Rethinking Self-Care: It’s a Practice

I used to roll my eyes every time I saw an article with “self-care” in the title. I was always ready with a snarky comment about the consumerism of the wellness industry and how it’s only for entitled women with endless time and money. I mean, Gwyneth Paltrow may have an entire evening to devote to a bath, a book, and a cocktail, but us real working moms are lucky to pee in private. 

It’s hard not to feel jaded about self-care because as working moms we’re bombarded with marketing campaigns in the health and wellness industry telling us we’re just not taking care of ourselves unless we buy those expensive yoga pants, luxury candles, or take a long bath with essential oils. These messages tell us to treat ourselves because we deserve it.

It can also feel like yet another thing I should be doing. If I had that $65 essential oils or $55 calming vapors I would be more productive and less stressed. Or maybe I’d have time for Gwyneth Paltrow’s evening routine if I were a little more organized.

 But, having a busy law practice and three kids (one of which is immunocompromised and has ADHD and anxiety) during a global pandemic has me re-thinking my ideas around the word self-care.

In a recent Ten Percent Happier podcast episode, the researcher and psychologist Barbara Fredrickson talked about how so many people have had to learn how to take care of ourselves during COVID-19. Yes, self-care has become a commercialized product driven industry, but at its most fundamental level it’s about learning how to meet our most basic needs and truly taking care of ourselves on a spiritual, emotional, and physical level.

Sounds easy, right? The truth is it’s really hard, but my mindfulness meditation practice has helped me figure out how to take better care of myself.

Feel your Feelings.

When I first started a regular meditation practice the first step was just slowing my mind down enough to the just figure out how I actually felt. I felt overwhelmed and didn’t even know what I needed. If I had a nickel for every time I was feeling impatient and cranky only to realize I was just hungry. I would eat a cheese stick and suddenly I didn’t feel quite so on edge.

A mindfulness meditation practice is all about slowing down, taking a breath, and feeling emotions. When we bring awareness to how we feel we can begin the process of figuring out what we need.

What Do I Need Right Now?

This is a simple question I often ask myself in a moment of feeling overwhelmed or stressed. It gets me in the headspace of taking care of myself. Sometimes the answer is a drink of water, sometimes the answer is working for 15 more minutes, or cancelling that meeting.

Which brings me to my next question I like to ask myself.

How Can I Let Go?

As a busy mom of three running her own law practice, this is usually the most important question I can ask myself. Sometimes what I need to do is let something go.

For me this usually looks like eating out instead of cooking dinner, not doing a load of laundry, not squeezing in that meeting, leaving the dishes in the sink until tomorrow, not responding to that text or email, letting my kids have more screen time so I can talk to my sister on the phone.

You get the picture. We are pulled in a million directions every single day – work, family obligations, friends, etc. So sometimes what we really need is to just let something go.

Build Healthy Habits.

Self-care isn’t just about coping with the day-to-day. It’s also about taking care of ourselves in the long term. As Claire and I recently discussed, sometimes this may mean sticking the healthy habits you created or acknowledging when your habits may need to change (you can check out our blog posts on habit change here and here, or our Instagram Live chat here).

Practice Self-Compassion.

This is mindfulness language for cutting yourself some slack. And, it’s probably one of (if not the) most important things we can do to take care of ourselves. It’s the key to combatting mom guilt and that ever-present feeling in the pits of our stomach that we just didn’t do enough today.

It’s also what I’m working hardest on right now by focusing on self-compassion (check out Claire’s blog post on self-compassion and mom guilt).

If you treat yourself, enjoy it.

While sometimes the self-care industry can feel like it’s encouraging escape and indulgence, that doesn’t mean it isn’t ok to treat ourselves once in a while.  Sometimes life is a little extra hard and we need a treat to get ourselves out of a slump. Eat that ice cream, get that manicure, or let your kids watch extra TV so you can chat with a friend. As long as the treat isn’t triggering your unwanted habit, just enjoy it avoid beating yourself up later. 

The thing I’ve learned over the last year is this: self-care is just about learning how to take care of ourselves. It might look different to different people and it will change over time, but it is absolutely necessary.

Stop The Shame Loop and Let the Process of Habit Change Unfold

I’ve never considered myself a very disciplined person. Let’s just say I’ve never met a french fry I didn’t eat, I hit the snooze button easily, and I’m always the one around the office you can count on to say yes to the impromptu lunch (abandoning the lunch I packed). 

