These days I’m seeing more and more in the media touting the value of self-care. In addition to articles and various hashtags on social media, I’ve even seen a BitMoji portraying a serene, cartoon version of a person practicing “self-care” in the bath. While I think there is value in the promotion of self-care, it is less about taking the occasional bubble bath and more about making conscious choices in our life and work.
THE SYMBIOSIS OF SELF-CARE AND SELF-ADVOCACY
Self-advocacy is about setting healthy boundaries for yourself. When you actively cultivate self-awareness and self-acceptance, you have a better sense of who you are and what you need to stay happy and healthy. This self-knowledge informs what boundaries you need to set in your life and work, and the boundaries you set allow you to make your self-care a sustainable practice.
I joked about the bubble-bath version of self-care above, but I don’t mean to diminish the value of relaxing quiet time, whatever form it may take. Quiet time is one way we can rejuvenate and re-energize ourselves, and there are many other choices we can make, as well. Whether it is exercising or spending time with friends, eating a healthy, delicious meal or getting a great night’s sleep, there are many options that all look different for different people.
Self-care is what keeps us feeling good, both mentally and physically. When you feel both physically healthy and mentally strong, you are able function at a level that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. I’ve written before about why self-care and self-advocacy are not selfish. It allows you to effectively and resiliently support all the people in your life who are counting on you.
How, then, do we introduce more self-advocacy and self-care into our busy everyday lives when we’re so often focused on everyone else? If you guessed that mindfulness and meditation would be a part of it, you are correct!
When there is so much to consider and not that much time to do so, I suggest taking the following three steps to discover what you can do:
Find clarity on what is most important to you
Identify your “no’s”
Identify your “yes’s”
The first step is to find clarity about your deepest values and needs. When we sit in meditation, there is a gradual slowing down and an intentional introspection that occurs. You notice your thoughts and emotions, many of which have a familiar, loop-like quality that pass through our minds over and over.
Observing your internal experience with openness and curiosity allows you to become intimately acquainted with your worries and regrets, as well as your hopes and dreams. Plumb these depths to identify what is most important to you, as well as to reflect on whether your daily choices align with what you’ve identified as your deepest priorities.
You can also tune in to your body, either through formal meditation, or periodic, informal noticing. What makes your shoulders clench or your stomach hurt? What fills your heart with warmth and love? When you are considering a choice and hold the question in your mind, what does your body tell you?
Consider talking through these ideas with a trusted friend or even in the pages of a notebook. Without thinking about what you’re going to say or write ahead of time, answer the questions that will help you to get clear about your deepest values and needs. You may be surprised by what surfaces unexpectedly.
IDENTIFY YOUR NO’S
Educators are caregivers, and our natural inclination is to say yes to whatever is asked of us. We are out of practice saying no, more commonly responding with a “Sure!” or “Of course!” or “Absolutely!” whenever called upon. I suspect you’re the type of person that people can depend on. You’re most likely the one that does the heavy lifting in relationships, both professional and personal.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a caregiver and having this reluctance to say no. As a way to work around it, I would like to suggest a reframe.
When it comes to saying no to a request that doesn’t align with what is most important to you, reframe it as saying yes to what IS important.
Step one invites you to reflect on your deepest values and needs and to identify what is most important to you. When you have this clarity, it sustains you and allows you to let go of any guilt that might arise. You are advocating for yourself and saying yes to your deepest values.
Here are some examples of how this might look:
Saying no to joining that committee you’re not interested in is saying yes to more time with your family.
Saying no to sponsoring a school club that you feel ambivalent about is saying yes to getting some exercise.
Saying no to that extra, non-mandatory duty in the name of helping out is saying yes to having a work-free lunch where you get to actually take a break and enjoy your food.
As difficult and as uncomfortable as it might be to refuse the requests of people we want to help out, the world won’t spin off its axis if you say no to something. People may be disappointed, but they won’t hate you. In fact, people will have more respect for you and the boundaries you’re setting. You become an example of what healthy balance looks like and may inspire others to do the same.
IDENTIFY YOUR YES’S
Taking time to find clarity about what is most important to you helps you to say no to what doesn’t align with those priorities. When I ask people to engage in this exercise, many identify spending quality time with family members and friends as a core value. Nurturing the connections with loved ones fills our bucket and makes us feel good.
In addition to activities where we connect with others, I would also invite you to explore activities where you connect with yourself. Practicing meditation is one way to fill your bucket and supports clarity about what’s going on for you and what you need to keep your energy level where you want it to be.
Some kind of movement, either lively or gentle, is also something you may choose to say yes to. Taking a walk outside before, during, or after school can be done alone or with someone else. If you enjoy running, run. There is no shortage of opportunities to be in your body, feeling it move and stretch.
Whatever you decide to say yes to, remember that the purpose of your boundaries is to make the time and hold the space for your yes’s. While you don’t need to be rigid and inflexible about it, any compromises should be temporary and due to extenuating circumstances. You are the one that knows what’s best for you, and regularly circling back to the Finding Clarity step will allow you to make adjustments as needed.
As a way to jump start this process, take a moment to reflect on the following questions:
What are the three most important values, needs, etc. to you in your life?
What are three things you can stop doing, get help with, or say NO to?
What are three things you can do to rejuvenate you, fill your bucket, and say YES to?
KEEP IT KIND
Remember that an essential pillar to being a happy and healthy Teaching Balance teacher is self-compassion. If you struggle with setting boundaries, don’t beat yourself up about it. You are stepping outside of your comfort zone and into your learning zone and that is an accomplishment.
If you find that your boundary setting and “self-care yes’s” start off strong but eventually falter, it doesn’t help to listen to the demeaning comments of your inner critic. Just pause, pivot, and take one step forward to getting back to where you need to be.
Part of self-compassion is self-acceptance of who you are. You are perfectly imperfect, just like the rest of humanity. Let go of unreasonable, perfectionistic expectations of yourself.
You are a hard-working educator doing the best you can, and the self-advocacy and self-care you choose to bring into your life will support and allow you to continue to be the amazing teacher, colleague, partner, parent, and friend that you already are.