Giving your demons a makeover: A beginner’s guide to self-care

By Kathleen S. M.

What is self-care?

If you’re reading this, then, like myself and many others, you’ve probably experienced your share of anxiety, self-doubt, depression, and general mental/emotional unwellness. We’ve all heard the “don’t be afraid to love yourself the way you are!!!” mantra, chanted at us from top-40 tunes and feel-good, coming-of-age dramas. Unfortunately, this can feel like someone trying to give you a high-five while you’re dangling from a cliff: well meaning, but it doesn’t actually supply us with the tools we need to combat the hard stuff. Some of us have developed into our own worst enemies; many of us live in environments that oppress us daily for being who we are. The voices shouting encouragement can seem impossibly far away, often coming from those who are removed from the reality of our struggles. Self-care becomes something turned to out of necessity when no one will hand us anything we need and we must claim worth for ourselves. It is a radical thing, acting in opposition to the persistent toxins of the kyriarchy and personal trauma.

Self-care is about doing things for yourself that make you feel good and/or are good for you. Because of this, the (difficult/wonderful/empowering) thing about self-care is that only you will know best what will work in your situation. I’ll discuss some of my personal methods and philosophies, but I encourage you to think about what you need to do to best help yourself.

How do you do it?

I think of self-care practices as divided loosely into short- and long-term. The short-term things are like your first aid kit: they’re exactly what you need in the moment, they’re going to make you feel better now, and maybe they’ll make things easier down the road.

Maybe what you really, really need is to go out and buy a pack of Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Chips and eat ¾ of the bag in one night (or maybe a huge salad. Or both – whatever makes you feel good). Maybe you need to turn on an angry song and screech it out (or mouth the words emphatically in your room, with headphones on and the door shut). Maybe you need to put on lipstick and take a billion self-portraits, or find an outfit that makes you look like a total babe and ogle yourself in the mirror, or open a blank word document and rant your way through it all. Maybe you need to unf*ck your habitat.

The point of these little projects is to find a fast pick-me-up. What is going to give you even an ounce of personal enjoyment, or allow you to feel good being yourself for a minute, an hour, a day? What do you need to do to get through?

The self-care practices I think of as long-term are those that start to foster a sense of personal gratification, footholds in a path towards self-appreciation: if I do this now, I’ll feel good about myself later, too. There can definitely be overlap between what counts as short- or long-term, and your use of them can be a game of mix-and-match. My personal long-term self-care projects often include creative endeavors: learning a new song on an instrument, finger painting, or simple, quick crafts. Sometimes I’ll check my to-do list, pick the easiest thing, and get it done then and there. Other times I’ll take the first steps in starting that larger project I’ve been meaning to get to–anything to keep me actively doing something that will give me some sense of accomplishment. Having a finished product, even a small one, helps me to feel better about myself as a person because it gives me a sense of satisfaction, something I can feel a bit proud of.

It’s important to remember, though, that these projects are dependent on the time we have to spend on them, our spoons, our health, and other resources, meaning that they aren’t always practical to our circumstances. If larger projects make you feel productive and add to your sense of self-worth, that’s great! It’s also completely okay if you find yourself unable to tackle anything beyond the immediate, for whatever reason. You don’t owe usefulness to anyone. When in doubt, do what makes sense in your own context, rather than trying to live up to unreachable standards.

Other ideas: use your body as you are able. If you can, go for a walk or move just to feel yourself move. Be amazed at the existence of your physical self and the interactions it has with the rest of the world. Maybe you need to cry for a really, really long time (cliché, perhaps, but admitting vulnerability and submitting yourself to those emotions can be a huge part of working through them).

A more difficult thing to do, but something that I believe can play an important role in self-care routines, is to reach out to other people. Although it may sound counter-intuitive to a process rooted in the personal, reaching out is not necessarily about looking for others to provide you with validation. It is about learning to see yourself as worthy of care. Text someone you trust, write a blog post, hang out with a friend in a place that makes you feel safe. I find reaching out to be incredibly difficult when my brain is screaming that I’m worthless, no one will want to talk to me, and that I should keep my problems to myself. But I’ve learned that admitting you are not doing well can encourage self-acceptance. It is okay to feel bad; you matter, your problems matter, and expecting others to care about you is a sign that you care about you. Self-care based on social interactions can also have the added benefit of community building, creating networks of support that you can turn to in the future.

When you’re feeling all right, try making a list of what techniques make you feel the best. You might want to make a list of things that you’d like to try, so you have something to turn to when you feel fed up with the whole self-care process. Try to keep a tab on things you’re prone to do in down times that end up being emotionally toxic. Maybe this means avoiding certain people or habits; I’ve learned to stay away from Facebook. We can’t always avoid these things, but being aware might send up a little red flag when we turn to them. Try to understand where your emotions are coming from, and create responses that will counter or soothe them.

Why self-care?

I don’t believe that self-care is a replacement for structural changes to the oppressive fibers of society.  However, it is a way of looking out for ourselves when others won’t, a way of giving back to ourselves when so much is taken away. It is a point won against oppression because it makes us strong. I believe that indulgence can be brave, and that sometimes we have to bandage our own wounds in order to join the fight again. Self-care is looking out for ourselves, (re)claiming ourselves, coming up from great depths to shout I can be magnificent, I am magnificent. Self-care is mustering whatever strength is left to pull ourselves up from that cliff, even after we’ve fallen down more times than we can count. Self-care is putting down bricks, using whatever mud we can come up with for mortar to build some firm, safe home inside of us. Maybe later something will smash it apart or punch holes, but self-care allows us to build it again and again, hoping that eventually the foundation will be so strong that nothing will manage to shake it apart.

Self-care is resilience, proof that we will not allow ourselves to be beaten: we will use whatever tools we have for support because we deserve it. And we need all the tools and support we can get.

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Kathleen S. M. is a contributing writer at the Ellipses Project. She is a 20-year-old English Literature major from Ontario, Canada. Besides writing, she is interested in learning about social & environmental justice and unlearning oppressive behaviour. She also enjoys poetry, making and listening to music, pyjama parties, and breakfast food.