Self-care is not selfish

Making the time to look after your own needs means you’re at your best when needed by family or friends

By Starr Cunningham


Self-care is a phrase we hear more often these days. And that’s a good thing.

As parents we’re constantly taking care of everything and everyone else. The kids, the shopping, the pets, the family schedule, the housework, the vehicle maintenance, the finances, the appointments, the holiday planning, and the list goes on.

It’s all important stuff, but there’s a priority that’s often left-off the proverbial To Do list: YOU!
At the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia, we’re huge proponents of self-care. We know it’s a critical part of maintaining good mental health.

I’m the first to admit it’s often difficult to carve out “me time” when there are so many other balls to keep up in the air. As a person who lives with depression, I have to be especially diligent about taking time for myself. While medication and talk therapy sessions are regular parts of my personal routine, there also needs to be time set aside for doing the things that make me happy.

I used to be under the impression these things were optional. However, now I recognize they’re mandatory.
So why is self-care so often scarce? For me, it’s because I have a tendency to only make time for myself when everything else is done. And I know I’m not alone here. Think about the last time you had planned to go to the gym only to have something pop-up with the kids. What did you choose to complete? Chances are it was the task focused on the children, not on you. It’s normal to put our own needs on hold until there’s time. Then, the time just disappears. Well, now is the time to make sure you get that time back and use it for you.

There’s a saying about not being able to pour from an empty cup and it rings especially true when we’re talking about self-care. If there’s nothing left for you, then how can you expect to fully be there for others? It’s really that simple. To be a productive and effective parent, partner, employee, family member, or friend, you need to be at your best. That means making self-care a chief concern.

So, what are some self-care suggestions? Of course, they’ll be different for everyone, but here are a few standard categories:

Healthy eating is a huge. Making smart food decisions provides more energy and generally makes you feel better. While cooking a meal at home may take more time than ordering in or dining out, it goes a long way toward putting you and your family on the right path. Remember, when you eat well your children eat well too. There are also the therapeutic benefits of washing, chopping, and cooking fresh food at the end of a busy day. Don’t think of it as work that needs to be done, but rather a regular pocket of family time that brings everyone together to share time in the kitchen.

Starr and her sister, Stacey, out for a self-care Thanksgiving Day hike at Hemlock Ravine.

Exercise. There’s no disputing this one. Every time I make the time to go for a power walk, row at the gym, or attend a Zumba class, I feel stronger and more confident. It’s not just in my head; there’s science to back this one up. Physical activity is key to good mental health. It gets your blood flowing, your lungs working, and your heart pumping, and it doesn’t have to be a solo activity. Taking the kids and the dog for a walk in the woods counts. So does dancing in the rec room or playing a game of tag in the backyard. If you’re having fun, your kids are having fun too.

Then there’s zzzzzzzzz. We all know sleep is critical for clear thinking and maintaining energy throughout the day, but too often we push our quality sleep time limits. It’s much easier to be adamant about a bedtime for the little ones than it is to be focused on counting our own snoozing hours (especially if there’s a work deadline looming or a stressful situation on the horizon). For me personally, sleep is the most important of all self-care strategies. One lousy night of sleep is bearable, but any more and I’m sure to be irritable, hungry, and likely to cancel any plans involving exercise.

Doing things you find relaxing. Ahhhhhhh! For me, nothing beats reading a book in the bathtub or curling up in front of the fireplace with a great playlist. I also love baking, writing letters, and taking time to not just read the paper, but to do the crossword puzzle too. These are simple self-care techniques that work to recharge my batteries and bring calm into my day. They are grounding activities that are just as significant as all those other scheduled meetings, appointments, and must-dos that are part of my daily schedule. For you, they might include painting, knitting, yoga, home improvement projects, or combing recipe books for new meal ideas. They’re meant to be unique to each individual because relaxation means something different to everyone.

Staying social. Connecting with others is always good for our mental health. Spending time with family, friends, and colleagues is vital to staying engaged, not just in your own life, but in your community. I can always tell when I’m starting to neglect my self-care because I lose my desire to meet a friend for coffee or answer their calls. These interactions typically bring me joy, but they can start to make me anxious and become energy-eaters if I’m not at my best. Social isolation is definitely not part of a healthy self-care strategy. It can lower your mood and bring on emotional thinking. Yes, alone time is important, but not if that’s the only type of time you’re fitting in.

Feeling spiritual. For some people this might mean going to worship, while for others it might involve watching the sunset over the harbour or taking time to simply sit in nature and listen to the birds. Meditation is becoming more mainstream these days and it can provide a nice escape from individual thinking to explore the bigger picture and contemplate the wider world.

Playing with Marty and Iz. Okay, this one is really for the dogs. Marty is our two-year-old golden retriever and Izzy is our 11-year-old Shih Tzu. Spending time with them is self-care at its finest. They are two furry goofballs who never fail to make me laugh and keep me on my toes. You should never underestimate the power of animals. They provide entertainment, unconditional love, and are experts at the art of distraction. Plus, they make you get up and move.

I’m sure you get the idea by now. Self-care is all about doing those things that put a smile on your face and create positive energy. Self-care provides self-confidence and increases self-esteem. It doesn’t have to cost money. It’s easily accessible and, best of all, it creates happy people, happy homes, and happy workplaces. What’s not to love?

So the next time you want to teach your child an important lesson in resilience, why not let them see you demonstrating self-care. It’s certainly not selfish. In fact, it’s anything but.

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