Self-Care for the Holidays

Ah, it's that time of year again.  You may have started your holiday planning and shopping, RSVPing to various events, and/or getting ready to host.  For most of us, the holidays are a mix of excitement, gift giving and receiving, and spending time with the ones we love.

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On the flip side, it may also involve running harried, stretching ourselves too thin, dealing with competing demands, and family drama.  Relationships may become (more) strained.  Whereas some level of increased stress is to be expected, the holidays can also bring out additional difficult feelings, such as grief and loneliness.

The need for self-care and boundaries is higher than ever at this time of year, although ironically we likely have less time to do so.  Here are some things to consider:

  • Be kind and gentle with yourself.  When multiple demands compete for our energy and attention, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay in the present and enjoy the moment.  
  • Identify now how you want to take care of yourself.  For some, this means scheduling time with a dear friend.  For others, it could be unwinding with hot tea or cocoa at night and sticking to an exercise routine.
  • Notice when you become reactive.  When you notice having a shorter fuse, for example, take a long and gentle moment to reflect on what is really causing it.  What may initially feel like annoyance with slow moving lines or traffic, might really be about pressure to keep up, or feeling taken advantage of, or having familiar buttons pushed by a family member.
  • Holiday stress may get acted out in relationships.  This may create a wish to withdraw from others or engage in various escape fantasies.  Be careful not to entirely give in - spending meaningful quality time with others usually leaves us feeling better. 
  • Be aware how you respond to interpersonal conflict.  Do you pursue or withdraw?  These patterns may get exacerbated with holiday stress.  Just being aware can help you modify your responses to others.
  • Be a clear communicator.  Let others know what you're willing and able to contribute, and also communicate what you are not able to do.  Read this post about assertiveness skills.
  • If you are spending the holidays alone, plan quality time for yourself as well as some time to be around others.  Joining a community that has meaning to you, religious or secular, is good for mental health.  Volunteering and giving back during the holidays can be immensely rewarding.  Shifting focus from inward to outward can help put difficult feelings in perspective.  Plan your participation early as volunteer opportunities on holidays fill up quickly.
  • Take note of what you are grateful for.  It helps put things in perspective.

Happy holidays to you and yours!

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Simple Ways to Boost Your Mood and Confidence

Positivity and confidence are important building blocks in life.  Often they are the prerequisite for other positive changes.  They keep us moving forward (instead of looking backwards) and connected to others.  Here are some simple ways to build mood and confidence boosters into your everyday life:

  • Evaluate your choices:  Take inventory about what is currently going on in your life:  in your relationships, workspace and environment.  Determine the aspects of your life that you can change positively, then focus on them.  Also acknowledge the things that you cannot change, and move on. Make sure to only invest energy in the things that are worth your while.  It may help to write them down.
  • Eliminate negativity:  If there are people and situations that leave you drained and grumpy on a regular basis, re-evaluate their place in your schedule and your life.  For example - a friendship should leave you energized, rather than drained, most of the time.
  • Stop blaming yourself:  When something doesn't go as expected, don't dwell on it.  Rather than beating yourself up about human mistakes, take a deep breath, regroup, and figure out your next steps.
  • Make time for exercise:  This helps burn off stress hormones and leaves you feeling relaxed and refreshed.  Exercise is also known to counteract mild to moderate depression and improves confidence.
  • Get social support:  Make time for dates with friends.  This helps reduce stress, improves health, and gives you something to look forward to.
  • Learn something new:  Novelty is good for the brain and the soul.  Pick up a new hobby, craft, skill, or language.  You will improve your confidence and may meet new people that share your passion.
  • Reward yourself:  Break down your goals into small, manageable benchmarks.  When you reach a benchmark, reward yourself with something healthy.  For example, after you finish cleaning a room, make time for a healthy snack or a phone call to a friend.
  • Nurture your mind:  Surround yourself with positive music, entertainment, and art.  Avoid movies or TV shows that leave you feeling stressed, anxious, and negative.
Make self-care a priority in your life.  If this is consistently hard for you, you may wish to consult with a licensed mental health professional for support.  

New Year's Resolutions - How About a Little Self-Compassion?

Right now we're in that funny place "between the years" - recovering from heavy meals, holiday get togethers, and getting ready for the new year.  New Year's Resolutions are starting to pop up in conversations.  These resolutions can take on a variety of shapes.  Increasing health and fitness, along with decreasing unhealthy habits, is probably one of the most common New Year's resolutions (did you know there's a public run in New York City's Central Park at the stroke of midnight of 1/1/12?).  Others resolve to improve their relationships, change their world view, volunteer and give back, set new priorities, work less and play more, or play less and work more.  I'd like to propose another option - increasing self-compassion.  

