This might be an unpopular opinion, but a massage is not what I need when I’m overwhelmed.
My stress levels have been so high that, even if I had the time or money for a spa, I would not be able to relax. Everything needing to be done would still be there waiting for me after my appointment.
Splurging on spa services is just not a practical idea for people with tight budgets, limited childcare availability, and high stress levels.
My new theory is that true self-care involves setting routines and boundaries, simplifying life, and having a strong support system.
When stressed, our needs often fall to our last priority, or don’t make the list at all. We may be the breadwinner of the family, the keeper of the hearth, or the peacekeeper among relatives.
In cases like these, we morph into Sisyphus, rolling the proverbial boulder uphill — except we’re trading the boulder for an infinite list of tasks.
When someone admits they’re drowning and torn in too many directions, it’s better not to say anything about the self-care they should do.
For the person who is already desperately trying to take care of everything, it’s only adding another thing at which they’re failing.
For me, when I tried to explain to a friend why I was exhausted, she offered the well-meaning suggestion to “just go book a massage!”
Aside from the fact that my budget couldn’t handle it, I was an overworked, over-touched mom. The last thing I wanted was to pay someone to touch me more.
What I really needed was practical help, like someone to amuse my toddler, so I could go to the bathroom alone. I needed advice on difficult work situations, or what the heck we should have for dinner.
The innumerable small things were overwhelming. My urgent need was not self-care, but rather community care.
After urgent needs were addressed, I needed to reconfigure my life for sustainability.
I made three major changes:
- I created daily routines.
- I leaned into my community.
- I set value-based boundaries.
First, I prioritized building my community. Even if you never ask for help, it relieves stress to know you can. I intentionally scheduled activities related to my top values and said no to anything unrelated.
If you’re like me, saying no is difficult. I still feel guilty, but it’s getting easier. The times I said yes when I didn’t want to created resentment and overburdened my schedule.
Previously, I allowed the chaos of life to encroach on my mindfulness and spiritual practices.
Being empowered to say no meant I was better able to maintain the above practices. With healthy boundaries in place, I’d truly be able to enjoy a massage if I ever got one.
I have six suggestions that don’t require spending much money, if any at all. What they do require is the work of introspection and a commitment to yourself.
Revise your kitchen flow
If you’re the person in your household carrying the mental load of feeding the family, improving your kitchen flow will add much-needed efficiency.
Tackle these three things:
Keep a running shopping list
Enforce a rule that, whenever someone uses the last of an item, they add it to the list.
This helps in two ways. It takes less time to prepare for shopping, because the list will already be (mostly) complete.
And it also prevents an unwelcome last-minute surprise that you’re out of a critical ingredient for the meal you planned or, God forbid, toilet paper.
Declutter your space
Get rid of appliances, pots, or any other items that don’t actually get used. They’re making it harder to find and organize what you actually utilize.
Even if you just store them away, get them out of the action zone.
Set up your kitchen the way you use it
Make a lot of freezer meals? Consider storing freezer bags somewhere you don’t have to dig around to find them. Hungry kids? Put fruit out already washed, so it becomes the easy go-to snack that doesn’t require you to stop and help someone.
You may be surprised how much time and energy you’ll save from eliminating interruptions.
Organize your workspace
All adults deserve a dedicated, organized workspace. If you’re a stay-at-home parent, don’t diminish the work you do to keep your household running. You still deserve your own space.
For individuals with room for a desk, don’t let others get used to taking it over. Purge the space of anything not related to your work. Then eliminate the need to hunt for items, like pencils, calculators, or power cords, every work session.
Don’t know what you need? During the course of 1 week, keep a list of items you use. Commit to having those items available to you and off-limits to those who won’t return them to their homes in good working order.
For those without a dedicated space, use a large tray or box to create a “work kit.” In it, place the items you consistently need. When not in use, put it away on a shelf or in a closet to keep it safe.
Now all you have to do to get into work mode is to grab your “kit” or sit down at your desk.
Write that letter, email, text, etc.
To receive community care, you need to be part of a community. This involves starting and maintaining relationships.
With busy lives, it’s easy to procrastinate on responding to a relatives notecards, replying to a text, or actually stopping to talk to the neighbors.
Unfortunately, the longer you wait to reciprocate, the more awkward it becomes to initiate later.
Here’s what I know: The people who care for you are happy to hear from you. Write the letter or text today in your new, clutter-free, organized workspace!
Choosing to cultivate healthy relationships is part of self-care, because loved ones are part of living a fulfilling life.
Streamline your morning routine
When you wake up in a hurry, it sets a bad tone for your day.
Morning routines can involve things like:
- practicing mindfulness
- reciting affirmations
- keeping your phone off for a set time
- planning the day
The most important factor is that your routine is sustainable. Not everyone has multiple leisurely hours in the morning. However, try to rearrange your schedule to eke out 15 to 30 minutes.
Here’s my non-negotiable morning trinity: drinking water, moving, and centering.
We all hear the health benefits of water, so start the day with a cup.
With the remaining time, get moving. Relax into a few stretches, or wake up with a calorie-torching workout — whatever works best for you.
Streamline your night routine
The same thing applies to your routine at night. When we zone out in front of the TV or doom-scroll on our phones, the electronic light and stimulation can disrupt sleep.
Try to disconnect from electronic devices at least 30 minutes prior to bed. Use that time to make your next morning easier by preparing your clothing, food, and agenda.
Is there something you need to take out of the freezer for dinner? Put it in the fridge before bed. Do you bring lunch to work? Make it now.
Do these tasks in the same order daily to create mental muscle memory. This means you’ll be able to complete them easily without a lot of thought or stress.
It will also prepare your mind and body for sleep and eliminate last-minute rushing around in the morning.
Enjoy a day of rest
Humans benefit from regular, cyclical breaks from obligations. This is built into traditions, like Sabbath in Judaism.
Even if you’re not religious, practice a weekly time away from being driven by productivity. Give yourself permission to experiment with contentment.
Here are some starting ideas:
- leisurely strolling through the neighborhood
- watching a funny movie
- reading a thought-provoking book
Of course, you can also schedule a massage or facial if you want to. Just know that spending money is not required for restoration.
Self-care means creating a life that doesn’t need bandages to make it bearable. It helps to differentiate between when you need to take better care of yourself and when you need your community’s help.
Don’t give up on yourself if your first efforts don’t work. Keep trying, and customize your routines to your needs.
Eventually, you’ll find a way to give your mind, body, and spirit exactly the care they need.
Julie Pierce Onos has been published in Healthline, Temblor, and Yoga Journal as well as providing in-house writing for financial companies. A Yale University graduate, Julie is passionate about organizational and personal improvement. She brings over 15 years of experience as a writer, instructor, and organization development expert in the Boston area.