Even with an established meditation practice, as a busy mom and lawyer, I often find myself stumbling through each day just trying to keep all the balls in the air and ending each day in bed cycling through the long list of things I didn’t get done or should have done: I should have exercised today. Why didn’t I meditate? I didn’t get through all my emails. Do my kids have clean underwear for tomorrow? I need to clean the bathroom (why is the bathroom always so dirty?)? Did I eat a vegetable today? Did my kids eat a vegetable this week? When was last time anyone in my family ate a vegetable? And on and on and on.

For so long I was stuck in a loop: try to cultivate a habit or make a change, feel like I was failing, feel ashamed and beat myself up, give up. Telling myself the story that I’m just not a disciplined person.

Then I found the work of Leo Babauta and his blog Zen Habits. Babauta’s work focuses on productivity using a Zen based minimalist philosophy. As women we are conditioned that success means we do it all and we do it perfectly. Babauta’s work helped me start to deconstruct that. He introduced me to the idea of starting small and just doing less.     

The focus on productivity helped, but I was still stuck in the habit change loop (start, stop, feel ashamed…). That’s when I found  Kelly McGonigal’s work and the 10% Happier Habit Change Course.  McGonigal is a behavioral psychologist at Stanford that studies habit formation and teaches using mindfulness practices.   

The first time I took the 10% Happier Habit Change Course, I learned the basics of habit change and how to create routines to support habit changes. The basic steps of habit formation are to choose a trigger, associate it with a behavior, and reward yourself for doing the behavior. McGonigal teaches that in order to build lasting habit changes we must connect them to our higher goals of the kind of person we want to be and the life we want to lead.

Establishing a regular exercise is a big habit for me. I have herniated discs and when I’m running and stretching regularly my back hurts less. The first time I took the Habits Course I took McGonigal’s advice. I’m also 44 years old with young kids. I want to be able to run around with my kids (and grandkids some day!). Yes, my increasing amounts of cellulite and my pants fitting too tight are part of the motivation to exercise, but once I connected exercise to my higher goals (feeling good and being active with my kids) it got a little easier.

I learned to incorporate visual reminders of these higher goals into my routine. I cut a picture out of a magazine of a mother and daughter smiling and running on a beach together and hung it up by my bed. This picture is a visible reminder to me when I don’t feel like exercising that the reason I want to put on those running shoes is so that I can be active with my kids and be pain free.

Practical tips and understanding the psychology behind habit change helped, but I was still stuck in the shame loop so I took the 10% Happier Habit Change Course again. This time I heard McGonigal’s words about cultivating self-compassion. I learned that the habit I really need to change is the mental habit of shame when I don’t do what I think I should be doing.

McGonigal says acknowledging that you even want to change something is the “bravest version of yourself” and that self-compassion means being gentle with yourself and acknowledge that you’re doing the best you can. She says “life is unfolding process” and that self-compassion is the bedrock of opening up to that process. I can feel myself opening up to the idea that habit change is a lifelong process up and for the first time I’m starting to interrupt the shame loop.

I will never be the most disciplined person, but maybe, just maybe, I can be someone who does her best and doesn’t beat herself up every time she doesn’t do exactly what she should be doing. Maybe I can finally embrace the concept of the lifelong process. Maybe some day I’ll be the person who exercises somewhat regularly, maybe eats a vegetable once in a while, and meditates regularly. Maybe I’ll be the kind of woman that lays in bed and thinks: I did my best today, isn’t that great? Good job, me.

So if there’s a new habit you’re trying to cultivate or a not-so-great habit you’re trying to break – whatever you do go easy on yourself.

Book Review: Quit Like a Woman by Holly Whitaker

 I honestly don’t remember when or how I started following Quit Like A Woman (often shortened to “QLAW”) author Holly Whitaker on social media. It’s at least in part due to the fact that I’ve been giving a lot of thought in recent years about how much our work and social lives revolve around happy hour and what Whitaker describes as “a world obsessed with drinking.” And, it’s no secret that lawyers have high rates of problematic drinking. On top of that, like so many working women, with the pressure of juggling work and homeschool and dealing with the general stressors of life in a pandemic, I’ve found myself looking forward to happy hour a little too much at times. So, when Claire told me she was reading QLAW and that it was “mind-blowing” I thought it was time I actually read the book.

To be clear: a sober life is not something I’ve ever considered and it’s not something I’m considering even after reading QLAW. Nevertheless, I can unequivocally say that, like Claire, I found QLAW to be “mind-blowing” despite its flaws (more on that below). 

