You've been doing self care wrong. Here's how to fix it.

A Self Care Journey

“My self care is a glass of wine!” I would say with a smile and a toss of my head. And a glass of wine in my hand, with a full bottle in front of me. Next morning, with an empty bottle and a headache, I did not feel very cared for.

Clearly, I had missed the point of “self care.”

Years later I’ve ditched the wine completely, but the self care remains a bit of a mystery. I hear about it plenty, and I imagine you do, too. It’s important to take time for self care, you’re told. Especially as a mom. Perhaps you’ve read an article or two that evoke the image of the oxygen mask on a plane -- you have to put your oxygen mask on before your child’s, because you can’t care for her if you’re depriving yourself. It makes perfect sense, on a plane. But how do we translate that to the how-to of emotional nurturance?

Self Care Confusion can add to anxiety

Because the topic was so unclear to me, I began to research it. What I found was an array of advice. I found a 30 Day Self Care Challenge that pushes busy moms to try something new in the realm of self care every day for 30 days: journal, eat chocolate, get a massage, go to the gym, disconnect from your technology, do some yoga, and so on. Wait, was self care supposed to be indulgent? Was I supposed to enjoy it (like eating chocolate) or was I supposed to enjoy how I feel afterwards (hello, gym, my best frenemy)? The more I read, the less I understood.

The question I didn’t see asked or answered is: How am I supposed to know if my unique self care routine is actually working?

Sure, you can do a 30 day challenge, but what are you looking for at the end of it?

And as with most things, it occurred to me that mindfulness is the answer. Stay with me here.

It simply does not matter what activities you choose as your self care routine. What matters is how you approach those activities. The story you tell around the activities. And the only way to hear your own story is through the practice of listening, to yourself, to your thoughts. Respectfully and without judgment.

A Jewish Perspective

Judaism teaches that there are two aspects to worship. One is the fixed practice, the structure, the words we speak when we pray. This aspect is called “keva.” The other, is “kavanah.” Kavanah refers to the feeling behind it all, the intention you bring to the structure. This separation sets a beautiful context for thinking about a self care routine. When you run your self care bubble bath, filling the tub is the keva. Wait, no, just getting the 30 minutes to yourself and entering the bathroom alone is the keva! It’s no small feat, and it takes commitment on your part. You’re doing it because you said you would, for your own self care. Out of faith that it will enrich your life.

A bath is just a big ol’ pile of water and suds. It means nothing on its own. You create the meaning.

 An indulgent bath is definitely stressing this guy out!

An indulgent bath is definitely stressing this guy out!

The kavana is a the meaning you bring. Tune into it. Hear what stories your mind is telling you about the bath you’re taking. Are you ruminating about the things you “should” be doing instead? Are you berating your body? Or are you fully immersed in the warmth of the water that surrounds you?

If you can’t hear what your mind is telling you, it’ll let you know through your emotions. You might notice feeling frustrated, or resentful, or anxious. Those feelings are not coming from the bath, because the bath is just a pile of water and suds, remember? Those feelings are coming from your thoughts, from the kavanah you bring to the bath.

There is likely a lot of keva in your day. The routines and rituals that you do so frequently you forget you do them. Each one of these is an opportunity to practice noticing your kavanna. While you’re brushing your teeth, eating a meal, cooking, folding laundry, check in with your thoughts. What are you bringing?

Bring mindfulness to anything and make it self care

Are you feeling refreshed after combing your hair because you intended for the activity to be one of kindness, and stayed attuned throughout? Then congrats, you just did your self care. Are you resentful and angry after your massage? Perhaps your thoughts ran away with your emotions. The activity itself matters far less than what you bring to it.

Your self care routine has nothing to do with the activities you choose. You can take a bubble bath, get a massage, or simply tune in to eating your lunch. But the only way to know if you’ve just completed an act of self care is to tune in to the kavanah before, during and after. Eventually, you'll be able to intentionally change that kavanah and create a purposeful intention.

So find the activities in your day that you are committed to, and check your kavanah. You can create self care out of anything -- it's basically a superpower.