Is Self-Care a Good Motivator?

Often when we think of self-care, we conjure up a vision of taking a break, hanging out in nature, or even going to a mindfulness meditation class.  Those are some of the ways you can go in for self-care.  But there is much more to it than that.    

In fact (bear with me here), none other than the World Health Organization has come up with a definition for self-care.  They say it is “The ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health-care provider.” 

That doesn’t really spell it out.  There are plenty of areas of our lives that can use some self-care.  There’s emotional, intellectual, environmental, spiritual, financial, occupational, social, and physical.  That’s a lot to consider. 

What About Physical Health? 

For the moment, let’s just look at the physical.  You know the old saying, “If you have your health, you have everything.”  Indeed, it is difficult to get the other areas to fall in to place without having a healthy body.  When we are physically healthy, we are more energized, focused, and optimistic.  Physical health gives us more options, and helps us step away from depression, anxiety, and helplessness. 

Easier said than done.  When you ask people what they do for self-care, how many will take a hot bath, floss daily, get a message, walk after dinner, or spend quality time with a spouse, friend, or beloved pet but go no further?

It is even possible to get confused.  Are we taking care of ourselves or using a reward system to de-stress after a long day?  Examples of rewards would be watching TV to relax, eating comfort foods, or adopting a mindset of “I deserve this.” 

As most of you know, the guidelines for maintaining physical health are to get at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week, eat a variety of whole, nutritious foods, and stay away from processed foods. Given what some of us may consider to be self-care, this can be too much of a leap for many.

Committing to Physical Health

How about when we give it a try?  Many of us know we “should” be doing these things, and so we use that as our starting place.

But, using “should” to motivate us is really untenable.  Research has shown again and again that when something is a “should”, it can take on negative connotations, cause rebellion, seem overwhelming, and not be sustainable. 

Enter Michelle Segar, PhD, who has studied the science of motivation for decades.  She has written a book called, NO SWEAT: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness.  One of her main thoughts is this:  It is impossible to sustain the motivation to create a healthy life unless you prioritize self-care. 

What does that mean exactly?  It means that you take care of yourself FIRST by exercising and eating nutritional, whole foods because it makes all of the rest of what you do better.  It is an internalized value, something that drives the decisions and actions that you take.  You slot in time for regular exercise and eating well FIRST, and then build your day around that. 

This can be a huge mindset shift to make, but one that will make the difference between reluctantly or obediently trying to follow a program focused on a healthy lifestyle (which often ends up being only temporary) and embracing it because it improves your life in many areas. 

Can We Make the Shift?

Research groups have identified three ways to internalize the self-care that will motivate us instead of slogging it out trying to follow an externally applied program.

  • Provide a rationale.  Discover your own reason for wanting to maintain health.  Consider what it would mean to your life.  Also consider what your life will be like if you don’t take care of yourself and your health. 
  • Make your own choices.  This is where the rubber meets the road.  It is a huge shift from following a program.  In this case, you consider what changes could happen in your daily life that you are willing and able to do.   The emphasis is on making a few small changes that feel sustainable.  Another key would be to be prepared to continue to make small changes over time.
  • Acknowledge conflict.  There are several potential areas of conflict.  You can anticipate internal conflict that comes with changing habits.  It is also important to forgive yourself when things don’t go so well.  It may also mean that you have to set boundaries, have difficult conversations, or stick with it when others are surprised by or even antagonistic towards your efforts. 

Yes, it’s complicated.  It’s easy to see why many of us would rather follow a program than figure out what we want to be experiencing, and how to make some changes.  It is also very easy to fall back on what we have always done or what we think is expected of us. 

On top of that, the guidelines for exercise and eating well have been disconnected from lifestyle endeavors and put out there as “what we should be doing.” 

We need to reframe exercise programs and healthy eating as a way to take care of our health and well-being, not something for the “to-do” list.

All the best

© 2022 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved
Photo Credit: Viktor_Gladkov | iStock

The End of Try Try Again by Kristen Carter MS

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