“Self-care” has recently become a buzzword, but what does it actually mean?
I often hear clients say “I know I should do more self-care,” and I ask them what they mean by self-care. Their answers usually start with “Oh umm, I don’t know…” and end with things like “maybe eating healthier,” “probably get more massages,” and “take a vacation.”
Nobody ever says self care might look like sitting in a dark room and grieving for an old version of yourself that you’re letting go of before you start a new chapter of your life.
Nobody ever says self care might look like spending an hour at the shooting range.
Nobody ever says self-care might look screaming into a pillow, or writing an angry letter, or learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
But trust me, those are all perfectly legitimate forms of self-care, depending on who you are, what you’re going through, and what you need.
The truth is, your self-care will vary from someone else’s, the same way your “ideal” nutrition plan will vary, and your sense of style will vary.
You’re different people, and you have different needs. Why is that such a foreign concept? Because our consumerist culture is obsessed with telling women what they should want, and then offering them products they can buy to solve all their problems.
Now I’m certainly not suggesting that massages and spa days aren’t relaxing sometimes (for the right people), but I am saying that limiting the scope of female self-care to spa days and massages is complete and total bullshit. Not only is this self-care myth bullshit, but it’s also incredibly damaging, because it keeps women from discovering and pursuing what they really need to let go and relax.
If you’ve been taken in by the consumerist lies about women relaxing, then you might be making this huge mistake when it comes to relaxing.
First of all, let’s talk about the word “relaxing”.
The definition of relaxing is: “to make or become less tense or anxious.”
When we think of relaxing, we usually imagine gentle, calm activities where you have no tension or anxiety. Relaxing however is actually the pathway that gets you to that state, not the state itself. Which means that sometimes relaxing is aggressive and powerful. Oh, but society doesn’t want to encourage women to be aggressive and powerful, now do they? Certainly not, that freaks everyone out!
Women are supposed to be calm, gentle, and nurturing. Which means we should probably just skip the whole “relaxing” part and go straight to being “relaxed,” right? (Because “relaxing” is a pathway reserved for male privilege?)
Wrong. Because that’s not how science works.
Science tells us that when you stimulate the fight-flight-or-freeze response, you begin a hormonal stress-response cycle that needs to be completed in order to return to baseline. This is thanks to our evolutionary ability to handle and survive dangerous threats in our environment, and then switch back into healing and repairing mode only once we’ve escaped the danger.
But the problem is that our physiological stress response is no longer appropriate for our modern environments. The stress you face nowadays most likely isn’t about dangerous predators and threats to your survival (no matter how they feel). Our modern stressors don’t try to kill us and then retreat back into the woods and let us heal our wounds. In fact, especially for women, most of our stressors are inside our own heads, heart, and bodies! Think: guilt, comparison, perfectionism, and negative body image.
Due to the on-going and internally-generated nature of the stress we’re facing, we get stuck in an on-going stress response that was designed to complete quickly and return to baseline while you recover. We never complete the stress response cycle.
What does it look like to complete the stress cycle?
In an animal, after the fight-or-flight-or-freeze response is triggered and the danger escaped, you will see them twitch and shake and go crazy, expending all their excess energy in a frenzy, before returning to normal and taking a long nap. Humans are wired to have a similar reaction in order to complete the stress cycle, but with our uniquely internal stressors (and society’s rules for appropriate conduct), we are completely cut off from our bodies’ wisdom about how to finish our stress cycles.
What all this means is that sometimes the most “relaxing” thing you can do for yourself is to expend all that extra energy.
Completing a stress cycle is often far from calm and gentle. Like the animal who twitches and shakes, we too need to get rid of excess energy. When you trigger a stress response for any reason, your body goes through a ton of (fascinating) changes. It ramps up your available energy by dumping adrenaline into your blood, and preparing your cardiovascular system to run or attack. Your body then has all this extra energy, and since we rarely use that energy to fight off, say, the stress of perfectionism or guilt, you need to do something to get rid of it.
For animals that means twitching and trembling and yowling. For you, it might mean a tough workout, an hour at the shooting range, having sex, an intense cry, writing an angry letter, taking a boxing class, or throwing a proper tantrum of kicking and screaming. This isn’t always easy though.
Our culture is very intolerant of excessive and aggressive displays of emotion, especially from women.
We praise women for being calm, polite, mild, happy, and nice. Finding environments and outlets for you to twitch and yowl can be challenging. This is exactly why “self care” looks so different for everyone. The important thing is that self-care for everyone includes “finding the people, places, and things that help me complete my stress cycles.”
The beautiful thing about this sometimes-violent behavior is that it moves you from the state of stress and anxiety (mid-stress cycle) into the state of relaxation that you’ve been chasing and craving (by returning you to a hormonal baseline). Most people inadvertently try to skip this pathway, going straight from “anxious” to “deeply relaxed” through calm and gentle activities like massage and mediation. And hey, sometimes that’s perfect! But often it just doesn’t work.
That having been said, after you expend your excess energy, it’s completely normal to feel absolute exhaustion, gentleness, and calmness as you move into the last stage of the cycle: recovering and repairing. Listen to your body, and treat yourself with tenderness and kindness as you finish the cycle.
Think about how calm and peaceful you feel after crying to exhaustion, or the way you fall into bed after a long day of physical labor. No matter what people want you to think about the “relaxing” quality of laying around watching tv, surfing Facebook, or online shopping, none of those activities are very likely to help you expend your excess energy. Therefore at the end of that kind of day, you may been drained and unmotivated, but you’re still anxious and wired.
You can’t go from having excess energy (a.k.a. anxiety/stress) to feeling calm and peaceful without letting the energy out first. And once it’s out, you’ll need to rest.
So what does this mean for you as a modern day anxious-and-stressed-out woman? Well first of all, I hope you’ll see that despite what your husband or boss thinks, there is nothing wrong with you just because you “can’t seem to relax.” Of course you can’t relax, you’re skipping a vital step in the relaxation process!
Second of all, I hope you’ll start exploring what it might look like for you to complete your stress cycles by expending and channeling your energy into the right outlets for you, and then honoring the final stage of relaxation and recovery. Your body naturally wants to help you move through the different stages, so becoming aware of where you are in each cycle, and what you need, will help you finally able to relax.
And that is true self-care.
I am passionate about helping women learn to love their bodies, and I’ve found that the best way to do that is to combine structured movement (aka fitness) with mindset and emotional-life changes.
That’s why I offer private coaching to a very small number of clients
— so that I can give them all my attention, use all my skills and resources to help them learn to finally love and accept themselves, and offer them the tools to transform every facet of their lives. If you’re interested in working with me, please apply here.