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The Self-Care Conundrum

Here’s why women still struggle with nurturing themselves and how you can recharge

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According to new research from the American Psychological Association, 21 percent of women report that they’re not doing enough to relieve stress. In fact, only 22 percent of women report being successful in their efforts to sleep enough, 36 percent report success in their efforts to eat healthfully, and just 29 percent are successful in efforts to be physically active. In short, we need to take better care of ourselves. So why don’t we?

Part of it involves long-ingrained gender roles, as women continue to shoulder the majority of child and elder care while also juggling work. For sandwich-generation women with jobs, the idea of taking an hour off for a massage, cup of tea, a book or a hot bath is little more than a fanciful daydream. “We still have responsibility for our kids and our parents as they age, and at the end of the day, there are very few hours left for us,” says Carla Goldstein, co-founder of the Omega Women’s Leadership Center at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York.

Adding to the conundrum: We harbor a hardwired sense of vigilance based on a primal need for security, says self-care expert Jennifer Louden, author of The Life Organizer: A Woman’s Guide to a Mindful Year. Abandoning our responsibilities feels frightening. “We’ve not lived in a time of safety and abundance for very long,” Louden says. “It used to be a full-time job just to get water.”

She notes also that 21st-century women lack self-care role models. The image of the busy, do-it-all woman still remains the gold standard. Quieter pursuits like journaling, walking or simply sleeping enough aren’t well represented in the media.

And then there is the technology monster. Louden points to shadow comforts like Facebook, which seem like ways to unwind but actually rev up our nervous systems. Larissa Hall Carlson, yoga and ayurveda expert at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in the Berkshires, agrees: “Women crave self-care, but we choose a quick fix to check out, like Netflix or wine.” Unfortunately, she adds, “these continue to deplete and exhaust.”

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Sound hopeless? It’s not. Here are 10 ways to solve the self-care conundrum.

Think about what nourishes you in a judgment-free zone. “We love to make ourselves ‘good’ or ‘bad,’” says Louden. But there’s no right or wrong way to recharge. “Ask yourself, ‘What returns me to wholeness? What am I hungry for?’” she suggests.

Start small. It’s tempting to designate one spa day or a shopping spree as a self-care treat, but these broad swaths of indulgence aren’t sustainable long term. Instead, “Go for baby steps,” Louden says. For instance, instead of waiting fruitlessly for a full-day beauty makeover, spend 30 minutes each day doing something that makes you feel good, like enjoying a nap or taking a yoga class. “Forget the big self-improvement plans,” Louden says.

Check your motivations. If you pinball from PTO to soccer practice to volunteering, ask yourself why. “What are your motivations for being everything to everybody? Get curious about why you have no boundaries,” Louden says. If you identify your motivations—perhaps you want to play a hero role or only feel valuable if you’re busy—you’re more likely to scale them down to size.

Stop equating self-care with selfishness. It’s not selfish to spend money at the gym or to take a class you love.Reframe your desire for self-care as something productive. “Realize that we’re actually better and kinder when we take care of ourselves,” says Goldstein.

Listen to your internal cues. Slow down! Are you hungry? Tired? Thirsty? Pay attention to internal needs instead of external “shoulds,” says Omega’s Goldstein. “We’re cut off from our bodies. Our brains take over, and our brain overrides our body’s signals. Your brain might be telling you, ‘I should do the laundry.’ But your body might be telling you, ‘I’m tired. I need to sit down.’” Check in with your natural rhythms throughout the day—even if you set a smartphone timer to do so. “You can nurture yourself in just five minutes by taking some deep breaths,” she says. “Commit to inserting a time out.”

Treat your body right. Do something nourishing for yourself at the end of the day, says Carlson, like taking a 10-minute shower topped off with an abhyanga—ayurvedic oil—massage. This is easy to do at home: She recommends simply moisturizing with almond or sesame seed oil to activate the calming, parasympathetic nervous system. “It washes away the day and resets the system,” she says.

Set boundaries. You might think a nighttime shower sounds like an indulgence. One kid wants dinner; the other one needs help with her iPad. But Carlson says that modeling good self-care habits is beneficial for the whole family. “It’s difficult to set this stage, but it is doable, and you’ll actually teach your children to honor and respect their own practices of self-care,” she says.

Create a mood. Create an atmosphere of healing in your home, Carlson advises. A half-hour before bed, turn down the lights. Shut off the televisions and tech. Light candles, if you can. “Turn your space into a sanctuary,” she advises.

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The Self-Care Conundrum, Create an atmosphere of healing in your home, Carlson advises. A half-hour before bed, turn down the lights. Shut off the televisions and tech. Light candles, if you can. “Turn your space into a sanctuary,” she advises.

Don’t worry about losing steam. We might set out with the best of intentions—to practice yoga, to walk daily, to sleep more. And we’ll likely fail. “Memorize these magic Benedictine words: ‘Always begin again,’” Louden says. Continuity is good, but not always possible. So the key is to start again once you stop.

Find your people. Goldstein recommends finding a community that supports and values self-care, whether it’s a poetry class or a walking group, to keep you motivated. “This helps us move past self-doubt,” she says. “In the process, you’ll become a better partner or a better parent, and you’ll nurture your essential self.”