My senior year in high school, I had an English teacher that I loved, one who wept when she read us poetry, laughed when she read us Shakespeare, did not share any of my core religious beliefs, and routinely chanted to us the two great maxims for success: know thyself, and nothing in excess. I rolled my eyes at her words because they seemed too cliché, too reminiscent of self-help books and inspirational mugs.
But in the decade since then, I have thought of those words over and over. Know thyself. Understand your own person and needs. Avoid excess in all we do. Embrace moderation and measure. I think that Christians tend to avoid advice like this as pithy or even selfish, mistakenly believing that we have loftier things to do than address the care and understanding of our own selves. We have the lost to seek and save, the sanctification of motherhood or vocation to embrace, the work of Heaven to carry out in our daily lives. We have no time and no need to indulge in self-knowledge or care. We turn up our noses at it, think ourselves above it as a spiritually superior, and then continue on in our burnt out existence, wondering why we feel so unbalanced in our own skin.
Because the truth is that we cannot really fulfill our daily callings if we aren’t healthy and whole, and it is hard to get there if we don’t understand ourselves and our own weaknesses.
I teach French, and the French have an expression that I love, that of someone being “bien dans sa peau,” someone who is “well in their own skin,” someone who knows themselves and is comfortable with who they are, capable of living their own life to its fullest. I started really learning what this meant when I lived in France. I had fewer friends, a smaller social agenda, and lots of time to myself. I was an adult and living alone, and I started carving out the habits and rituals that allow me to be at home in my own skin and my own life. I started paying attention to the little acts that made me feel at peace with my days and noticing the little things that derailed me.
This simple process of taking stock of what helped and hurt my life on a regular basis is the most basic form of self-care, and yet the most essential. It is an ongoing process, as life and circumstances change, but the need to know and care for ourselves does not change. My husband works a demanding job with long hours, I am in the final stretch of completing a rigorous PhD program, I teach and keep our house, and I just had a baby at the end of May. Our lives are full, and it is tempting to toss the nonessentials out. Yet what I have found is that some things that seem “nonessential” are vital to maintaining equilibrium in my own attitudes, capabilities, and responses. Currently, self-care can’t look like a spa day or a leisurely Saturday of alone time to go for a long run and brunch with friends. Our lives have no space for that. But it can look like tiny rituals, disciplines, and snatches of time sprinkled throughout our week. Here are the areas and practices where I invest a little self-reflection about what I need, and a little care to make it happen:
Space. I firmly believe that our spaces dictate our emotions. I cannot function in clutter and mess, and I would argue that most people can’t, even if they think it doesn’t bother them. No matter how crazy the day, I take five minutes to make the bed, straighten pillows, and wipe counters. Not always all at once, but in little motions throughout the day, keeping the space around me as clean as it can be. This also means that we are ruthless with what we allow into our home. If it isn’t useful or beautiful- it doesn’t get to stay. Finally, this means that I believe it worthwhile to devote some time and energy into how our home is decorated. We are not rich and I am not at all good at decorating. But I have found that it is worth it to reflect and make tiny investments here and there to have a space that feels like a refuge from the chaos of the world, rather than a continuation of it. I look forward to drinking tea out of a special mug, or have joy throughout the day seeing a beautiful picture framed on the wall.
Sustenance. We are what we eat. I love indulging, but I have also learned that my diet affects my emotions. I try to make healthy decisions overall so I can enjoy indulgences. And on that note, one of the things that is a daily part of my overall self-care is a life of seeking out treats. I joke that I like to have a treat a day, but it isn’t really a joke. Sometimes it is a hunk of dark chocolate that I keep hidden in the back of the cabinet that I anticipate all morning and enjoy in my favorite chair. Currently, it is often an iced drink from somewhere, and I load up my baby in the stroller and away we go on a ridiculously long walk just so I can have a watermelon cooler or lavender lemonade. Knowing that I have some tiny treat to look forward to all day makes me enjoy my other healthy decisions, and it also just makes me happy. I think it is important to not live our lives in constant denial, and finding a tangible treat to anticipate each day helps every day seem special.
Society. I need people. Sometimes this means a special date night, but sometimes it also means girl time. I think that married women too often forget that you need your girlfriends. I love getting together with my friends and their kids, but I also am a strong supporter of a night away. I recently left the baby at home with my husband and had dinner with some amazing women. For 2 hours, I wasn’t mom or wife, and thus I came home more excited to continue being both.
Solitude. On the flip side, it took this extroverted woman years to realize that I do need alone time, especially to be creative. In an ideal world, my alone time would be several hours to go sketch in museums, fulfilling both my need for some restorative solitude, and my need for a creative outlet. In reality, that is rarely (never?) possible. Instead, I try to slip away to a coffee shop occasionally to write, edit photos, and be alone.
Soul. I wish that I was someone who was good about rising early and having a concentrated hour of prayer and scripture before everyone else woke up, quietly sipping coffee and meditating. That sounds like a great way to start the day… for someone else. I want every last minute of sleep and I do not like coffee. But I do know that my soul needs daily attention. Since I am not always good at having a set ritual for the time I spend on spiritual growth, I try to have one for how I spend whatever time I find. For the past 5 years I have reread Oswald Chambers My Utmost for His Highest, following those short and profound readings with a chapter of scripture. It isn’t grand, but it keeps my soul grounded.
Strength. Sometimes I notice that my baby screams for a little while, only to promptly fall asleep and awake much happier, as he just needed to yell off some extra energy. I think that we are all like that a little, only instead of yelling, I know that I have to expend some serious physical energy each day to avoid yelling. At the moment, this means lots of stroller pushing while I listen to audiobooks or podcasts, but sometimes it has meant running or joining a gym. Working out on a regular basis both leaves me feeling calmer, and feeling more confident about my own body.
Sartorial. I used to think that it was vanity to fuss over appearance and dress. But now I realize that how we suit up for the day affects our ability to conquer it. I try to like my clothes, which means only letting things in my closet that fit and are loved. I also go through various hygiene obsessions that make me feel extra equipped to take on the world. One semester, I did my nails every Sunday night, loving how they looked as I sat typing on my dissertation. I keep multiple tubes of lipstick with me at all times, because nothing makes me feel more ready to conquer the world than a bold lip. I periodically invest in good facewash, lotion, or shampoo so that I enjoy the simple acts of washing and getting ready. Whereas I used to be a shower every-other-day-er (if that!), motherhood has me craving a hot shower at the end of every day, washing off the spit-up, milk, and whatever else that has accumulated throughout the day. It’s summer and I am home all day so I usually sport a messy bun or ponytail, but at least once a week I make a point of actually curling my hair, a reminder to myself that I can look presentable. Investing some self-care in my appearance leaves me more at peace with whatever the day throws at me.
These habits and rituals are not big things. But they weave taking care of myself into all the other things I have to take care of. They keep me healthy, happy, and sane. Somehow, focusing just a little more energy on myself allows me to better serve and love all those around me.
Hannah is the mother to a fresh baby boy and wife to her college boyfriend. She teaches French and is finishing up a PhD in 19th Century French Literature. She hopes that telling people that she is finishing it helps this fact to become true. She loves running, hates concerts, and considers herself a chocolate chip cookie aficionado.
Hannah lives in a small apartment on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC where she prides herself on slowly decorating everything in the primary colors. She writes about the beautiful and the true to be found in life, marriage, faith, and family over at The Art in Life, though all too often she ends up just babbling about her love of brunch and bad television.