More than a bubble-bath: the long and short of true self-care

What do we actually mean by the term “self-care”?

Self-care seems to fall into two categories: treat yourself (bubble bath, good meal, afternoon nap) and challenge yourself (commit to eating better, learning a foreign language, training for a marathon).

Many women in mid-life are under enormous stress: often they still have kids at home but now may also have parents who need increasing care. Their bodies are changing, and the stresses of menopause symptoms should not be underestimated (interrupted sleep, joint pain, anxiety, hot flashes, fatigue, etc.). Focus and concentration may be harder, thanks to fuzzy meno brain making women stress about their work performance. And for many, financial fears about retirement cloud the future.

If anybody needs a little self-care, it’s a woman in perimenopause or menopause.

Treats are usually small and of short duration: a walk in the woods, a mani/pedi, taking time off from work or other obligations to see a movie or read a book. Treats are about increasing comfort, even if it’s just for the duration of a glass of wine or a bubble bath.

Challenges are usually long-range and involve some effort from you but are intended to have long-term, even life-changing results. It’s something you really want to do like learning to box or writing a book or something that will lead you toward your ultimate goal, like taking classes on how to code so you can start your own tech business. The key is that you’re pushing yourself; tasks move you out of your comfort zone.

I’d like to argue that in a truly healthy life, we make room for both.

Treat yourself

These are usually the short-term, fairly easy-to accomplish goals we set for ourselves. While much of the world (and even we) often regard the bubble bath or massage or gourmet donut as frivolous, they really aren’t.

Short breaks are good for us. You get the benefit of stress relief in the moment (and stress messes with your hormones like nobody’s business, so there is a health benefit too). Plus, respite from the often-unrelenting hamster wheel of life and work can help us avoid burnout.

According to life coach Susie Moore, small treats build confidence because they remind us that we deserve to feel good. And when we feel good and confident, we tend to do better at our jobs, are happier in our lives, and are able to be more present for those we care about.

One caveat: just because you’re splurging doesn’t mean all considerations go out the window. Will it make you feel worse later, like guilt from eating a whole pizza or worry that your special treat waaaaaay exceeded your discretionary spending budget for the month? Treats are best when they’re uncomplicated. 

How to treat yourself

Don’t “save” self-care for your crappiest days; schedule it in and make it as sacred and unmovable as an appointment with a client or your boss.  

Check your headspace. Don’t let guilt over the seven things you “should” be doing right now suck all the joy out of this moment. If you really feel you can’t enjoy it, reschedule, but don’t let it fall off your calendar. You’re creating a new, healthy habit, and the way to do that is to stick with it.

Know yourself. If what you’re really craving is time alone, don’t plan a coffee date with a friend instead. Maybe going to the gym isn’t really fun for you; don’t make that your break. The point is to truly enjoy the moment, not to end up feeling resentful that you even had to “adult” during your me time.

Be present. Whatever you’ve decided to do (or not do), be there for it. Bathe in the moment of listening to your favorite podcast or getting a foot massage or stretching in the park. 

What are three treats you can think of that would genuinely refresh your mood and reduce your stress without imperiling your job, your wallet, or your health?

Challenge yourself

This form of self-care can be a little tougher, even to start. In a world where we have to remind ourselves to take small breaks for a walk or to go to the bathroom, committing to learning yoga or Japanese might seem ridiculously optimistic.

But there are benefits even in trying. Depending on the goal you set for yourself, you can reap enormous physical, mental, and emotional rewards from making the attempt, even if success is distant.

When you’re doing something you enjoy and are engaged in, you focus better. As we age, we can lose our ability to concentrate for longer periods of time. Doing something that genuinely captivates you can help you retrain your brain to pay attention longer, even to the boring stuff.

Mental challenges like learning a language or a musical instrument or how to code may improve your brain’s neuroplasticity and help slow or delay loss of cognitive function or the onset of dementia. 

Anxiety and depression are common companions for midlife women, setting a tough challenge may help a woman redirect her attention to something more positive.

If the challenge is something physical, then of course there may be copious physical benefits: stronger muscles, better endurance, better balance, a stronger heart and lungs, healthy impact on bones to preserve density. 

And there are genuine trickle-down effects as well. Mastering a new skill (or just making progress toward mastery) builds confidence and self-esteem. Finding a new hobby may lead us to new social interactions with others who share our passion, and research shows being social helps us live longer

How to challenge yourself

What do you really want to do? Learn German, master the piano, take on a triathlon, volunteer to train guide dogs or read to kids at the public library, get a degree? Give yourself permission to dream big. 

Set goals. If you pin all your hopes on completion, you miss out on the joys of the journey. And you risk getting overwhelmed and giving up. This is about self-care, not more stress, so plot a course and celebrate the milestones. 

Be self aware. OK, so you’ve been running for a month and are still not ready to take on the Boston Marathon. It’s OK. Really. You ran further today than last week, or you wrote a couple hundred words on your novel, mastered “to be” in French – that’s awesome! Bear witness to your own progress, no matter how incremental, because it’ll give you a confidence boost and incentivize you to keep on.

Pace yourself. If you’re unrealistic in your timeline, this will just be another source of stress instead of a stress reliever. Give yourself the time you need and then some, because life happens.

Enjoy the tangentials. When I decided to take up rock climbing, I had no idea how cool the gear was. Carabiners, draws, chalk bag, daisy chain – they look cool and make me feel cool in them, no matter how odd I might actually look. I think of this as “horizontal enjoyment.” It’s not progress toward the goal, but it’s a sort of sideways pleasure that still contributes to my happiness.

Whatever you decide, however you increase your joy in life, it’s so important that you, ironically, take it seriously. Make time for it, not excuses. Don’t apologize for going for a walk during your lunch hour or feel embarrassed about a Sunday nap or a dance class. These things may seem small, but then so are the irritations that whittle us down, and we take those plenty seriously.

If it helps you feel less guilty or frivolous, self-care makes you a better person. It makes you a calmer parent, a more productive colleague, a nicer boss, a kinder friend. So, be a hero – learn French for a friend.