Therapists are trained to help clients with their big, life-upending challenges, but they are also trained to help clients with the tiny, everyday things they can do to keep themselves emotionally and physically healthy. We call those things self-care skills — the little activities, like getting enough sleep or finding a safe space to express negative emotions, that often fall by the wayside when we’re under duress. And a lot of us are under duress every day. As a therapist I can advocate for self-care skills all day long… but as a human being with an aversion to corniness, I always really hated that term.
In my book about approaching your self-improvement as if you were a superhero-in-training, called Super You, I tried to take a different tactic to approaching self-care skills for myself and others by reframing them as a bag of tools. The idea is that the bag’s always strapped to you, like Batman’s tool belt full of bat-themed weapons, so the tools will always be readily available. Some of the tools you can and should use every day, some are only used for checking in on yourself, and some are for emergencies.
Here is a list of a few Super You tools that should be as handy as a batarang. You may find that you’re already using some of them, and if so, give yourself a pat on the back!
1. Date Yourself
I tend to really throw myself into relationships with the vigor and enthusiasm of a puppy. I come on strong. You may not knit sweaters out of your own hair for a new partner, but what things are you doing for a new romantic partner that you could be doing for yourself too? Do you delve deep into your partner’s wants and needs? Do you pay attention to your partner’s every inkling of a thought, transfixed and awestruck? Do you provide nice back rubs and bubble baths and genital action? Everything that makes you a good partner can be applied to dating yourself, and pretending as if I was doing nice things for someone else helped me feel less guilty about treating myself.
My parents forced me to volunteer when I was young, and though I hated them for it at the time, it absolutely shaped who I became. I have volunteered at hospitals, at science parks, at tutoring centers, at LGBT centers, at women’s shelters, in courthouses, and at animal rescue facilities, and each time I leave with a tiny hint of what it’s like to be someone other than myself. This is great perspective to gain. Once you’re out of school, you mainly interact with the people you choose to interact with, and that can give you a pretty narrow worldview. Volunteering has helped me gain a sense of the world’s hugeness and of my own tiny place in it. You may think that you’re too busy to volunteer, but I promise you that, just like working out or having a creative outlet, devoting your time to someone other than yourself is hugely important in keeping yourself centered. And listen, this is not even slightly the reason why you should volunteer, but imagine how it’ll feel the first time someone at a party asks you, “What have you been up to?” and you respond, “Volunteering at ______! It’s amazing.” It’s a pretty lovely and distinctive feeling.
3. Give Yourself Downtime
So what is downtime, or “me time”? People may intellectually know what it means, but they don’t know what it means to them. Me time, as I’m defining it, is how you accumulate mental energy — not physical energy, and not social energy, but mental energy. It’s a pleasant way to spend time that is not productive, as cleaning or going to the gym is. It’s just straight-up indulgent stuff that you do for you and you only — and it doesn’t tax your brain. I’m a pretty scheduled girl, so I try to set aside 30 minutes for downtime every day. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it actually works. To figure out things you can do for your downtime, think about what you did when you were a kid in the summer and had whole days stretched out in front of you with nothing to do. Here are a few options that I choose from when it’s downtime…time.
• Eat at a restaurant alone — no book, no phone.
• Make cookies.
• Put on a cocktail dress and heels and dance around my house to loud music.
• Reread my old Sweet Valley High books.
• Walk slowly and aimlessly in pretty surroundings.
4. Create and Maintain Rituals
When you’re a kid, the parameters of your life are set up by other people — and though these parameters can be annoying at times, it can also be somewhat comforting to know what to expect, and what’s expected, in any given situation. When I first became an adult and went to college, free to eat meals as I liked and go to bed whenever, I experienced an immense feeling of joy and wonder at my newfound freedom, followed by a weird emptiness. I felt unmoored. So I started creating rituals in my own little life and with my roommates to help restore some of the parameters that had been so soothing and reliable.
Rituals can involve many types of things: playing Dungeons & Dragons on Sunday, having brunch with friends, craft night, regular chat conversations, Tuesday FaceTime appointments with your parents, date nights. Essentially, they’re a series of actions assigned a special meaning. The important thing for rituals is that you (1) make them clear and simple, (2) communicate them to the person you want to ritual it up with (if it’s not a solo ritual), and (3) enact them regularly.
5. Identify Social Supports
Every few months it’s a good idea to take stock of the friendships you have. How strong are they? Do you have any friendships that are toxic and need some adjusting? Is there anyone in your life you feel yourself growing distant from whom you would like to reconnect with? Every friendship is supposed to bring you something positive. If it doesn’t, why is it still a friendship?
For bonus points, you can also go through your friends individually and parse out the kinds of support they offer you. This may seem a bit creepy, so you can skip this step if you like, but I started realizing how some of my friends want to talk about feelings a lot, and some make me laugh harder than anyone, and so on. This is not to say that you then seek out your friends only for what they can provide you — but it’s good to know that, if I’m pondering life after death and go to Pete to discuss it with him, he may respond by doing a bit and making coffee come out of my nose, which may not be super useful to me at the moment. Don’t expect more from your friends than they have to offer, and don’t set up friendships where you are continually having to overextend yourself socially.
6. Request Support
Asking for help is one of the toughest things to do. It can make you feel vulnerable, weak, or just plain weird — but it’s also the stuff that close relationships are made of. In my younger days, when I sought attention from a friend, I greatly exaggerated what was happening with me, stirring myself into a faux crisis out of fear that my mundane worries weren’t enough to warrant needing support. In looking back, I see it was my way of protecting myself from seeming dumb in front of a friend — if the issue was huge (albeit fake), I could get the support I needed without feeling stupid about my concerns and fears. But let me tell you this now: if you’re struggling with something, whatever it is, that’s enough to warrant reaching out to a friend. It’s also good to have an idea of what kind of support you are looking for. Here are a few categories.
• Listening and empathizing
• Listening and solution-plotting
• Listening and gloom-and-dooming alongside you
• Distracting you from your troubles
• Giving a pep talk
• Showing care and affection
Giving your friend a sense of what you need from this list can be really important. As any human can tell you, for the times when you just want to be heard (listening), but your friend starts telling you how to fix your problems (solution-plotting), you’ll want to punch that well-meaning person in his well-meaning face.
7. Calm and Refocus Yourself
When you are overwhelmed or stressed and need relief right now, try this: Inhale for a count of seven, hold your breath for a count of seven, and exhale for a count of seven. Do this several times, and once you feel a bit calmer, it’s time to get some distance. Finding mundane things to occupy your brain is a terrific, simple way to emotionally back out from whatever hole you find yourself in.
I learned a trick a few years ago when feeling panicky: write down all 50 states. This trick takes up brain space but has no emotional weight, so I love it. Another self-distraction option I use is forcing myself to notice tiny details about the environment I’m in. What is the pattern in the floor? Is the tabletop clean or does it have crumbs on it? Take in the room you’re in as if for the first time. Notice and absorb every detail. Ask yourself weird questions about it. When’s the last time the corners of the ceiling were cleaned? How does one even clean the corners of the ceiling? Has anyone died in this room? What’s the name of this color of paint? Bury yourself in details until you feel calmer. Use as necessary.
Adapted from Super You: Release Your Inner Super Hero (October 2015) by Emily V. Gordon, with permission from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. © 2015