This post is for you. A busy, exhausted mom. An overworked nurse, doctor, healer, teacher, lawyer, home health aid, lawyer, architect, sales woman. An entrepreneur who just can't keep all the balls in the air. Or, like me, a recovering perfectionist, possibly trying to do all of the above – family, career, and thinking about what you need to do more, be more, create more – all at once.
In my book, The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution, I share what is perhaps an overused, but nonetheless apropos, metaphor that would benefit most women I know these days, and that anyone who's been on an airplane has heard: In case of emergency, secure your own oxygen mask before helping others. This is pretty straightforward advice. But if you're a mom, you might already be thinking, “there's no way I'd put my mask on before I secure my kids.' But you see the inherent problem – passed out mom can't put the mask on anyone.
So many of the women who come to see me are already living in a state of emergency. Some even call it that. Some say things like, ‘I'm at the end of my rope, I'm running on empty, I'm living on fumes, I'm exhausted, I can't do it all anymore.' But they keep on keeping on, pushing past the end of their limits. They are taking care of everything and everyone else, but not themselves. I'm not just talking about everyday humans, either. I see world champion athletes, actresses, New York Times best-selling authors in states of utter burnout. Just this week one such person told me, “I'm paying for my success with an autoimmune disease.”
And boom. There you have it.
Now please don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that anyone caused their own burnout or autoimmune disease, their anxiety or their fatigue. We live in a culture that is mugging us: Your money or your life is sort of the stick up. We're sold on needing to have more, do more, be more, and we're living in a time of collective and individual insecurity that creates very real instability and drives primal fear. If you've studied Abraham Maslow, you're familiar with how not having basic needs met can drive our behaviors. So we push to do more, save more, accomplish more in an endless quest for more security. We treat ourselves as if we are Jesus' proverbial loaf of bread – we can keep breaking pieces off and feeding others, and the whole loaf will always be there. Not so much.
Not replenishing our energy and the resources that give us our energy actually leads the body to believe it is in a state of emergency – what I call SOS – Survival Overdrive Syndrome. With this can come a host of symptoms that I describe here – things like Hashimoto's, fatigue, sleep problems, anxiety, depression, and so, so much more.
What measure of success is worth our health? And does success – any kind of success – whether that be raising happy healthy children as a terrific mom, winning a gold medal in the Olympics, having the biggest health coaching or doula practice, or the biggest online following – whatever success looks like to you – require health sacrifice? Self-sacrifice, perhaps, yes, at times. Becoming a medical doctor, writing books, Olympic training – these things take time and mean saying no to other things – sometimes things that in the moment seem more fun.
But we should never have to pay the price of our health. Mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual.
What is “Radical Self-Care?”
The word radical means root – and when I use the term here, I am talking about returning to our roots. As children we delighted in (or fully rejected) the tastes of our food, the feel of the wind in our hair as we went up and down on a swing, the spray of cold water on our skin from a sprinkler in the summer; we knew when we were hungry even if we articulated it with whining, and we knew how to play. We were in our bodies, in the moment, in our experience – we felt life viscerally, fully, and we wanted life to feel good.
So many women I see as patients can't remember what their last meal tasted like – they were too busy scarfing it down over a keyboard or dashboard, often eating fast because they waited too long to eat and are over hungry, often eating mindlessly, often not eating foods they think are the best for them because they were too busy to prepare anything to eat. They can't remember the last time they laughed – really laughed- or had fun. They feel guilty for taking any time for pleasure – even simple pleasures like a enjoying bath or a good book- or heaven forbid, both.
Radical self-care is the practice built on the fundamental beliefs that you belong on this planet, that you are a precious resource, that you have a right to health and peace of mind, and that the whole world is better for you having it.
How Do You Measure Success- and Is it Worth It?
Before I get too much further into radical self care, I want to explore an important question that this all hinges on – and that is, what is success. Look, I'm a highly creative, highly productive woman with some intense drives to leave a legacy, and also leave my family with a healthy financial legacy. I grew up low income. I'm no stranger to not having. And I don't like it. So for me, success does include productivity, earning, and achievement. But the problem isn't having big goals in the world – it's when those goals take precedent over the basic things that create human health: good food, sleep, rest, time to laugh, play, and enjoy loved ones. Time in nature. And time to do nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Or it's when you feel you have to have big goals – because that's what the world says is success – and you really want to have a peaceful, simple life. When success is quiet, slow living. When smaller is better. No parades for you needed.
