Why you should be looking after number one: Feeling frazzled? Then put yourself first

It isn’t egotistical; it’s essential for your health and wellbeing, says Jayne Hardy.

Depression stole large chunks of my life. I was unable to work, leave the house or look after myself. Learning to manage my depression only started when I began to practise self-care. When I incorporate ways to look after myself, I feel much better for it.

But it is difficult to prioritise my needs. I detest the internal dialogue that starts when I take time out for myself; it highlights all the other things I should be doing, people I could be spending time with. We’ve all been there – we agree to do something for someone and then instantly regret it, resulting in feelings of resentment. Instead of saying, ‘No, sorry, I can’t,’ we put the other person’s needs or expectations above our own. We allow our own sense of self to take second place.

Self-care is not a fluffy concept about spending more time in spas; it is about consciously taking responsibility for your physical, emotional, psychological and social needs. It could include making an overdue doctor’s appointment, getting enough sleep, tidying your home, cleaning your teeth, sorting your finances or eating a nutritious meal. When we put our needs first, we support the things that really matter – health, relationships, resilience and work. It is not selfish; it means we have more to give to others.


We need to listen to our body’s internal communication system; the physical alarm bells that warn us to slow down and look after ourselves.


When our brains won’t stop planning or worrying it is often a sign that we have been overdoing things. When the world feels intimidatingly loud, when everything feels too much to handle, or we start fantasising about escaping our lives – that’s when we need to re-prioritise, rest, ask for help, say ‘no’, delegate and stop.


When life looks like a mass of problems and challenges we snap at others, feel affronted by the smallest things and lose our sense of humour. But this prevents others from being able to approach us to comfort and reassure us.


Perhaps the loudest of the alarm bells. It is not normal to be in pain unless there is an obvious explanation. And it is not normal to feel lumps and bumps when your skin was previously smooth. These are physical alarm bells of foghorn volume which require medical attention.


It makes good sense to ditch plans we didn’t want to commit to in the first place. But if you find yourself cancelling things you would normally find enjoyable, or dodging important medical appointments, that is a worry because it is a sign that you are putting yourself at the bottom of the scrap heap.


We are wired to be social, so if you are experiencing loneliness, you are jeopardising your health. Loneliness causes a rise in the body’s stress responses, suppresses the immune system, increases the risk of disease and raises blood pressure.


When our brains are overloaded, self-control and self-discipline can often vanish. Things such as taking more risks, indulging in impulsive behaviour or acting out of character can all be signs of exhaustion and a warning that you need to step back and take some time out for yourself.


It is one thing to understand the need for self-care but another to achieve it. Much of the time we self–sabotage by getting in our own way.


This is the biggest obstacle to prioritising our needs. Guilt about who we are, what we did or didn’t do. Guilt tells us we’re wrong. But self-care isn’t a guilty pleasure – it’s neither indulgent nor selfish. We can’t be everything to everyone. And there’s nothing honourable about becoming so depleted that we have nothing left to give.


Too often we perceive asking for help as a character flaw, an evidence of weakness. We worry that we will be a burden or that the person won’t care enough to help, or that we don’t deserve it. But we aren’t meant to be a self-sufficient species. We flourish with meaningful connections and the fastest way to deepen relationships is to swallow pride and humility and share everything, not just the best bits. From time to time we all need help. The irony is that we’re often more keen to help others than ourselves – we treat friends and family with more respect and kindness than we treat ourselves.


We live in an option-rich world. But with so many choices to make, is it any wonder they get tiresome? Decision fatigue isn’t a figment of your imagination; it’s a scientifically proven state. We’re more likely to procrastinate over decisions when we’re fed up with making them. Our mental capacity is like a car’s fuel tank: the more you use it, the more depleted it becomes. If you drive a car without stopping to refuel, it will eventually splutter to a halt. Our minds are no different.


So much of what we do is either on autopilot or influenced by others. But self-care and self-awareness are interlinked, and the latter comes from self-knowledge, which is an underrated superpower. Knowing the nitty gritty of our true selves helps us to join the dots, to spend less time dithering over trivial decisions and to prioritise. It also helps us to understand the ‘why’ in all we do and think.


On the face of it we’re being accommodating, selfless and expressing kindness. But dig deeper and people pleasing can come from a place where we are not comfortable in our skin and where the approval of others holds more weight than our perception of ourselves. Our happiness feels contingent on the happiness of others. But we’re not the sum of our usefulness to others. A conscious gesture of goodwill is a gift from one person to another; we need to feel in control of good deeds with no strings attached.


