When clients come in for mental health treatment, a goal most of them seem to share is: a desire to feel better about who they are. I think most of us can relate. We often hear this vague phrase "love yourself" or "you have to love yourself first before anyone else can". But what does that really mean? I don't particularly like those phrases because they're so ambiguous and leave most people feeling like moral failures. Which, surprise surprise, just adds more fuel to the negative feelings they already have towards themself. Not helpful!
Let me break down how to decode that phrase so you can actually get some use and guidance out of it.
When people start off on their therapy journey, be it trauma counseling, anxiety counseling, or depression work, I often find that they're expecting to immediately dive into the deepest wounds that have broken them. It's as if they want therapy to take them down to the studs so they can be totally rebuilt. I get it, why else would we invest money and time in therapy if it's not going to be a total soul makeover. Don't get me wrong, there is a time and place for us to open up and process traumas, in fact, that's the thing I specialize in doing. But for the average client, the first level of change needs to be how you treat and care for yourself.
Here's the trap. When we feel worthless, we treat ourselves as worthless, and then the poor treatment only increases feelings of worthlessness. We have to break the cycle somewhere. As we don't tend to have a lot of control over how we FEEL, it makes sense to start where we do have some level of control: what we DO.
Think about this. If you were a little child (and this may be an experience some of you have actually lived), if you were a little child and your mother didn't feed you consistently, what would you grow to believe about yourself? Probably that you don't matter all that much and that no-one cares about you. I know it may not seem like it, and it may not be intentional, but if you're not eating regularly, not giving yourself quality food, not giving yourself time to rest or exercise or live in a clean home, you are sending yourself the exact same message, that you don't matter.
The same is true for every time you neglect your boundaries (saying yes when you need or want to say no, not asking for space when you need it, telling someone you agree when you don't just to avoid them disliking you). And it also goes for the environment you allow yourself to be in. That might mean the people you surround yourself with, the job you trade your time for, or even your physical environment. All these things send a message to yourself about how you see yourself, how you see your worth, and what you think you deserve.
Now, I understand most of us are busy, tired, and overwhelmed. And if you struggle with depression or anxiety, taking care of yourself can feel 10X as hard and daunting. BUT! and this is a big but. If you don't feel good, nothing else works. And if you don't take care of yourself on a basic level, you're very unlikely to feel good (or good enough). Every time you say "my needs can wait", you are actively putting yourself down just a little. So let's talk about what to do to show yourself the opposite, that you care about you, and that you do matter. Even if it's a little hard to feel that, feeling it starts with action.
Step 1. Meet your basic needs.
I know this may seem silly but I promise it's not. In fact, it might be the most important thing you do to take care of yourself. In mental health, we refer to something called Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It's a little pyramid that lists our human needs from most basic to thriving. Look it up! The pyramid isn't perfect, but an important take away from it is that: if we're not meeting our basic needs first, it's really hard to meet higher level needs like self-esteem and self-actualization.
So what do I mean when I say basic needs? Think about the things a baby needs to stay alive and grow. Many of us aren't tending to those needs regularly but are confused as to why our emotions are suffering.
Your body is a system, it all works together and when it doesn't have the basic things it needs to work, none of it works well. So think food, water, rest FIRST. Your body can't make the chemicals it needs to balance your brain activity without these. It will go into stress/survival mode which naturally increases your likelihood of feeling anxious/depressed.
If you struggle to do these things, either find ways to make them easier/more accessible, or find help. When it comes to food, some ideas might be setting schedules or timers to help you stay on track, making cooking and grocery shopping more tolerable with friends or music, prep cooking, or even finding healthy pre-made options.
For sleep, think of making a sleep routine and sticking to it. You have to be the guardian of your sleep. Lots of clients struggle with insomnia, but for many the issue significantly decreases or goes away entirely once they commit to adopting better sleep hygiene.
Good sleep hygiene means picking the same sleep/wake time every day (even on the weekends). It means taking an hour to wind down before bed with no blue-light. It means doing some things to calm your nervous system like yoga or taking a warm bath. And it means helping your mind settle with some reading, an audio-book, or some music if you find yourself still stirring. It's also a good idea to make sure you separate your work and sleep spaces. Try to only sleep in your bed, don't scroll here, don't study here, and don't work here. Over time your brain will remember that this spot is only for sleep and it will begin to prepare the appropriate chemicals in response.
Speaking of chemicals, stay away from afternoon caffeine. If you find your mind very active at night, part of the problem might not be just "your brain", but the stuff you're feeding it. Some people don't really feel the effect of caffeine anymore because they're so used to it, but once they detox from it, it can be easier to see that it's part of what kept them awake with anxiety and ruminating at night. It might also be contributing to daytime anxiety so be aware of that too.
Next, it's important to think about exercise. Movement is very important for regulating our system. So much so, that the first two things most therapists start with in depression treatment are regulating sleep and exercise. Exercise helps to balance our nervous system, regulate our body's chemicals, and give us a sense of wellbeing, power, and strength. Test it out. If you're very anxious over something (or nothing), see what a 20-45 minute power-walk or jog does. I've heard from many clients that it helps to put the issue in perspective and decrease the way that the stress distorts it (I call this chemical inflation, the way our stress chemicals make things seem even bigger and worse than they really are). If you can do your exercise in nature, even better! If you can exercise regularly, it's likely that you will already be starting off in a better spot when something stressful eventually happens.
So these practices are really two-fold. They help to regulate our body and brain in a way that decreases the magnitude of stress we feel on a biological level. But also, they are an important part of the self-esteem feedback loop. What it boils down to is do things for yourself with love. Imagine you are just the best mother taking care of yourself the way you always wanted someone to. Act like you are taking care of something very precious, because you are. If you treat yourself with respect, care, and value, (even if it's hard to feel those things towards yourself at first) it will mean something. You will likely feel a little more powerful, a little more competent, and a little more thankful towards yourself just for trying.
Remember that if you fail it's okay, and maybe even expected. But promise yourself that you will try again next week and try one new idea of how to do it just a little better.
We'll address the next steps in the future posts:
Step 2. Be Nice (or at least try)
Step 3. Make your world better for yourself in the ways you can.
Until then, see what you can do meet your basic needs regularly and with love.