Self-awareness, Self-management, and Self-care.

“You can’t pour from an empty cup.” It’s a mantra mental health professionals use to remind you to take care of yourself. Practicing self-care is essential to maintaining balance in your life- mental and physical. “Filling up your cup” can mean many different things to many people, but the important takeaway is that you can’t help others if you don’t help yourself first. While some people have a pretty good idea about when they need to take some time to practice self-care, others might not even realize that their “cup” is running low or even forget that they have a “cup” to fill in the first place! If your life is spent helping others, you’re always busy, or you have many life stressors, it’s sometimes easy to ignore your needs. Ignoring your needs over time can cause you to forget that you have needs in the first place. It might be time to check in with your mind and body. 

Self-care starts with self-awareness. Self-awareness is the awareness of your emotions, thoughts, behaviors, values, preferences, goals, strengths, challenges, attitudes, mindsets, etc., and how these affect you and your choices. In relation to self-care, ask yourself first how you feel in this moment. What emotions come up for you when you allow yourself to focus on your inner life? How are those emotions affecting how you think and act? Suppose you’ve found yourself not having enough patience lately, being irritable, feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, or being quicker to anger. How is that affecting how you interact with yourself and others? How is it affecting your thought patterns? Understanding the cause and effect of emotion, thought, and behavior is essential to understanding when it’s time to take some time to care for yourself. Now, think about your values, preferences, goals, and strengths- what can you do today that you will enjoy, will improve your quality of life (mentally or physically), and feel good doing? 

In this context, self-management is assessing your priorities, managing your time, holding yourself accountable, following through, and maintaining your well-being. Healthy self-management allows time for you to focus on personal growth and care for your mental and physical wellness. Your mental and physical health should be a priority, and self-care is a huge part of that. 

Here’s how I know it’s time for some self-care. I do a quick body scan. Does my chest feel tight (for me, this means anxiety)? Do I have a pit in my stomach (for me, this implies sadness)? Do I feel that “buzzing” in my body that happens right before I get frustrated or angry? Then, I do a quick emotion scan. Are people I love irritating me for no reason? Do daily tasks seem impossible, overwhelming me when I usually wouldn’t be? Am I having thoughts that cause me to become anxious (like negative “what if” situations- what if I don’t pass this test, what if I get into an accident, etc)? How about self-deprecating thoughts? The list goes on, but you get the gist. If I answer “yes” to any of those questions, I need to pause for a moment and do something to care for myself. My go-to is making sure that I do something active. Usually, this means going to the gym, but not always. Sometimes, it’s just a walk around the block with the dogs. If I have a lot of time, I might set aside a day for self-care- I’ll do something active, come home, do a face mask, take an extra long shower, paint my nails, watch a favorite movie, and call a friend. If I only have a few minutes, I’ll listen to one of my favorite songs, do some deep breathing, or quite literally “shake it off” and do a few minutes of dancing, jumping, or other activities that move my body. Self-care doesn’t have a time requirement, and small stuff adds up, too! 

Self-management was challenging for me initially, especially after I started grad school (and still have a full-time job). The irony was that master’s level clinical mental health counseling programs constantly emphasize the need for self-care. One of my first assignments was to write about my self-care practices and how I intended to continue to integrate those into my life. I wrote about all the things I listed above, but when it came to doing them, I thought, “It’s ok. I can figure it out later.” That mentality quickly caught up with me. I started feeling burned out and overwhelmed. I was still going to the gym three to four times a week, but I hadn’t made time to do the other self-care activities (and speaking of going to the gym, I practiced self-management skills to make that a habit, too!). So, I decided to take a few hours every Sunday to do things I felt I had missed throughout the week. Sometimes, I would hang out with a friend; sometimes, I would treat myself to a little “spa” day at home, and sometimes, I would just allow myself to lie in bed with my partner and dogs, watch a movie, and relax. I usually meal prep for lunches and the first two days of dinners to make the beginning of the week easier as well, which helps with my mood on Monday!

It took practice to make sure that I set aside some time for myself throughout the week, and it especially took practice to allow myself to practice self-care when I knew that I had other things I needed to do. So, I started to treat it like an assignment! I wrote it down in my planner and ensured I stuck with it (at least to the best of my ability). I also reminded myself that I still needed to make time for those body and emotion scans and that I could ALWAYS make time for 2-3 minutes to listen to a song, do some breathing, or move a little bit. I like to say I didn’t have time, but I did. I wasn’t making the time. 

Self-awareness, self-management, and self-care can be practiced to make them a habit. Just like an athlete has to practice throwing a ball repeatedly before it becomes second nature, you might have to practice self-awareness and self-management. You might have to set up a schedule for self-care and keep yourself accountable for maintaining it. Journaling can help, especially if you set aside a few minutes each day to jot down your feelings and what you did or didn’t do that day. It enables you to recognize patterns, which helps when you decide to make changes! Journaling can actually be an excellent self-care practice in itself! Setting alerts on your phone or calendar is a good way to remind yourself of your self-care schedule, or if you use a planner, write your self-care plans in that at the beginning of your week! Remember, “You can’t pour from an empty cup,” and you are 100% worth the time and effort it takes to love yourself and focus on your well-being! 

  • Jen Connelly