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Karen Horneffer-Ginter, Ph.D. Headshot

Full Cup, Thirsty Spirit: Bringing the Best of Our Intelligence to Self-Care

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When our lives are busy, we really can't afford to put more or less time into self-care than we need to. Our self-care strategy needs to be similar to a rational approach to car maintenance. There's no sense getting our vehicle overly serviced -- taking it in before we need an oil change or our tires rotated. However, if we forget about tending to our car for too long, we'll end up with no viable form of transportation.

I experienced going too long in a small way when I once forgot to schedule a dental check-up for more than two years. I had regularly taken both my kids to their dentist and even to consultations with orthodontists. I just forgot, in the mix of things, that no one had looked at my teeth. When I finally did return to the dentist's chair, my gums were closely assessed. The hygienist poked her long, sharp instrument between each tooth, and repeatedly called out to the charting assistant: "Bleeding." "Bleeding." "Number 3a is bleeding, number 4b is bleeding, first molar is bleeding, second molar is bleeding..."

Yes, I thought in my head, I think we get the point. Message noted. Shame felt.

While we can be guilty of not engaging in enough self-care, at other times we can feel an internal or external pressure to engage in self-care activities for a longer period of time than what's practical. Maybe we don't have time for a half marathon training, but we can fit in quick jogs here and there. Maybe we don't have time for a weekend retreat or even an hour-long yoga class, but we can spend 10 or 15 minutes noticing our breath or collecting our thoughts.

Sadly, sometimes we forget to bring the best of our intelligence to the table when we're coming up with our self-care plans. We try to do too much, or we end up giving up on any attempt at self-care -- feeling that if we can't participate in our chosen health activities to the degree to which we should, we might as well let go of the activity all together.

No one can offer us a perfect recipe or formula for these things. Often in my counseling sessions, I encourage people to draw from the most helpful information they've learned, along their own life wisdom, and from here, to decide what works best for them. A question worth considering: When we only have 15 minutes or 45 minutes once a day or several times a week, how should we best use this time? What have we learned from our own experience about what works best for us?

It helps to accept that whatever attempts we make at self-care might be inadequate based on other people's standards -- and maybe even our own. Often, when I'm busy and only able to fit in a 10-minute meditation or a 15-minute jog, I remind myself that while my actions might not be shockingly impressive, they're still worth something.

As I sit with clients, I'm often reminded that it's an ongoing process to stay in touch with what we most need. I was recently speaking with a young woman who was feeling out of sorts. She was puzzled by why she felt agitated and mildly depressed given her consistent self-care efforts. "I've been running every morning, even biking to work, and I've also been cooking healthy stir fries for my family. I just don't get why I'm not feeling more energized."

I asked her how she'd want to spend her time if she had more of it to spend, and she sighed, replying, "No question -- I'd be playing the guitar and painting. I really miss my music and my art." As we spoke further, she came to see that it wasn't working for her to have all of her self-care efforts focused on her physical needs. For others, that might be the perfect equation for their well-being, but given her level of creative interests, she needed to be tending to these longings as well. By replacing two of her weekly runs with committed times for her creative pursuits, she began to feel considerably better.

It's worth considering how we can optimize our self-care efforts. Take some time to reflect on how much time feels like enough time and what mix of activities feels like it best meets the range of your needs.

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