Amid a rising sea of self-care advocates, Suzy Reading stands out.
With an army of Instagram followers looking for far more than mere bubble bath recommendations, she admirably treads the line between psychological practice and pragmatism, sharing helpful, unpatronising, snippets of advice on how to prioritise ourselves and nurture number one, without any trace of selfishness or guilt.
It’s clearly something we’ve all had on the brain recently, if 2020’s Google search history is anything to go by. The search engine’s own trends analysis shows UK searches for ‘self-care’ peaked in early April during the first national lockdown, and have yet to drop back to pre-pandemic search levels.
Increasingly though, it seems many of us are still hazy on the basics – ‘how self-care benefits you’ and ‘where to start with self-care’ are just two of the most popular questions listed. Given ‘self-care’ has become something of a fashionable buzzword in recent years, that line of enquiry might seem surprising. But do we really know what self-care actually means?
“The simplest way I can express it is this: self-care is healthcare,” Reading explains, as we sit down to chat from afar. She should know – a psychologist who has published many books on the topic, reading’s most recent work is the aptly-entitled Self-Care for Tough Times.
“Self-care, to me, is nourishment for the head, the heart and the body,” she muses. “It’s taking care of yourself in this moment, and also lovingly tending to the person that you are becoming, your future self, so that we can be the kind of people that we aspire to be.”
Rather than a simple quick fix, or a one-time-only effort to tick off our to-do lists, truly implementing a self-care strategy means building healthy daily habits that offer a cumulative effect that can resonate through our lives. Not an easy feat for many of us, least of all in 2020.
“It’s not easy to take care of ourselves, but I think this chapter of our lives has shown just how important it is to do that proactively,” Reading insists. “Because life is inherently stressful and no one is immune from that.”
Minding mental health
She’s not wrong. The Centre for Mental Health predicts that, in England alone, “up to ten million people (almost 20 per cent of the population) will need either new or additional mental health support” as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Of course, professional mental health support will be vital for those suffering diagnosed illnesses, with huge demand on the NHS and an array of practitioners offering support for those that need it most. But for those who can’t access or don’t require professional support, boosting mood and wellbeing is still critical. So, what can we do? What kind of activities constitute self-care?
Sure, for some it might be having a manicure (restrictions allowing) or a long bubble bath. But there seems to be a fuzzy line between what could be labelled self-care and what might appear as self-indulgence. Is there an approved list of activities in some ultimate self-care guidebook somewhere? Not quite, laughs Reading, though she does provide her own helpful guidelines.
“I think it comes back to that definition of what nourishes us in this moment and also tends to our future self. So, a single glass of wine savoured in the evening could be self-care – but if it turns into two, then three, then all the other choices that come along with that, it may no longer be beneficial to future you! For me, when I find myself watching TV much later than I know I should be – that’s not self-care.”
Oh. I have to concede Reading has a point here – one that’s made me consider the Netflix habit I’ve allowed to accelerate over the course of the pandemic. You know how your TV sometimes asks ‘Are you still watching this?’ after you’ve been sat watching for hours? Basically, we need that more generally in life to remind us of the difference between self-care and self-indulgence.
“There’s a distinction between true self-care and a crutch,” continues Reading. “A crutch would be turning to social media, numbing ourselves out with scrolling for comforting. It’s excessive caffeine intake to get us through the day, and then it’s alcohol to soothe and help us wind down at night. Or maybe it’s unnecessary online shopping. These are things that help us cope in the moment, but they don’t sustain us in the long run.
“So, observing the distinction between those, and making the healthy choice where possible, will serve us in the long run. We’re all human, and I think it’s really important that we acknowledge that this stuff is not easy – but we can build up the mindfulness muscle.”
Even Reading, a psychologist who talks about self-care every day, concedes that coping with 2020 hasn’t been easy for anyone.
“Even for me, as a yoga teacher as a psychologist, one of the things about the first lockdown I found so challenging was that I was really faced with myself. There was no escaping, and I was really aware of the thoughts and feelings and sensations I was having. It was really confronting.
“So, for people that aren’t used to stopping, that aren’t used to more reflective practices, it’s important to know that this stuff takes time. Go gently.”
For those new to flexing their mindfulness muscles, an array of technology is on hand to help overcome the barriers of time and expense, from free apps and minute-long meditation videos on YouTube, to endless internet how-to guides. But there is still, Reading admits, one major roadblock to self-care that stumps many of us.
“In my work, what I’ve noticed really looms large is guilt,” Reading sighs. “Even when we understand that self-care is healthcare, there can be guilt. But without our health, what do we have?
“What I say to those feeling guilty about taking time out is this: don’t see it as putting ‘me’ first. Every human being deserves to be nurtured and cared for regardless of what they’ve experienced, or what they’ve been told.
“Everybody is worthy of love and care, and that can start with giving it to yourself.”
Suzy Reading’s latest book, Self-Care for Tough Times: How to Heal in Times of Anxiety, Loss and Change, is out now, published by Aster (£12.99). Hear her full interview on Becky Taylor’s Sounds A Bit ‘Woo Woo’ To Me podcast here.