A recent survey found that what we really crave for a healthy life is happiness, personal freedom, healthy family life, physical health, and mental health.
The problem is that while most of us say that these important qualities and habits are our priorities, we're too often not living that reality. Instead we're living a lot of our lives, as my Grandma Ida would say, ‘like a chicken without a head.”
So how can you can that? Embrace radical self-care as a core principle for life – up there with brushing and flossing your teeth and making your bed.
So how do you embrace radical self-care as a practice? Here are a few ways to get you started.
Radical Self-Care Requires Body-Awareness.
Too many of us ignore our bodies. We put off peeing until we can't wait a second longer, eating until we're in a state of low blood sugar, sleeping until we're dead tired. We actually forget to feel how we feel. And we pay the price when we ignore little messages because eventually those can turn into louder messages, and eventually symptoms and conditions. We wait until we're in a state of emergency or outright breakdown to take care of ourselves. But learning to listen to our body's language long before we reach burnout is key.
Listen to your Body Intelligence:
- Set a timer for 3 minutes.
- Sit upright in a chair or lay on a comfortable surface.
- Close your eyes and breathe regularly at first, then more slowly and deeply for 8 breaths.
- Now deepen your breath. Let your breath wander throughout your body to anywhere that feels tight, blocked, or “stuck.” Use your breath to imagine massaging out that tension or releasing the blockage. Is there anything in your life that you associate with the tension you’re holding? Let the answer rise to the surface and just listen.
- Now ask your body if there’s anything you need to know. Listen for the answer.
In order to pay more attention to how you want to feel – and how you do feel – you have to make it a habit to hit the pause button.
Permission to Pause.
At some point we ingested the belief that being an adult woman means complete self-sacrifice, not setting health boundaries on our well-being, and not taking care of our fundamental needs – even for sleep, quality food, and relaxation. But this not sustainable. Let's look at our planet as the giant metaphor for what happens when we use up resources without a mind to sustainability. A climate catastrophe. As women, we are an extension of the planet we live on. We too, require sustainably replenishing our inner resources.
Getting good at giving yourself permission to pause is the secret sauce to overcoming overwhelm, for living life with your gas tank FULL, not constantly hovering at or below EMPTY. High performance athletes, top musicians, and successful entrepreneurs all know this secret: making time for repairing, recharging, and rejuvenating yourself is key for success in anything. Including health success.
So why do most of us find it so hard to make time for ourselves? We are riddled with guilt and anxiety when it comes to stopping and replenishing. It’s true, the demands of external life – just what it takes for most of us to make a living and keep up with our responsibilities – can feel relentless and put a lot of pressure on us. But there’s more.
Give yourself permission to pause by committing to at least 15 minutes every day, a longer stretch of 1-4 hours each week, and 1 full day a month of non-negotiable down time and personal self care.
My Permission to Pause Top 10 List
- Take a walk with nowhere to go (short or long depending on the day), alone or with a pal, but walk in silence. Gardening is great too, weather permitting.
- Write in your journal – You can do it in a special place at home or get away to the local coffee shop. Focus on things for which I am grateful, appreciate in myself, or dream about.
- Take a hot bath (add a glass of wine and a book for extra luxury!) or a long shower – make it feel like you're at a spa…
- Exercise (or at least do 10 sun salutations, some squats, lunges, and push-ups if time is short).
- Get a massage or go to a spa.
- Have a cup of tea and read a book – especially non-fiction or inspirational – for an hour without interrupting myself to do anything else.
- Listen to music – and dance wildly.
- Watch a favorite movie without ever once opening up the computer or looking at your phone to check email or other social media.
- Set a daily time for no electronics, social media, or work; consider meditation, visualization, making art, taking a nap, or laying in the grass and staring up at the sky – find creatures in the clouds.
- Prepare a special, wonderful meal each week and eat slowly, deliberately, with perfect attention to just the experience of the meal.
Self-care is Not Selfish.
The great feminist Audre Lorde, said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” This is a complex statement that has roots in her experience not just as a woman, but as a black woman, and carried tremendous political import that I won't unpack here, and which I don't want to minimize by applying to all women.
Yet at the same time, while women of different backgrounds face unique challenges, some much more so than others, we all share the fact of being women in a culture that defines women with the ability to multi-task. Yet studies on multitasking show that this is not actually possible for the human brain to sustain successfully. Yes, we can all chew gum, think, and walk at the same time.
