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Last week I wrote about the unique ambivalence women have about self-care. We beat ourselves up when we don’t take good care of ourselves, and then we feel guilty when we do. 

Why? Because women are socialized into a unique duty of intimate, self-sacrificing care to their communities: we are expected to more or less mother everyone – even people who aren’t our children, even people who are grown. We’re expected to, so we do, so we get good at it, and we are praised for it, so we keep doing it, and so on. The moments when caring for our own needs conflicts with caring for others create a dilemma, in which we feel bad no matter what we do.

But I think guilt is not appropriate. Guilt means that a sin – a moral error – has been committed. But has there been? I don’t think so. When I reflect on my own behavior, the little decisions I make to care for myself or for others seem often to be made unconsciously.

Unconscious behavior is not the domain of morality. It’s the domain of habits.

Today I’m sharing a simple framework for shifting self-care habits: how to drop bad ones and start good ones.

Small, Desirable, Rewarding

Change can be hard. People feel overburdened and time-pressed and don’t know how to begin.

Make it easier by making the change small, desirable, and rewarding: 

  • Change just one, small, discrete thing at a time. 
  • Make it the thing you want most right now.
  • Reward yourself for completing each iteration of the new habit.

For example, I wanted to start exercising but for years I did not, because I felt overwhelmed by the idea of finding a gym, which I’d then have to go to. 

I resolved to start creating the path to exercise by doing 30 seconds of squats and 60 seconds of planking while the water for my shower heated up. These two exercises were easy, requiring no equipment and minimal floor space; small and discrete, just 90 seconds total; the change was desirable, because my fitness priority is always a firmer, stronger core; and it was rewarding, because I got to hop in a hot shower after.

Now I exercise at a gym 45-90 minutes, five days per week and looove it.

Stop One Thing

When it comes to self-care, make space for yourself by lovingly withdrawing unneeded care from others. 

Where in your life are you over-helping?

  1. What do you do resentfully?
  2. What do you do that others could be doing?
  3. What do you do that you get pushback on?

Where is there overlap in two or more of these categories?

For example, my grown kids could be doing their own cooking (#2), but I love doing it (no #1), and they appreciate it (no #3), so I keep this caretaking habit.

On the other hand, I dropped doing my family’s laundry when they complained about how I was doing it (#3, pushback), which prompted feelings of resentment in me (#1). So, I figured it was time for them to take responsibility for it (#2). They did, and a lot of space opened up in my life as a result.

Start One Thing

Where does your body budget need more support

  1. What do you know you need more of?
  2. What do you want more of?
  3. What do you have ideas about doing?

Where’s the overlap in two or more categories?

For example, you think you should eat more vegetables (#1), but it feels like homework (no #2, desire), and you have no idea how to start (no #3). Don’t start there.

On the other hand, the idea of getting eight hours of sleep makes you positively swoon (#1 & #2). Furthermore, you know that your pre-sleep Instagram scrolling is what prevents you from getting those coveted eight hours. So, you know exactly what to do (#3). Start there.

Curious and Experimental

If you find yourself struggling to stop or start a habit, don’t get mad at yourself. Get curious.

Staying in the framework, does your action need to be smaller or more discrete, desirable, or rewarding?

If that question doesn’t help, go deeper. Just before you do or don’t do what you intended, what are you thinking? Is that thought really true? Who would you be, what would you do, without that thought?

Now, start experimenting! It’s your life. You are the authority: you set the priorities, and you know what works. Curiosity and experimentation will help you much more than guilt.

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