Looking after everyone except yourself? How to follow your own advice when it comes to self-care

Looking after everyone except yourself? How to follow your own advice when it comes to self-care

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by Angela Vossen

I work in a multi-disciplinary healthcare clinic with 26 colleagues and I also coach healthcare professionals and small business owners.

Everyone in my team is dedicated to helping others to achieve the best possible health and wellness outcomes. We are all pretty knowledgeable about lots of aspects of health and wellness and we support our patients to make positive lifestyle changes to improve their wellbeing.

As a mum and step-mum I also manage the health of our family. I’m full of good advice when a friend tells me about their mum’s headaches, their dad’s back pain, or their own anxiety.

But when it comes to consistently looking after my own health? Hmm, ‘could do better’.

This week I’ve been thinking about how I can start to improve that.

Knowing what’s healthy can be hard enough;  doing what’s healthy is even harder. Many of us who work in health and wellness, or who have some responsibility for others’ health and wellbeing – perhaps as employers, teachers or parents – have a fairly good level of knowledge about health topics.

But a visit to your local NHS hospital will quickly show you that just because you work in healthcare and ‘should’ (and probably do) ‘know better’ does not mean that you’re following your own advice. For example, it’s estimated that 1 in 4 nurses are obese, 4 in 10 NHS employees are affected by work-related stress, and there’s evidence of increasing numbers of GPs turning to alcohol or drugs to cope with rising stress levels in their profession. 

This presents a real credibility challenge for healthcare professionals who are trying to encourage patients to eat better, move more, stop smoking, drink less, or talk about their mental health challenges when they aren’t managing to do these things themselves.

In our team at Core Clinics we are very aware that actions speak louder than words and we can’t expect our patients to follow our advice if it’s clear that we aren’t.

We offer a generous level of free treatments to our team members and strongly encourage health-promoting behaviours through training and simple actions like providing bowls of apples in reception and team areas. But despite of all this we all acknowledge that we’re not as good as we could be at looking after our own health and wellbeing.

We have busy work days and when the slot we’d booked for our treatment with a colleague is requested by a patient we give it up. We are rubbish at following up the home-care advice we’ve been given by our colleague because, well, because they’re our colleague.

In the last few weeks I’ve supported several of my colleagues and family members with health-related challenges. I make all the right noises and take practical steps to help and enable them to take the mental health day at home, get the treatment, or speak to the doctor. I schedule my children’s appointments and give them daily encouragement to improve their eating, sleeping and activity habits. I keep a watchful eye on my husband’s health. In spite of all of this I’m often left perturbed when people don’t take the steps they know would be beneficial to their health (even though I’m well aware of lots of the reasons why).

But, I’ve asked myself this week, how good am I really at looking after myself? After a few discussions and self-reflection I asked myself the question ‘if I were coaching myself, how would I do it? What approach would I take to help myself to get better at self-care?’ I’m still very much working through that process but I’ve started to form a few thoughts that might be helpful.

Factor myself as an equal member of the team or family schedule

I schedule and coordinate health and wellness related activities for people in my work team and for my family. But I’ve noticed that I don’t factor myself into that planning.

I tend to plan and schedule everything and everyone else and then, if there’s any time left at the end of all that, I might sneak a moment for myself. But there’s not enough moments for me to really look after myself: I might either have time to go for a nice walk with the dog, or to have a massage, or to make myself a nice healthy lunch, but not all 3.

So by including myself in the planning I do for those around me perhaps I’ll have more opportunities to build healthier habits rather than making them an afterthought or the first thing to be sacrificed when someone else has a conflicting need or want.

Get support by sharing my health priorities with others

I am a natural facilitator. At work, at home, and socially, I don’t have a strong sense of what I want or need independently of what I’m trying to help the group (or family) to achieve.

While I genuinely derive a lot of happiness from helping others to thrive, I sometimes ‘lose’ my sense of self in that and don’t know what I want or need, let alone ask others for support with that.

There’s a lot of evidence that sharing goals (in writing, with others, publicly) can help us to achieve them. So, as I continue to consider what my health priorities are I’m going to also try to get better at sharing those with others who can support me.

Don’t beat myself up when I fall short of my own expectations

As much as it’s great to make positive changes towards a healthier lifestyle, when we fall  fall short of our own aspirations – the ‘broken’ diet, the unsuccessful attempt to moderate our drinking, the injury that sets our training back – we can often fall back to a worse place than we started and pile a load of self-undermining negative chatter on top of ourselves for good measure.

Over the years I have definitely got better at not beating myself up with my ‘should stick’. You probably have a ‘should stick’ too. It’s made up of your expectations (and probably others’ expectations of you that you’ve internalised) about what you should do, who you should be and what you should be able to do. When I was a young adult my ‘should stick’ was more of a timber trunk on a monster crane and some of the biggest health challenges I’ve had have been a direct result of that stick.

But over the years I’ve worked hard at breaking the trunk down into a branch, into a stick. Now whenever my inner voice starts saying ‘should’ I am far less triggered by it and far more interested in what ‘is’ than what ‘should’ be. And if other people try to hit me with their should sticks well, they can stick it! By focusing on where I’m actually at rather than where I tell myself I should be I can take realistic steps towards where I want to be.

Identify and practice my own self-care priorities

There are some self-care principles that are pretty universally beneficial. Like eating a balanced diet but not being obsessive about it. Being at least moderately active. Trying to be more aware of your stress levels and taking steps to manage them.

But the detail of self-care varies from person to person and across your life-stages. It’s not all about beasting it in the gym, kale smoothies and mindset coaching programmes.

Sometimes my self-care is accepting that I can’t and shouldn’t try to run at 100 miles an hour all the time and asking my husband to take the children out for a few hours. Sometimes it’s binge-watching a box set and embracing that downtime as beneficial rest and recuperation (and not as a failure or failing). Sometimes it’s a walk, a run, a bike ride: but because that’s what I want and need; not because that’s what I’ve guilted myself in to doing.

It’s very hard to stick to any activity that isn’t really aligned with your values, priorities, or lifestyle. So if you try to take an approach to eating or exercise or lifestyle because you’ve been told to, because a friend swears by it, or because it’s the latest instagram trend, it’s unlikely to stick. It’s far better that you start with one thing that you’d really like to make positive steps towards and just focus on that.

As ever with these things, it’s easier said than done. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

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