We’ve never been fans of the term self-care, but that’s because we both see the trending combination of bubble baths, fancy candles, and face masks masquerading as some kind of magic stress reliever. That never clicked with us; these are soothing activities, but the hype has diluted what self-care really means. Self-care isn’t something that you can buy. Emotional intelligence writer Brianna Wiest put it brilliantly when she wrote, “True self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake, it is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from.”
As entrepreneurs, the two of us were always, and still are, doing things we have never done before, so we often google “best practices” for the task at hand: best practices for hosting a staff retreat, building a board of directors, acknowledging donors, designing and evaluating programs, you name it. Best practices are the conditions that experts agree lead to the best results. So, then, what are the best practices for a life you wouldn’t need to escape from?
When you have to leave a child or a pet, you give your sitter a whole rundown of what to expect from your precious little one, right? You want the sitter to understand all their quirks so that they’ll be happy in someone else’s care. As grown humans, we may not come with our own manual of best practices—the conditions in which we thrive—but we can surely create one. Most people, including ourselves, are rarely living by all of our best practices, all of the time. Regardless, you can still feel the effects of a strong, healthy life by doing most of them. In our experience, it’s when you’re feeling in a funk that you’re probably too out of sync from your best practices.
We find three types of best practices contribute most to our resilience, and we bet you can relate.
1. Be kind to your body and brain (and challenge them every now and again)
You don’t have to be a health expert to understand your body needs you to take care of it, and yet, look at how often we forget that. When we’re stressed, we’re more likely to overreact, spiral down the rabbit hole of worst-case scenarios, and thus feel helpless or lost. We’re more likely to make bad decisions with how we spend our time and what we eat, and that affects our personal lives as well as our impact plans. When we get sufficient sleep and eat well, however, we keep our energy levels up. When we make time for exercise or learning new skills (physical or mental), we release endorphins that keep us feeling steady, balanced, and more prepared to take on the world.
This can be especially hard to remember when you’re feeling sick, stressed, or otherwise overwhelmed. When Christen’s endometriosis flared in 2018, her entire routine slowly fell apart: She was fatigued and could barely wake up in the morning, let alone make it to a boxing class; work was draining for her and she was too distracted by pain to focus in meetings; cooking dinner felt nowhere near as important as curling up in bed with a heating pad and some aspirin and waiting to see whether the pain would go away. The parts of her routine that normally gave her energy—exercise, work, good food—were suddenly burdens. Her new interests included pain alleviation techniques and Netflix.
As time wore on, this method of living wasn’t going to cut it. As Christen accepted that her life was fundamentally changing, she began opening up to her partner, her friends, and her coworkers about her diagnosis and experiences with it. Their encouragement and support allowed her to look for ways to incorporate the things she loved in new ways: She signed up for a gym membership where she didn’t have to show up at a specific class time, and she could go as easy or as hard as her body would allow. Her partner cooked dinners, which would draw her into the kitchen, too, even if just to keep him company. She started working from home more often, where her heating pad made it more tolerable to concentrate and do the work she loved most.
Finding these ways of adapting her routine to nourish her body and her brain was key to building the resilience she needed to manage her impact projects while dealing with a huge physical obstacle. Today, she relies on these same practices when she’s stressed; you can still find her heading to the gym or taking advantage of the next tip.
2. Be mindful of who you spend time with, offline and online
The people you surround yourself with increase your accountability and give you inspiration to go out into the world and do the right thing when it’s not the easy thing. Recognize what and who makes you feel like the best version of yourself, who helps and motivates you, and say yes to activities with them. We all need and deserve care from others, and building resiliency is best done with the support of those who love us.
As you’re assessing your community, also take time to recognize who the energy vampires are. What and who makes you feel depleted and snarky? Give yourself permission to avoid planning one-on-one time with them, or invite them to do something that changes the energy of the conversation, like running an errand or going for a walk instead of hanging out at the bar. Remember that you need to keep your cup as full as possible to continue achieving your goals and, ultimately, to create that positive legacy you want to leave. If something doesn’t serve you or those goals, it’s okay to say no.
Even those of us who are smart about how we spend our time with others in person still trip up over who and what we let into our life digitally. Set boundaries with the media that you’re consuming to stay informed and in touch. For example, if you’re prioritizing reading a couple of newsletters, listening to a few weekly podcasts, and putting the morning news on for 20 minutes as you get ready, do you really need to be scrolling social media all day? Do you need 24/7 news commentary to rehash a disaster in a dozen different ways, or can you just take in the facts once and save your mental energy for constructive, creative, and solutions-oriented work?
3. Spend time with yourself to take your stress out of the shadows
How will you know what makes you feel good if you’re not spending time with yourself to figure out what makes you click? Brain dumps are an effective way to curb anxiety and stress, because when you pour out what is bothering you on paper, it looks a lot less scary than it did when running around the dark alleys of your mind. When you can name your stress, it loses its power over you.
We both have a habit of exporting our anxieties out of our heads and into a journal we reserve for this purpose. If we’re in the middle of something and a particular concern is nagging us, we jot it down on our respective pages. Christen dubs this space “the parking lot.” When you write it down, it’s like you’re telling that concern, “I see you! Now pipe down. We’ll talk soon.” You park those thoughts until you’re ready to let them take you for a spin.
When you have time to review your journal entries about what’s bugging you (or exciting you!), you can more easily connect the dots on what isn’t serving you and what’s working. Usually, there’s a direct connection for Christen between a lack of exercise or an abundance of high-sodium takeout and feeling groggy or tired. Tammy notices that her stress festers when she lets too much time pass between heart-to-heart coffee dates and phone calls with friends or allows work to override her exercise routine. Recognizing these patterns clues us in to the actions we can take to avoid defeat and burnout.
The hardest part about self-care is that, beyond a few guidelines, no one can really tell you exactly how to do it, because you have to listen to what your mind and body need—and no one knows that better than you. To find out, try spending small amounts of time alone, without the distraction of phone notifications. Take a walk or meditate; generally, see what feelings and emotions and ideas come up for you when you don’t have messages, emails, or other people dictating what you’ll think about next. Really listen to what your body and mind are telling you: What are you anxious about? Excited about? Does your body need rest, movement, water? Practice letting your mind and mood wander, until you better learn to take care of you.
Excerpted from Impact: A Step-by-Step Plan to Create the World You Want to Live In by Christen Brandt and Tammy Tibbetts. Copyright © 2020. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group.
As founders of She’s the First (STF), Brandt and Tibbetts built a wildly successful girls’ rights organization from the ground up over the past decade while helping others unlock their place in the impact world. Their work is supported by Michelle Obama, the United Nations, Diane von Furstenberg, many major brands, 200-plus campus chapters, and hundreds of thousands of everyday changemakers worldwide.