We know we’re supposed to make time for journaling, meal planning, shopping at the local farmer’s market, reading books, taking baths, or falling asleep to binaural beats. Whatever your choose-your-own-adventure form of self-care looks like, it contributes to your well-being, regulates your nervous system, and ultimately feeds your sense of “flow.”
But the truth is that–despite what the internet might lead you to believe–most people do not live perfectly manicured, carefree lives laden with self-care rituals. If fitting in any amount of self-care feels more like a fantasy, it’s likely because life is always sprinkling in some less desirable variables (think: a health scare, the loss of a loved one, getting side-swiped on the way to work, a messy kitchen, feeling behind on a project). And sometimes, these moments overlap, sending you into a spiral of overwhelm so lovingly deemed “the hot mess.”
Seasons like these are part of life. It’s OK to feel their full weight, and it can be helpful to know that they, too, shall pass. No matter how hard we try to maintain order, sometimes we are swept away by life’s chaos. Unfortunately, this is when all forms of self-care tend to get tossed out the window, which is ironic because it’s also the key to our sanity. So how do you keep it together when everything is falling apart? How can you commit to self-care when it feels like you’re living in a literal dumpster fire? I’ve been writing about and practicing self-care for almost a decade, so I’ve managed to pick up a few strategies to keep my head above water. If you’re basking in a thousand little fires, I hope these tips can help to cool the temperature a few degrees.
1. Embrace the mess
Easier said than done, but sometimes our resistance to the chaos is part of the problem. Life isn’t supposed to be perfect, and it’s certainly not your fault when it isn’t. Allowing yourself to accept that things might feel a little messy for a while is an act of self-care in itself. When I give my life permission to be hard, my nervous system calms down because I’m no longer trying to activate fight-or-flight mode. When I allow challenges to appear in my life, I am more prepared to handle them. By the way, giving life permission to be hard is not the same as expecting the worst—that’s a recipe for anxiety. The nuance here is acceptance versus anticipation. Things are allowed to feel challenging, but that doesn’t mean they always are.
2. Give yourself grace
OK, so you’ve dropped every self-care routine you’ve ever known. Or maybe you’ve never been able to stick to the healthy habits you crave. First of all, welcome to the club. You are not alone. It might not seem like it because people don’t tend to wear their burnout on their sleeves, but I assure you, you are in very good company. Secondly, know that you are not failing at self-care. You’re surviving. That’s a feat in itself. When I start to feel the words “failure” form on my lips, I take a deep breath and remind myself that I am a sole person with a finite amount of resources. I forgive myself for feeling like I’m not doing enough. Forward momentum is forward momentum, even at a snail’s pace. And every day offers a new opportunity to try again.
3. Reframe time as a commodity that you own
A commodity is something you can own, barter, buy, and sell. I really want that to sink in. The reason why things feel extra hard sometimes and easier other times almost always comes down to time. A balanced life is all about having the time to do what you need to do as well as what you love to do. When time is limited, we tend to drop what we love for the sake of what’s necessary. But when we recognize that our time is ours—and that we have agency over how to use it—that can empower us to incorporate a little more self-care into the mix.
4. Tally up the time you have
Once you take ownership of your time, take inventory of how much of it you actually have. This will let you know what’s reasonable for incorporating self-care. For example, I am a mom to a tiny toddler. She has a knack for getting into trouble whenever my back is turned, so I can’t count on overextending myself while she’s around. This means I have one hour while she’s napping, two hours in the morning while my husband is on duty, and maybe two hours after she’s asleep at night to do anything of value. That’s five hours each day. When I look at it from a bird’s eye view, carving out 10-30 minutes a day for a self-care ritual doesn’t feel so absurd.
