Self-care for beginners

August 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

And so the end of the summer drags on. It’s been a funny couple of weeks here. After the meltdown and sickness, things have been much better. It’s hit home a bit more every day: doing the right things makes a hell of a difference. Getting some fresh air is  number one on that list every time.

So whilst focusing on finishing the dissertation still has to be a priority, I’ve been making time to take an extra walk here or there, sleep an extra half hour if I can, try a new fitness class. Take some time away from the pressure.

It wasn’t easy, but once I could be convinced that the rest of the things I was hanging onto out of fear were only making things worse (but if I don’t keep working part-time I can’t get a job and if I can’t do that I’ll have to move home and live off my parents and I’ll get dumped and hate myself…etc), I’ve realised that a little focus and minimalism is no bad thing. In fact, I feel better than I have in a long time.

Another fear I’ve had for a while, other than fierce paranoia about becoming another graduate on the dole, is that when I finish up my counselling, I will be left adrift with no idea how to cope. Well, today I had my last session. For reasons out of my control I had to switch who I was seeing three sessions before the end of the course, but it’s proved very useful to have a different perspective. Taking a different tack from looking into why I do what I do, we focused on strategies to combat some of the things I was worrying about and worked out some things I could start incorporating into my day that would help start to prioritise self-care. So, here are a few beginning points for getting started.

1. Create Positivity Triggers. 

First I identified some of the things that I wanted to cultivate in my life, such as confidence, focus and calm. For each feeling, I then named a sound, smell, taste, colour and feel for each emotion. So, for example, my confident colour was brick-red, the fabric was silk (because I have a brick-red silk blouse that makes me feel a million dollars), the sound was LCD SoundSystem (because dancing is cool, yes?), the taste was black coffee, and the smell was my favourite L’Occitaine green tea perfume. The associations were made as naturally as possible and  as a result I found that most of these elements already exist in my life. Making conscious links just makes it easier to draw out the associated feelings.

So, once you’ve identified sets for each target emotion and written them down, you can purposefully draw on them more in your daily life. Now when I wear the red blouse I get an extra boost of confidence and my perfume reminds me throughout the day that I’m doing well and so on and so forth. Likewise, my calm list had the colour of my favourite hoodie and bedsheets and the smell of candles on it. So, when I’m winding down for the night, I make a habit of getting into my comfy clothes, dimming the lights and enjoying the smell of candles in the room, which triggers the feeling of calm in my mind both consciously and unconsciously. This process also makes it easier for me to know what to reach for when I want to conjour up any of these feeling specifically.

2. Create Lists.

This habit is an ideal way of turning my natural list-making obsession into a reminder of positivity. Basically, you start three kinds of list. One list is for things I have achieved, one is for things that I am, and I then keep a shorter, daily list of gratitude.

For the first list, note all the things that you’ve achieved in your life, no matter how small you think they are. In the second, list all the good qualities about yourself. Keep both somewhere visible, or at least somewhere you will check frequently, so that you are both reminded of these things and prompted to keep adding to them as you go. For the third list, think of three things which you are grateful for at the end of each day. Some days I can exceed three easily, some days I have to be creative and just be grateful that I painted my nails a pretty colour. Either way, it’s a great way to focus in on the ‘small’ joys in your life an remind you that you don’t have to write a book every day to be a valid person. In fact, those small moments of joy and gratitude are just as valuable as anything else you accomplish. Sometimes a cup of coffee at your favourite place, or a date with a friend can really make all the difference.

I found this technique the most difficult to start, simply because it goes directly against the ways in which I’ve taught myself to think of myself, but it’s easily one of the most instant ways to gain some perspective about all the good around you and in you, once you get the hang of it.

3. Think About Your Environment.

The third technique is similar to the first in a lot of ways, and is particularly helpful for anyone who, like me, has a lot of flexibility in their day. In the long, lonely tunnel which is dissertation-writing, I often spend the whole day alone at home, trying to slog it out with the writing. Now, it depends on what kind of space set-up you have, but I recently moved to a slightly larger house, which really helps this.

To help focus my day, spaces are separated into specific environments. The dining room is set aside for work so I try to keep my notes and laptop in there. The living room is set aside for my relaxation or social time and my bedroom is just that:  the space, just for me, where I go to bed and shut off. This will obviously be different for you, your space and your needs, but the act of separating spaces and activities really helps me focus. I would say that if you can’t create three spaces, at least make sure you’re not using your laptop or working in your bedroom, no matter how much or little you work, it makes it very hard to switch off.

As a sidenote, I’ve long been in the habit of physically switching off when I go to bed. Power everything down, unplug everything except your alarm clock, switch off your phone and just shut it down. A little tidy up of any clutter can’t hurt either, but perhaps that’s just me being a bit OCD…

4. Small increments.

The final point works for everything you’re trying to focus on, but particularly relaxation, if that’s a real challenge. Given half a chance, I have tended not to build any relaxation time into my day. Genuinely. Not even five minutes. The guilt of not doing something productive was overwhelming. Planning to spend just 15 minutes doing something relaxing in my designated relaxation space is a manageable goal (yet still the one I’m finding hardest to stick to). Plan it. Schedule it in. Don’t move it for anything. 15 minutes ‘off’ is not going to kill you. Once you’re comfortable, you’ll find it easier to take on half hour or longer periods of down time.

So, having said that it’s all still a work in progress. These are things I’m still trying to implement. But as things start to settle and slot into place, I can start to envision the kind of life I want to lead. There’s still a lot to work out but it’s more exciting than scary. And I really meant it when I said that I wanted to use this space to help things glow a bit more and I already have lots of ideas. Stay tuned.

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