If you’re a woman, you should be a stay-at-home mum because that’s really the crowning achievement of your species. However, you should also delay having children—or not have them at all—because women are underrepresented in the workforce and we need more career women.

If you have a spouse, you should commit yourself to them 100 per cent because that’s what makes marriages work, but you should really make sure your needs are being met. This means if your spouse isn’t meeting those needs, you owe it to yourself to get out of the toxic relationship.

Is your career one that pays a lot of money, because you really need to have financial security. But are you also following your dreams, because if you aren’t then what’s the point?

If you have kids, you should be spending all your time playing with and talking to them because it’s that kind of one-on-one interaction that develops their brains. Also, are you keeping your house spotless and cooking wholesome meals from scratch three times a day, and planning elaborate Pinterest craft projects for them?

Sure, I am jesting, but the reality is, society does demand the impossible from us, and we respond by feeling like we aren’t good enough. No wonder self-care has become a popular idea.

Self-care has popularly been defined as participating in self-soothing activities such as bubble baths, pedicures and indulging in that piece of chocolate cake you’ve been denying yourself. There is a place for this kind of self-soothing. Many times what we need is a small, but critical respite from the relentless pace of life. However, I would like to talk about a different aspect of self-care, what I like to call deep self-care.

This kind of self-care is more difficult, often messy, sometimes painful and definitely not as fun, but the rewards are much greater in the long run. I’m talking about doing the difficult, long-term things that will improve our quality of life. Things like eating healthier, getting out of bed early to exercise or taking care of your mental health.

1. Eating healthier

Nutrition is such a challenging area to manage when it comes to self-care. Nearly all of us have wrestled with food in one way or another, but the last thing we need to do when it comes to self-care is to shame ourselves for our eating habits.

Elle Berry, graduate student in human nutrition and functional medicine at University of the Western States, USA, suggests separating health from weight, a challenging prospect in today’s thin-centric society. When we reinforce the lie that health and weight are interchangeable, we’re only hurting our own health. The truth is weight and health are not the same. Being thin isn’t the same as being healthy, or vice versa.

“What I work to inspire people with is the understanding that nutrition should never simply be another way to punish our bodies or shame ourselves. We have enough of those, and they are the opposite of self-care,” says Elle. “To me, self-care is, at its core, about respecting and valuing our body, realising it is our home, so to speak.”

One way I try to practise self-care on a nutritional level is to eat more vegetables. It’s a small thing, but it reminds me that I’m worth the extra expense and time needed for vegetable purchase and preparation. To me, consuming a wide variety of vegetables is the easiest and most impactful way to make a difference in my nutritional self-care.

Elle also suggests learning to enjoy food preparation as a way to change our thinking about nutrition. “Turn on music, spend time with your family or friends while you cook, involve your kids. It’s hard to set aside time to do something if it’s perceived as a chore.”

2. Exercise

Some people simply love to exercise. I do not understand them. I have to take special care to incorporate exercise into my life. One way I motivate myself is to try to find ways to make it fun. I recently acquired a Fitbit, but any tracking tool can be useful to help motivate yourself.

Dr Melanie Weis, who specialises in physical therapy, says, “Exercise is a component of taking care of your body and thus should be in everyone’s regimen for self-care. Just as we take care of our skin to promote cleanliness and curb skin-related diseases, we need to do the same for taking care of our muscles.”

I always feel like exercising is going to take so much time, but really it doesn’t have to be that much of a commitment. “Exercising for 20 to 30 minutes at a time is enough to cause endorphins to be released. Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers and they are what give you that sense of wellbeing or the ‘runner’s high’,” says Dr Melanie.

Another way I found to help get me moving is to change my routine: take a different running route, do a workout on YouTube or go for a swim. There are also apps that entertain you while you run. Everyone has different needs, so it may take some experimenting to find what works best for you. Dr Melanie has a great suggestion too: “If you are new to exercise or don’t know where to start, getting involved in a group class can help, or having a personal trainer for a few months.”

Need some inspiration? We have 10-minute workouts you can follow right now. 

3. Your mind

Did you know bubble baths and pedicures are really about mental health? When we feel high levels of stress, our bodies can’t function properly, which is why the superficial kind of self-care can be really helpful in such situations. When it comes to deep self-care for mental health, however, one of the challenging things is setting boundaries in difficult relationships.

For some people, that means having a frank conversation with their mother about being too critical. For others, it may be to end a toxic friendship or set specific guidelines about when your freeloading brother can come over and eat all your food.

Tabitha Kuehne, a marriage and family therapist, says when it comes to improving our mental health, “Awareness is the first step . . . and then deciding what realistically can change. I like to ask myself from time to time, ‘If it were up to me, how would it be?’ and then go from there.”

Creating healthy mental habits can sometimes be harder than nutrition and body care. Yes, it’s hard to motivate myself to exercise, but it’s even harder to remind myself daily that I am worth the time and effort to properly take care of myself, or to take that first step to change the dynamics in my relationships that make life challenging. Tabitha has a useful list in these situations:

  1. Be honest with yourself
  2. Be healthy
  3. Be proactive
  4. Love your whole self
  5. Stay mentally and physically active
  6. Seek therapy if it gets confusing

When dealing with deep self-care it’s important to remember that we are always learning, always trying to improve. “Instead of thinking in terms of short-term fixes, where we do something extreme and then stop doing anything, consistently look for small ways to treat your body well with grace. As it has wisely been said before, don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good,” says Elle. Start small, with one thing at a time. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

So don’t stop taking bubble baths or having pedicures, but remember to also spend some time thinking through how our deeper needs can be met, and begin making those changes for better overall health. Deep self-care takes time, commitment and dedication. That’s why it’s so hard to do. But I try to remind myself that every time I let some obstacle stand in the way of caring for my body and mind, I’m telling myself that I’m not worth the effort it will take.

But I am worth the effort. And so are you.

Want to leave the deep self-care for another day? Here’s 10 easy self-care tips for mums that won’t take up much time.

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