Whitaker offers a totally new approach to thinking about sobriety. Part memoir, part self-help, Whitaker wants to dispel myths about alcohol (what she describes as “Big Alcohol”); she offers a critical analysis of how Alcoholics Anonymous often fails women; and proposes a completely different approach to sobriety. And she relies on mindfulness and meditation to support her sobriety. She’s also funny and brash which makes it an interesting read in and of itself.

What really resonated for me is Whitaker’s basic premise that in order to “break the cycle of addiction” you need to get to the root causes of your addictions and develop routines and habits to build a life that that she describes as a life “I don’t want, or need, to escape from.” I’ve been thinking a lot about all of my habits and routines (not just drinking) and wondering what habits are “getting in the way of me living my best life” (as Whitaker describes it)? Looking at habits and routines this way is deeply rooted in mindfulness as a way of rewiring our brain to stop, slow down, and make healthier choices.

Another theme of QLAW is that there is no “right way” to sobriety. According to Whitaker, unlike AA’s one-size-fits-all approach, everyone’s road to sobriety must be deeply rooted in the needs and experiences of the individual. This is a basic premise of a mindfulness meditation practice: yes, there is a road map, but how you practice must resonate with you and actually work in your day-to-day life. She also want to eliminate the shame aspect of addiction. And, as Claire talks about her recent blog post, shame can be a barrier to making healthy choices (Kelly McGonigal does some amazing work around habit change and dealing with shame (but I’ll talk more about that in an upcoming blog post). I’m sure the basic premise of finding your own path and not feeling ashamed is a transformative concept for many. 

Unfortunately, I think where Whitaker misses the mark could keep people from her deeper messages. Most of what Whitaker describes as “tools for recovery” are only available to women with significant financial resources. Moreover, the tools she describes are only available to wealthy women that don’t have children (or at least have live-in nannies that could support the many hours of daily life Whitaker suggests need to go into supporting sobriety). Whitaker’s toolbox seems to consist a lot of spas, warm baths, lemon water, and kundalini yoga and meditation. In fact, at times she writes as if these are the only ways. She even crows at one point that she spent “thousands on therapy” and brags about dedicating her entire evenings to her “routine” as the only ways to get sober. A routine that involves an entire evening surrounded by yoga, tea, baths, reading, journaling, and meditating. An evening routine that a busy working mom could only dream of carving out. Let alone a single mom or a single mom with limited resources. She doesn’t really have any suggestions beyond “figure out what works for you.”  

And, while I found myself nodding along with her criticisms of AA, I couldn’t help but think of how many working women with limited time and resources would love to use her paid Tempest program and build a “toolbox” full of expensive teas and crystals, but AA Is free and available and despite its limitations probably provides comfort and support to women who have no other option. Whitaker doesn’t seem to even acknowledge this.

If you follow Whitaker on social media, you’ll see that she spends a lot of time attacking what she refers to as Big Alcohol. On her IG account she refers to herself as a “sobriety evangelist.” I think this is an accurate description. If you just google “is alcohol good for you” you’ll get about a zillion hits from respected health and medical professionals some saying moderate amounts are ok, while others agreeing with Holly – no amount of alcohol is safe. But it’s more nuanced than that and I think Whitaker’s sloppy logic could potentially alienate a lot of people that would otherwise benefit from her approach.  

She also wants you to believe that there is a direct causal link between the paternalistic society we live in and the alcohol industry that has brainwashed us into drinking poison. I don’t disagree that the alcohol industry is leaning into the Mommy Likes Wine culture that is troubling. Yes, alcohol is bad for you. And, yes, we are definitely living in a culture obsessed with alcohol, and that women are in desperate need of a sobriety model that actually works for them, but I think this kind of logical leap ignores how truly complex nuanced addiction really is. And I certainly don’t think that any hardworking women with serious addiction problems relying on AA and doing the best they can will appreciate being told they’re brainwashed victims of the patriarchy.

But I don’t want any misgivings or intellectual nitpicking to get in the way of what a life-altering book this is and how many women I’m sure it’s helped – including myself. I know that for many many women (and lawyers) alcohol can be an unhealthy way to cope. And, as Holly describes it can keep us from living our best life. Since reading the book (in conjunction with Kelly McGonigal’s work on habit change and Habits course on the 10% Happier App), I’ve drank less, meditated more, and generally re-examined all my habits that are getting in the way of my best life. So, whether you’re battling addiction or just re-thinking your own habits I suggest reading QLAW. It’s a good book to have your toolbox.  

To learn more about this subject, check out our IG Live on Friday 4/23 at 1:30 PM EST. You can find us on IG @brilliantlegalmind.