Too often do we beat ourselves up about mistakes we make or failing to achieve a goal.  While this may be an attempt at self-discipline, it often unfortunately backfires by creating more pressure, stress, anxiety, or even depression.  Most of us would agree that it's easier to feel sympathy and compassion for others than for ourselves.  How about starting to turn a little of that inward - accepting that we make mistakes, and being warm and understanding towards ourselves.  When we start looking at our imperfections and life's difficulties with self-compassion, we recognize that we can be gentle with ourselves and approach our position in life with sympathy and kindness.  This can ultimately lead to greater emotional balance.  

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Kristin Neff, a prominent researcher on self-compassion, defines self-compassion as a two-fold concept.  First, self-compassion entails noticing that we are suffering at a given moment.  Let's say you beat yourself up about your failure to complete a task on time.  Instead of playing over and over in your head that you did something wrong, try to recognize that you are having a hard time with this.  Second, self-compassion means that you feel warmth and care towards yourself, along with a desire to soothe your pain.  So instead of judging yourself harshly for your failure to complete a task, try extending understanding and kindness towards yourself when you fail or make mistakes.  

Now you may find yourself wondering how this approach will help you accomplish your goals.  You may even find yourself arguing that unless you discipline or judge or criticize yourself, you will "never" get where you need to be.  I encourage you to ponder how self-compassion may actually help you become happy and healthy.  By accepting that like others, you too are a human being who is less than perfect and makes mistakes, you can start to let go of unrealistic hurdles you place in your own way.  Life does not always happen according to our expectations.  That's okay.  That's what makes us part of this place called Earth, of this wonderful and diverse humanity.  Every single being on this earth has encountered frustration, loss, made mistakes.  We are all part of this.  Accepting this instead of fighting against it can make things so much easier for ourselves and those around us.

Some resources to learn more about and increase self-compassion:

- Visit  Kristin Neff's website.  

- A great book is The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion by C.K. Germer

- Talking to a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional can be a great help. 

How Do I Learn to Love Myself?

Our culture uses the terms “self-esteem” and “self-worth” liberally.  Thousands of books are published on it every year and hundreds of opinions written on it every day.  Many of us are constantly and painfully aware of our real or imagined shortcomings and their interference with self-acceptance and self-love.   Consequently, many of us are on a constant quest of self-improvement.

Self-worth is (1) the belief in oneself and (2) self-respect.  It is the conviction that you are competent to cope with life’s challenges and are worthy of happiness. It includes the ability to trust yourself to solve problems rather than just worry about them, take reasonable risks, and nurture yourself.  It also means being able to forgive yourself and giving yourself permission to make mistakes. 

Context has a huge influence on how we define our self-worth.  If you are a student at a competitive university and surrounded by highly intelligent people, academic success may be the main contributor to your sense of self-worth.  The same goes for those of us who define their self-worth by professional success.  And in today’s world where success is often linked to (some subjective definition of) beauty, self-worth is often defined by physical appearance.  If we are going through major life transitions, such as personal or professional changes, we can feel even more vulnerable in areas of self-love and self-worth.

What makes self-love and self-worth so tricky is that we lose sight of the multitude of factors in life that can give us meaning and define our self-worth.  We tend to assume all or nothing attitudes and self-definitions, and if you’re a perfectionist, you are twice vulnerable.  Achievement and looks aside, we play many other roles in life.  We are friends, sons/daughters, brothers/sisters, caregivers, romantic partners, supporters, activists, givers and receivers, spenders of leisure time, writers, speakers, advice givers, team members, etc.  And we make important choices every day that affect these roles.  There are many ways in which we contribute to our environment every day – ways we forget all too easily.

 Here are some ideas to start improving the way you feel about yourself:
  • Take inventory of the many ways you contribute to the world around you.
  • Learn positive self-talk – look for more on this in a future installment of this blog
  • Know your rights – this has to do with assertiveness.
    • The right to take time to slow down and think.
    • The right to change your mind.
    • The right to ask for what you want/need.
    • The right to ask for information.
    • The right to make mistakes.
    • The right to say, “I don’t know.”
  • Practice self-care and balance.  Treat yourself to something meaningful.  Be gentle with your body and mind.  You deserve it.
  • Get in touch with your strengths.  Make a list of personal strengths, both internal and external.
  • Accept compliments. Challenge yourself to simply say “thank you” after you receive a compliment.

If you are struggling with self-worth and self-acceptance, talking to a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional can help. I am a Houston psychologist and I work with both couples and individuals.  Call me for a free consultation at 713-364-8328 or visit DrGortner.com for more information on my services.