But we cannot manage it all, and do it all at the same time, do it well, and do so without cost to self. In some sense, self-care, in a culture that demands all of women, is radical. Because it means that we are saying no to health-sacrifice at the altar of what our culture tries to demand. It requires being non-conformist to insidious cultural expectations that women be all things to all people at all times. It's saying I have a right, as Maya Angelou put it, “…not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” Somewhere along the line we got the idea that self-care is self-indulgent.
Self-Care Improves Performance!
Running on empty doesn’t serve us – or those we care for. It makes us less effective in our work, less productive, and less happy. Running on empty leads us to feel conflicted, victimized, angry, exhausted, irritable, or some combination thereof. We’ve all had that whiney feeling of “There’s no time for me!” And as women, we often chalk this up to a selfish thought, and push on. And EVERY SINGLE STUDY on self-care and ‘taking time off' shows that this enhances our productivity, our creativity, our success, and reduces burnout, mistakes, and creative blocks. A recent study showed that highly successful people are more likely to eat a healthy breakfast, spend time on meal prep, limit TV and internet time before bed, take vitamins, and make time to floss their teeth. And again, sometimes it's just doing nothing. Plain old nothing. Just resting, enjoying life as if you're in a hammock, dreaming.
Saying No is Saying Yes.
I have an expression in my life now: If it's not a hell yes, it's a no. Feel free to use that. Granted, I'm 52 and have crafted a career that now allows me to pick and choose. But in truth, I wish I'd realized a long time ago that I had permission to set healthier boundaries and pare down to the few things that had the most traction for me, not doing so much all at once. Thankfully, my overall healthy habits kept me from a chronic health problem – but I struggled with more overwhelm and anxiety, trying to meet too many demands – than I had to.
As women, most of us have been trained to be “good girls” and people-pleasers practically since we were born. So saying “no” can feel really tough. That is until you realize how good it feels to have boundaries and stick to them. And how good you feel when you’re not overloaded with a mile-long impossible to-do list that’s keeping you from eating, sleeping, or feeling like you’re even breathing. Saying no to what you don’t want is saying yes to yourself.
Start paying attention to how you feel before taking anything on – you’ll make more honest decisions, you’ll start to feel empowered about saying no, and you’ll be less overwhelmed when you have less on your plate. If you’re not good at saying no on the spot, learn to say, “I’d like to think about that. I’ll get back to you in a week.” Then do a pros and cons list and listen to your Body Speak. If you feel tense in your gut about something, say no. Another option is to say no with options, for example, “Thank you for offering me this opportunity; it’s not right for me at this time, but I think I know someone who might really love to help you with that.” Then ask the person you have in mind and make the connection.Opportunity, contrary to the old saying, knocks many times; so don’t worry about missing out. You won't be missing out on your life, health, or happiness – that I can promise you.
It's About Being Kind to Yourself.
We're often so unkind to ourselves in ways we'd never be to our child or a best friend. We mean girl ourselves all the ding-dang day: You're too fat, You're too old, You should have _____________ by now, You'll never _________. The noise we hear is the clatter of our culture, the (misogynist) views of women that have been foisted on us, and also those voices of the authority figures in our lives who were anything from less than enlightened in their parenting or teaching or coaching skills, to outright abusive.
Part of the path of living a life of radical self-care is to recognize these automatic negative thoughts when they arise, and to realize that they are as toxic to us as any of the unhealthy fats we try to avoid in our diets. And then we learn to replace those thoughts with love for our perfectly imperfect but still gorgeous and amazing human selves. The selves that want freedom, inner peace, healthy bodies, healthy relationships, healthy lives.
Radical Self-Care is Not Just a Bath. It's a Way of Life.
Living a life based on radical self-care allows us to stay nourished while expanding the gifts we bring to the world. We have more empathy, more patience, more space and energy to serve, create, rise. Remembering takes practice. It also takes skills. Whether you're just wanting to live a better life now and prevent SOS-related health problems, or you've crossed into the zone of autoimmune disease, chronic exhaustion (or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome!), are trying to sleep better, get pregnant, beat PCOS, lose 20 (or 30,40,50 or more) pounds – at whatever moment you're in, there are tools for you to take next steps.
The biggest one I have to offer you is my book, The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution, now available in hardback and paperback. It's not just for women with adrenal and thyroid diagnoses – it's also for women who want to prevent them! It will remind you how to sleep, will teach you how to eat well at home, and will give you a host of achievable tools for self-care, and so much more.