When I talk to my clients about self-care, I can immediately see their eyes glaze over. They’re thinking, “Abby, I don’t have time to fit in anything else!” They see self-care as a stressor – one more thing to add to their “to-do” list. Because when people think of self-care, they think of what they should be doing:
- Taking time for myself (but then what do I do when I have it?)
- Doing a hobby you enjoy
- Getting something like a mani/pedi or a massage
- Vegging out alone and binge-watching something
Maybe you even do all those things, but you’re not consistently feeling better?!
What if I told you that self-care isn’t just about those things? Because true self-care is WAY more than all the things you do. Self-care is, above all else, paying attention to how you feel! You can exercise all day and get a mani/pedi every week but if you’re not feeling happier or calmer overall, what’s the point? It’s because all the physical self-care in the world won’t get you where you’re trying to go if you ignore your emotional self-care. This is for you especially if you’ve been struggling with figuring out what it means to do self-care!
Emotional self-care means that you have somewhere safe to express your true emotions and feelings. By safe I’m talking about not feeling judged and having someone truly empathize and hear you. This isn’t about problem-solving or fixing. It’s about feeling seen and heard. When we have that, we feel connected which makes us relax and feel safe.
Think right now of how it feels when someone has really heard you. The sheer relief of it is epic! This is why so many people cry in therapy – it’s not necessarily about what they’re sharing (I hear all the time, “I don’t know why I’m crying about this”). It’s because they feel held, understood and seen.
Emotional self-care will improve EVERY area of your life because here are the dangers of NOT sharing and keeping our true emotions inside:
1. Physical Issues
Any time you suppress your emotions, it leads to physical stress on your body. Short term we see things like high blood pressure, pain and GI issues. Long-term, we see an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease cancer and shortening your life span!
GI issues are a big theme I see all the time. According to research from Harvard Medical School, the stress that comes from unacknowledged emotions can lead to slow digestion, gas, bloating, vomiting, and ulcers.
Another common issue from not sharing emotions are headaches and migraines. When you’re emotionally stressed, the muscles in your forehead and brow tighten, which results in reduced blood flow to your brain and, Voila! Headaches!
And, if none of that helps you pull the trigger and talk about what’s going on, a study by the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester found that people who bottled up their emotions increased their risk of getting cancer by a whopping 70%!
In that same study, they also showed that emotional suppression “increases the chance of premature death from all causes by more than 30 percent.”
2. Stuffing Your Emotions
Another common theme from people shoving down and not expressing their true emotions is self-harm by way of gaining weight from increased eating, increased drug and alcohol use, overspending, sexual acting out or other self-destructive activities all in the name of avoiding feelings!
3. Emotional Dysregulation
Not expressing your true emotions results in your expressing untrue emotions! For example, let’s say you’re out with your partner and his friends. One of his friends is talking crap about how he’ll never get married because then you’re just tied down and life sucks or some such words. Your partner doesn’t say anything to dispute this and maybe even takes some ribbing from his friends, “Yeah Chuck, you’ve become a real pussy since you got married!” It hurts. You feel rejected and abandoned by your own partner. That’s the true feeling. On the ride home you’re still smarting from the feeling of being left out in the cold by your man, but you don’t say anything.
Later that week, you come home with the groceries and your partner’s there but doesn’t offer to help. The true feeling is that you feel abandoned again, but instead you lose your shit: “You never help me! I can’t stay in a marriage where my husband doesn’t give a shit about me! I’m sick of this!”
No, I don’t have secret cameras in your home, but this is how suppressed emotions play out. You end up with emotional dysregulation and sadly, you end up looking crazy while the real issue is never discussed. It becomes a nasty cycle, and you feel more and more alone and misunderstood.
Avoiding emotions leads to problems with aggression, anxiety, depression and even your memory. In fact, a study from the University of Texas found that the more you suppress an emotion, the stronger it gets! (hence the blowing up at your hubby weeks after the incident with the friends).
Top 3 Tips for Emotional Self-Care
Tip #1: Name That Feeling!
I talk about mindfulness a lot and it’s because the research just keeps showing that practicing mindfulness is at the core of a joyous and serene life.
Get in the practice of naming your feelings. I know it can seem hard. What am I feeling anyway? But naming your feelings is a skill and, like any other skill, the more you practice, the better you’ll get.
The research shows that labeling your emotion will actually make you feel better and be more positive, even if you’re naming an emotion like rage or resentment.
So, in a moment, notice what you’re feeling and say out loud or to yourself, “This is calm,” or “This feeling right now is fear.” In a series of studies at UCLA, researchers found that simply labeling emotions turns down the amygdala alarm center response in the brain that triggers negative feelings.
Tip #2: Identify an Emotional Self-Care Buddy
Identifying an emotional self-care buddy is next on the list. This could be your partner, friend, a therapist or even someone virtual if all else isn’t available to you right now. The idea is to set up a “formal” relationship complete with guidelines for success.
Here are the guidelines:
1. This is not about fixing, it’s about being listened to and heard. It’s about empathy only!
2. You talk and the Buddy doesn’t interrupt; they’re focused on listening.
3. The only things the Buddy is allowed to do are:Show empathy by “naming that feeling”: It sounds like you really feel overwhelmed.” “I can hear how angry you are about this.” “I can feel your frustration!” It’s fine to do nothing more than that. It’s not about agreeing – it’s about validating. But, if it feels right, here are possible next steps:
Optional next steps:
- The Buddy can name their own feeling (“It’s so hard to see you in so much pain.” “I feel angry that x wronged you too!”). You’ve got to be careful with this because you shouldn’t feel like you now need to take care of the Buddy! This is especially true in love relationships.
- Asking questions but NO suggestions! Ask first if they’d like to problem-solve a little or if they just want to be in sharing mode. Don’t SAC! (Suggest, advise or criticize.)
The Buddy should not:
- Bring it back to themselves or share their own experience. This is not a time for bonding. You’re already bonded or they wouldn’t be talking to you. Just allow them to feel their feelings.
- No encouragement or minimization.
- Try to fix anything – matter what!
Tip #3: Be Your Own Buddy
There are some great ways to be your own emotional self-care buddy:
- Journaling. A study at Harvard found that journaling about your emotions can ease trauma and stress!
- Mindfulness of your feelings throughout your day (naming the feeling as mentioned above or just tracking your feelings throughout the day).
- Practicing calibration and actively calibrating your mood to a higher vibration.