Our culture tends toward an obsession with achievement, striving for the next obstacle or milestone along our paths towards success. As small business owners and entrepreneurs, many of you represent the most determined version of that hardworking, go-getter attitude that is so praised (and valuable!) in our evolving world. It’s addicting to hit those milestones, see your business thrive, cheer as your business social media pages pile up likes along with purchase orders. Yet, while it’s addicting, it’s also exhausting, anxiety inducing, and scary, especially when the milestones aren’t coming at the rate you’d hope. And, all of these feelings can quickly become compounded if you don’t stop to nourish yourself along the way.
If you find yourself dreading a night out with friends and wish you could just hide under your bedspread, away from all people and commitments, you may need to adapt your self-care routine. If you find yourself using (precious) time off to sleep for 24 hours straight, you may need to adapt your self-care routine. If you can’t remember the last time you did something you love to do, just because you love to do it, you too, may need to adapt your self-care routine. Among many other examples, you may also be feeling riddled with self-doubt, lonely and isolated, or struggling with depression. Self-care is a basic first step in addressing all of these things as well. So what is this infamous self-care? And how can you realistically integrate it into your ridiculously full lifestyle?
Self-care starts, above all else, as a mindset. Part of that psychological mindset involves a shifting paradigm from goal driven production to slowing down and being present with yourself apart from your goals. Many small business owners rightly feel as though their business is their whole life. And while that, in many senses, is true; it’s also harmful because that lack of separation can easily lead to burn out, anxiety and depression, none of which are fruitful conditions for the creative and innovative decision-making needed to sustain your passions. Author Shauna Niequist wrote a whole book on this topic and eloquently illustrates the shift: “The ache for perfection keeps us isolated and exhausted-we keep people at arm’s length if that, and we keep hustling, trying trying trying to reach some sort of ideal that never comes.” (p. 129 – seriously a must read!) We all know perfectionism drives many of our ventures and contributes to our successes. But it can also be a downfall. When your mindset shifts to recognizing that the “constant hustle” of perfectionism may actually impede you not only from your wellness, but in turn from being the best you can be for your business, self-care becomes a tangible possibility and not just an obligation. Start by exploring acceptance around the idea of being with yourself, nourishing yourself, apart from your business aspirations and with no end goal or obligation to fulfill (with the knowledge that by doing nothing work related you’re actually helping your business!)
Beyond this initial psychological shift and acceptance of the need to self-care, spiritual, physical and emotional health and wellbeing share the stage when it comes to self-care practices. These three categories of spiritual, physical and emotional wellbeing can have drastically different definitions to each person. The most important facet is that your working definition is congruent with who you are and not being imposed by what you think it should be. Self-care is all about you, so you define what its constraints get to be as well as how you want it to be integrated into your life.
An example-spiritual health in a self-care context could for one person like attending a place of worship and connecting with the community there. For another person, a solitary walk in the woods, or walking meditation, connecting to nature could be more spiritually fulfilling and personally congruent than a community based spiritual practice. Take some time to think about how you conceptualize spirituality and what type of activities would take you closest to that conceptualization. If the word spirituality leaves you feeling a little wigged out, substitute it with something like wholeness, connection, or peace.
Take a moment to think of a specific time and place you’ve felt connected to yourself and your world in a way that felt totally peaceful. How did your body and mind feel differently then? Slow yourself down to really picture how that felt, allowing yourself to experience the memory in real time. For me, I close my eyes and I’m walking barefoot on the beach in my favorite place. I can smell the salty air and feel my feet pressing into the firm, wet sand. I hear powerful waves crashing and faint voices of happy families playing together. I picture myself feeling light, open and warm, my heart feels inspired and alive. The vivid colors of the sunset are imprinted on my eyes. In moments of stress, you can call specific, hopeful and peaceful memories like this into being. Connecting a peaceful memory in your life to all 5 senses is a powerful way to slow yourself down and calm your nervous system when stressed. It can also be a place to meditate or remember during self-care when you’re not in the storm of stress but want to prepare and rejuvenate for what’s to come. Give this sensory experience a label in your mind – “serenity,” “my break,” whatever you like. And remind yourself that you can go back there when you need to.
Again, physical health is different for each person but follows basic guidelines of exercise, eating well, and getting good sleep and rest (the last of which is probably the most important, and the most neglected!) If you hate running, DO NOT RUN to promote your physical health as part of your self-care. Do something that actually feels good to you. The more congruent you are in taking care of your physical health in a way that you enjoy, the more your body feels loved and cared for and responds in a positive way. And if you feel like you’re running yourself ragged in other aspects of your life (aka your whole life aka your business), maybe physical health doesn’t look like running yourself even more ragged and doing ultra marathons (perfectionists I know you’re tempted)- maybe just maybe-it looks like a gentle candlelit yoga class, or a hike where you stop to smell flowers or lay in the grass when you feel like it. Moments like this are spontaneous, and allow you to be present and curious, instead of task oriented, which your body and mind will love.
Emotional wellbeing involves taking care of your thoughts and your emotions. In this category, self-starters like you can be most critical and harsh. Just as your self-care involves finding peace in the way you connect to the world around you on a spiritual and physical level, it also involves the messages you feed yourself on a daily basis. These internal messages are powerful, and when they are negative, they hold immense power over you. Its hard to fathom taking care of emotions in the same way you make sure to take your vitamins, but emotional self-care involves checking in with yourself to assess how you’re doing on a daily basis. When you commit to recognizing how you’re feeling, you’re also committing to accepting your feelings as they are. Loneliness, anxiety, self-doubt, and fear aren’t fun feelings to experience and it’s so tempting to cover them up by working harder and ignoring what you know is going on deep within you. But when you name and accept your powerful emotions, you take back some of the weight they hold over you. Naming and accepting can look like journaling, like talking to a friend you trust enough to be vulnerable with, like sharing in the online forums and receiving support from people who can relate to your experience in a way you would never know if you didn’t share.
This entire process of self-care does not follow a prescribed guideline as to what to do, how often and when. What I can suggest is that accepting that self-care is good for you and does not make you a weak or less productive person will open doors to it happening more often. It creates a little bit of space for you to slow down your streaming locomotive so that you can start a cycle of recognizing – I’m feeling stressed/anxious/ terrible, I am going to respond in a way that honors how I am doing instead of trying to suffocate it down further. That shift may seem small but it’s not insignificant. And it will open doors to your discovery of how you can be more connected to yourself. When you’re connected and integrated, when your body is at ease, creativity and new ideas flourish in ways that they just. can’t. do. when you’re so stressed that you can barely function. The world needs the beauty, imagination and joy that you inspire in others through your creative endeavors. And the best way to bring these practice to life is to honor the parts of yourself that aren’t always productive and goal driven, the parts that feel anxious or sad or need a huge pep talk, and let them live freely and take up space and be cared for with love.