation after years of believing it would be stifling and confronting.

“I used to have a very rigid morning routine of self-care that I would have to follow every morning, but I would get to the end of it and I would be exhausted,” Connie Chapman relates. “And I thought, ‘This morning routine is not supporting me!’ So now I have my time each morning which I allocate to my self-care, but I’m allowed to fill that time with whatever I want.

“Some mornings I feel like a green smoothie and pulling out my journal and reflecting on how I’m feeling. Other days I feel like a herbal tea and resting in bed. Other days I might feel like I need movement, so I will make a smoothie with some cacao in it to give me some energy and go for a run on the beach or do some yoga. And then, through my day, I am constantly checking in with myself to see what I really need. I feel like I’m nourishing myself when I’m really listening to what I need.”

Meditation is often an overwhelming first entry point for many people, but it’s important to remember that meditation can also be flexible.

“I’ve also let my meditation practice become very flexible,” says Chapman. “Some days I really want to sit in meditation for half an hour, but other days five to 10 minutes is enough. As long as I’m making time to bring my attention inwards, and connect with myself and tune into some higher guidance for support, I let it be flexible about how and when I do it.”

“Start by asking yourself, ‘What is the smallest thing I can do today for my health and wellbeing?’ … It could be as simple as sitting down with a cup of herbal tea and really tasting it.

“Five minutes a day, twice a day — that’s what I would recommend to people just starting out,” agrees Dalla-Camina. “So many people have the wrong idea about meditation and therefore never get started. But I tell my clients to simply sit down and connect with your breath for five minutes in the morning and evening … and you will begin to see the benefit.”

Ultimately, it’s all about what feels right for you, and not getting caught up in the quest for perfection or the unrealistic images in social media.

“Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle,” advises Chapman. “Rather than hold yourself to someone else’s standards, start with your own standard of what success feels like to you, and that’s enough. If, some days, sleeping in until 9 o’clock feels like the most loving and supporting thing you can do for yourself, do that. If your self-care practice is something you are dreading, or is on your to-do list, or is a ‘should’ … let it go! Choose something that makes you feel good that day.”

Consistency is the key to success

Since my “awakening” in hospital nearly two years ago, my life has changed beyond recognition. I am calmer, healthier, happier. I have changed my career, connected with my marriage, built a more blissful life. But, if someone had told me all this at the time, the pressure would have been too much. The idea that so much was going to change would have made it all too “big” and unachievable. The key to my success in really bringing self-care, meditation and mindfulness into my world has been little, consistent steps. Daily moments. Small wins. And not putting too much pressure on myself.

“Start where you are and follow your energy,” says Dalla-Camina. “Find your easiest entry point, whether that’s a smoothie, a walk with your dog, a guided meditation. Once something becomes a habit, you then move on to a new habit. So many programs and focus in the media is on ’21-day programs’ or ‘five simple steps’ … and it just doesn’t work like that. Not long term. Which is why people get so frustrated. They try to change 500 things and wonder why nothing sticks.

“There are so many small and simple things we can do throughout our day which will make fundamental differences to how we show up every day; we just have to do them,” Dalla-Camina says. “We have to make that commitment. Whatever it is. But it’s all about small things done frequently.”

In the end, the years of self-care study paid off for me. Faced with the realisation that my lifestyle was harming me and my baby, I finally made a promise to us both to practise what I’d been preaching. And the most amazing part of all? It wasn’t that hard! Five minutes a day has turned into 15, and now I can honestly say I am that person I always longed to be.

When you let go of the pressure to change everything and instead start with something that feels simple and achievable, you can soon notice how much better you feel. And, before you know it, you’re living a life totally different from the one you had previously.

Amy Taylor-Kabbaz

Amy Taylor-Kabbaz

Amy Taylor-Kabbaz is a journalist with more than 15 years' experience, specialising in health, mindfulness and motherhood. She is also the best-selling author of Happy Mama: The Guide to Finding Yourself Again, and is the creator of the website Happy Mama.

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