Modern life is hectic and loud. We are available and contactable 24/7, we commit to more than we can manage, shave time from the things we enjoy and get by on as little sleep as possible. We are trying to cram too much into a 24-hour day, every day, and sometimes the balls we’re juggling are enough to topple us. We also have a tendency to strive for perfection in all areas of our lives and find it difficult to delegate or to say ‘no’.


Parenting is as fun as it is mundane, as rewarding as it is testing. There are so many things to contend with, often all at the same time: sleep deprivation, endless negotiation, patience-testing, stress, chores, hyper-vigilance. But that doesn’t have to mean the end of self-care; if anything it increases the need to make room for it. Always putting our children first doesn’t teach them about boundaries, self-respect or respecting the needs of others. As parents we are the leaders of our homes: our children learn more from what we do than what we say.


The thought of doing something new can feel gigantic. But when we don’t know where to begin, often we don’t begin, we feel paralysed. Instead, try taking back power in micro moments. The more of these we can accumulate, the more comfortable and confident we can become about the idea of change. The smaller the action, the more achievable it feels and the easier it is to build into our everyday lives.

There’s no need to add more pressure to an already crammed schedule. There are pockets of dead time in everyone’s lives – when we’re commuting, waiting for an appointment or lurking on social media – which we can hijack for micro moments of self-care.


Self-care means taking back control of what we do and when we do it. Try removing the capacity to send and receive emails from your smartphone, or at least silence the notifications so that you consciously choose when to check in. Keep the browser and email application closed on your desktop so that you only check messages at set times throughout the day.


When we feel worthless we feel unworthy of nice things. But we deserve slippers without holes in, underwear that isn’t fraying and greying. When we replace tatty items one by one we’re challenging some deeply ingrained thoughts about ourselves.


When we’re stressed or anxious our breathing speeds up and becomes shallow. The instant we focus on our breath we switch into mindfulness mode and concentrate on the present. Install a free app such as Breathe2Relax on your phone.


Being even slightly dehydrated affects body functions, your mood and brainpower. So remember to drink water regularly throughout the day.


To give ourselves the best possible chance of prioritising self-care without feeling selfish for doing so, we have to put our planning hats on. We plot every other area of our lives so why not have a plan that enables us to function at our best? Self-care doesn’t materialise as happenstance – it only works if we are intentional about it.


It is our right to decide where our limits are and then to communicate and assert those boundaries. We know our limits have been compromised when we feel we’re being taken advantage of or swayed by other people’s wants and demands. If we don’t know what we will and won’t tolerate, we can’t expect others to know either.


Scientists have discovered that we can never truly do more than one thing well at a time. When we multitask we batter our brain and drain its energy resources, putting ourselves under undue stress. Banish the commitments that you do out of a skewed sense of duty, cancel diary dates that you want to back out of. Clock off work promptly and reduce time browsing on your smartphone. To minimise decision fatigue, batch-organise tasks such as dealing with paperwork or planning the week’s outfits.


We all have things in life we just wouldn’t do even if our lives depended on it. Yet we cross those boundaries every day with our health when we don’t allow ourselves time to recover from the stresses of life; when we demand so much from ourselves that we drain the well dry. We wouldn’t treat anybody else of value in such a shoddy way, yet we fail to appreciate the value of who we are. We can’t become anyone else, so we might as well embrace the truth of who we are.

Self-care is non-negotiable because it simplifies life and deters ill-health. It’s our rehab from the demands of life, the self-permission to bloom, the regaining of control, the nemesis to burnout, the nurturing of dreams, the redirection of energy and an emphatic goodbye to the shoulds, coulds and buts that dominate so much of our days. We all deserve a big dollop of that.

This is an edited extract from The Self-Care Project – How to Let Go of Frazzle and Make Time For You by Jayne Hardy, which will be published by Orion Spring on 14 December, price £12.99 (to pre-order a copy for £10.39 until 24 November visit you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640. p&p is free on orders over £15). Jayne set up The Blurt Foundation social enterprise in 2011 to kick-start conversations about depression and to connect people online. During Self-Care Week, which starts tomorrow, Jayne will be launching a series of weekly Twitter chats with a discussion on Obstacles to Self-Care; blurtitout.org