Beyond Bubble Baths: The 9 Elements of (Realistic) Self-Care

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I’ll admit it. I’m a Self-care Wanna-Be.

wanna-be more guilt-free and consistent with prioritising self-care. I wanna-be so enviably organised with my time and space that self-care becomes an easy routine. I wanna-be immersed in hobbies and passions that refuel me, and have enough energy left to go above and beyond in my support to others.

I’m a full-time working mum of a 4-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son…so self-care has been a luxury I didn’t prioritise. And the effects of this have been alarming.

In October 2020 I had my first burn out. It rendered me pretty much useless for 5 days as I couldn’t get out of bed, let alone do any work or mothering. It was the perfect storm of sleep deprivation, university pressures, a busy schedule and unmanaged anxiety. 

Once I came out the other side, I promised myself that I would never get to the point of burn out again. During COVID lockdowns or surges in work, self-care had been the first task I sacrificed. I could pay it off as being indulgent or non-essential. I have a job that I love and two beautiful, energetic children that deserve attentiveness and quality time – my world depended on me remaining mentally and physically healthy.  

I created a deliberate, tailored and forgiving self-care plan to focus on my wellbeing which includes 9 essential and realistic elements that I want to share with you. Firstly, let’s clarify what self-care actually is, and what it isn’t!

What is self-care?

Hydrate, eat nutritious food, shower, exercise, sleep – these are basic tasks you undertake to survive. The self-care elements in this article are things you need to do to thrive, though these basics play a vital role in your holistic health.

Self-care refers to activities and practices that reduce stress and enhance short- and longer-term health and overall wellbeing. As psychologist Agnes Wainman explains, self-care is “something that refuels us, rather than takes from us.” Self-care increases resilience, motivation and our ability to cope with stress by producing neurotransmitters that make us feel positive. 

Unfortunately, the concept of self-care has been commercialised by the beauty industry. It has convinced consumers that the purchasing of mud masks, flavoured water or care-free shopping sprees are the key to health and happiness. I’m a fan of all of these products but they don’t stop you burning out

Self-care is a much deeper commitment and is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Let’s take a look at 9 essential elements to self-care:

1. Be focused, not busy. Being ‘busy’ all the time is officially out of fashion. Changing workaholic behaviours starts with accepting that self-care is not about helping you become productive again. As opposed to measuring your output in time and productivity, aim to be focused and mindful during manageable periods on your priorities, as well as scheduling time to focus on activities that refuel you.

2. Police your inner voice. Practicing self-care can greatly enhance your ability to tap into your inner voice. This voice speaks to you on a conscious and subconscious level 24/7 and needs to replicate the most supportive, empowering and trusted best friend you can conjure up in your imagination. And that is why you need to police it constantly (but forgivingly). As soon as that voice speaks adversely about your body, your value, or makes you feel guilty for resting – stop it in its tracks. You deserve at least one voice on your team 100% of the time, and that is your inner voice.

3. Energy is your greatest resource – expend it wisely. Instead of allocating time to a task or activity, reframe your thinking to allocate energy. Your goal should be to maximise and mobilise your energy throughout the day, with enough left for scheduled down-time before you hit exhaustion. This task is difficult because it involves setting boundaries around your energy and communicating them clearly with others. Learn the gentle art of saying ‘no’ to tasks that aren’t necessary or don’t feed your soul. And don’t forget, movement without stillness becomes burnout

4. Find more meaning at work. The cringeworthy reality is that we spend a great deal of time at work. You will need to weave self-care practices into the fabric of your working life. This starts with finding purpose and passion in the work that you do, and ensuring that your work somehow contributes to the path you’re progressing on. There are many great resources on ways to find meaning at work, in particular from the Harvard Business Review and

5. Forgive yourself. If you’re anything like me, you probably owe yourself an apology for all the years you spent denying yourself the same kindness and care you extend to others. Treat yourself with softness even when times get tough, and accept that you are a work in progress. This forgiveness is important when your inner voice makes you feel guilty for prioritising self-care. Accept that this feeling has come from years of social conditioning, then progress forward knowing that you can only thrive if you’re whole.

6. Back to basics. As soon as I start to slip into the burn out zone, I head straight back to the basics. Exercise, drinking water, nourishing food and quality sleep. I have learnt that my anxiety and risk of burnout is mainly brought on by sleep deprivation, which triggers comfort eating (or emotional eating) with minimal motivation to exercise. When I address these basic needs, along with spending time outside and seeking out meaningful connection with a trusted person (or even a pet) that brings me love and energy, I feel my inner voice getting kinder and my focus improving.

7. Practice body neutrality. This is a Propel Her favourite! Body neutrality is about reducing the enormous significance society places on physical attractiveness. It goes beyond ‘body positivity’ to challenging all aspects of society that promote beauty as an essential ideal. Achieving this would completely revolutionise our inner voice, happiness, and our self worth. This could pave the way for a self-care routine focused on maintaining a resilient and functional spirit and body without the unachievable beauty standards we see in every form of marketing. It’s tough to practice but give it a try!

8. Organise your space. There is an undeniable connection between mindset and a person’s physical work or home space. As described by Heidi Hanna, the author of Stressaholic, “when we have chaotic surroundings or a fragmented mindset, the brain can perceive this as a sign that there is more demand for energy than our current capacity, which triggers the stress response.” Aim to create a routine where organising your space goes from a self-care activity to a self-care habit that leads to peace of mind and a smoother output of energy into tasks that you love.

9. And finally, create a self-care plan. This ReachOut.Com resource ‘Developing a Self-Care Plan’ will guide you through the different types of self-care and through a self-care activity. Keep the plan in a visible place, allocate time each day to it, and consistently reassess how you are tracking to ensure new habits are working for you. It’s important to apply a degree of reality to this plan. Forgive yourself for any steps backward and change the plan if it becomes one of your life stressors.

Your self-care journey is going to be difficult. I have accepted that I am far from perfect at it, and I will always be a self-care wanna-be, but I’m proud of how much more self-aware I’ve become and the boundaries I’ve set. Self-care is preventative, and should be practiced when you feel well and when you start to slip into unhealthy habits to prevent us from burning out.

Never give up on yourself and your right to self-care. It is not selfish to take care of yourself – it is vital.

Handy Resources

If this article has triggered any mental health concerns, please contact Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling (for ADF members) or Beyond Blue.

About the author

Lyndsay Freeman is a mother of two and a Transport Officer in the Australian Army. A former Chief of Army Scholar, she is currently the Senior Instructor for the ADF’s Gender, Peace & Security Courses at the Peace Operations Training Centre. Lyndsay is passionate about the ADF’s pivotal role in advocating for women’s empowerment across the globe. Twitter: @LyndsayFreeman8.