5. Prioritize the mess
Now that you know how many hours you own in a day consider prioritizing which fires to put out. Some of them might not be burning as brightly as you think. For example, in my house, I have a couple of smart ceiling fans that are desperate for tech support. The Bluetooth controls keep over-communicating with each other, so when I’m trying to turn the light on in my bedroom at night, the ceiling fan in my baby’s room lights up, too—while she’s sleeping! But you know what? This is a “next week” problem. Figure out what your next week’s problems are. This is important because if you don’t, every single minor issue that falls from the sky is going to take precedence over your mental health. If you’re going to make time for self-care, you need to send some of your fires to the future.
6. Pick your most potent form of self-care
When you are low on time, you obviously can’t dedicate a full day to all of the self-care rituals you love. So it’s time to take into account the practices that pack the biggest punch in the shortest amount of time. This will look different for everyone. For my husband, it’s a 30-minute power nap. For me, it’s a 15-minute meditation. For you, it might be a bath, facial, or walk around the block. It doesn’t matter what you choose, so long as you choose something. If you’re not sure which practices deliver results, try a few! Rotate through some of your favorites and notice whether they speak to you or not. You might surprise yourself with how good you feel after doing something as simple as a five-minute gua sha routine.
7. Block time in your calendar for self-care
I’m sure you saw this coming, but it’s cliché for a reason, folks. If it’s not on some kind of to-do list, it’s probably not going to get done. If you’d rather add your self-care practice to your actual to-do list, that’s not a bad idea either. But if you use a calendar regularly, seeing time blocked off for just you will remind you how important it is and ensure it happens. And if you have a shared calendar, it can remind others that this is a non-negotiable time for you.
8. When you do self-care, feel it
When life is operating in hot-mess mode, it’s so easy to rush through each day in survival mode. You might be checking boxes off the list as fast as you can just so you can get to the next problem that needs to be solved. This mad-dash mentality might be so automatic that it doesn’t slow down, even when you do make time for self-care. You might be doing the ritual just to get it done. You’re going to have to make it a point to stop that.
As soon as you engage with whatever form of self-care you’ve chosen, take a moment to pause. Breathe. Notice how it feels. For example, if all you have time to incorporate is a shower, don’t spend it thinking about what you have to do next. Instead, notice how the water feels on your back. You are granting yourself this time, so be present with it. Soak it in and revel in it.
9. Be kind to yourself when you skip self-care
Look, sometimes the other stuff gets loud. You had every intention of meditating, but your stove just short-circuited, and your “you” time has turned into being on the phone with your landlord. That’s not your fault, so go easy on yourself. The same theory applies when you just don’t feel like doing it. You know it’s going to feel good to make yourself that smoothie, but you don’t have the energy to dump everything in the blender and hit the button. No judgment—I’ve been there. Look at it this way: If you’re making a choice to rest, guess what? That’s self-care too. Boom.
10. Sprinkle gratitude into your day
Speaking of quick-hitting practices with big impact, have you heard of gratitude? Of course, you have. But did you know that focusing on how thankful you are for just 30 seconds has the power to permanently rewire your brain? It does! Do you know what that means? If you’re going through a phase where you legit have zero energy for any self-care, gratitude can take its place. Gratitude as a feeling has a near instant effect on your nervous system. It centers, grounds, and connects you to what really matters: your values.
Allow yourself to feel grateful for the tiny moments in your day that light you up: the barista complimenting your bangs, a stranger holding open a door, or the simple beauty of a late-summer sunset. This can give you enough of a recharge to make it through the rest of your day unscathed.
11. At the end of the day, trust in yourself
When you’re underwater, it’s hard to see the horizon. But I promise you: Nothing lasts forever. Life will get quiet again. You will get more time back. And in the meantime, you’ll get through this. Do you know what I tell myself at the end of every day? “You’re doing it.” Because while that mail has been sitting in its sad stack for days, I’ve been doing literally everything else to make sure the bills are paid, mouths are fed, work gets done, friendships are kept, and fires stay out. I’m doing it. You are too. With or without self-care, you’re doing it. Allow yourself to be proud of that, period. And when you’re ready to invite more feel-good practices into your life, trust that you will.