When Self-Care Seems Impossible

Self-care is a bit of a buzzword these days. Women’s magazines, self-help journals, and yes, even caregiver websites counsel the importance of seeing to your needs so you can care for others. But when you’re stretched to the absolute limit and you don’t have a minute—or a penny—to spare, being told to take care of yourself can be infuriating and demoralizing. Drop several hundred dollars on a spa day? Take an hour for a yoga class or coffee with a friend? Who are these people kidding?

So let’s revise the definition of self-care. Forget about activities that require carving out a lengthy block of time or spending money you don’t have. Instead, think of self-care as something you can do to make your life just a little bit easier.

What counts as self-care:

  1. Calling a friend who lifts you up.
  2. Letting a call from a friend who brings you down go to voicemail.
  3. Taking a nap (or just closing your eyes and putting your head back for 15 seconds).
  4. Reading a book.
  5. Taking a walk (even if it’s just to another room, or out to get the mail).
  6. Sitting quietly with a cup of tea or coffee for five minutes before everyone wakes up or after everyone’s in bed.
  7. Saying no.
  8. Without apologizing.
  9. Ending a toxic relationship.
  10. Treating yourself with respect.
  11. Telling others to treat you with respect.
  12. Relaxing your standards.
  13. Ignoring others’ expectations.
  14. Taking a shower at the end of a bad day.
  15. Going to bed early when you’re tired.
  16. Doing something that makes you happy.

When self-care seems impossible, remind yourself to:

Start small.

Try to take a minute for yourself every day the first week, then see if you can find five minutes the next. Ten consecutive minutes might be impossible, but can you fit in two five-minute breaks?

Stick with what’s easy or familiar.

Instead of trying to keep track of the plot twists in the latest murder mystery, revisit your favorite books from childhood. Or flip through a magazine that’s heavy on pictures, light on articles.

Respect your boundaries.

If your family assumes that you’re always available, they may need reminders as you start taking time for yourself. Encourage your kids try to solve their own problems (age-appropriately) before you interrupt your self-care routine to jump in to help. Your spouse or parent may also be able to wait a few minutes rather than expect you to drop everything immediately.

Cut yourself slack.

Saying no and standing up for yourself are really hard! And if these actions are out of character for you, people may push back. If you decide it’s easier to give in, remind yourself that doesn’t mean you’re a self-care failure. Instead, congratulate yourself and consider it practice for the next time.

Honor your emotions.

It’s okay to feel anger, sorrow, and fear. So acknowledge negative emotions, and let others know that they are (or are not) responsible for them. “I had a really bad day at work, and I’m scared about grandma. I’m sorry I yelled at you—I overreacted when I saw you hadn’t cleaned up after your snack. Let’s put this stuff away so we can start dinner.”

Address your fears.

When you’re worried about finances or that dull ache that hasn’t gone away, get advice. At worst, you’ll take care of the problem before it gets too out-of-hand. At best, you’ll discover that things aren’t as bad as you thought.

Accept that “doing your best” is a moving target.

Try not to use a good day’s “best” when you’ve had a bad day. Forgive yourself and move on. Because annoying as those articles are, they have a kernel of truth to them: Self-care isn’t a luxury, it’s a survival skill.

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