Self-care Vs. Aftercare

Michelle Perez, MHC-LP March 16, 2022

Self-care feels like nurturing yourself to preserve a healthy balance. Aftercare feels like scrambling to refill an already-depleted tank.

Picture the following scenario: a soon-to-be grad promises his friends that even after college, he will stay in touch and find time for them. Eventually, he lands the job he wants and begins to focus on his career. It becomes harder for him to find availability for his friends and other commitments, but he continues to try his best. There are nights when he must bring work home, and despite feeling exhausted, he’ll push past it and sacrifice sleep for a late-night gym or gaming session. A year later, he realizes he no longer has the time or energy to do the things he enjoys and feels dissatisfied in both his professional and personal life. He has lost his sense of control and often finds himself running on autopilot. 

If any piece of this scenario resonated with you, know that you are not alone. A demanding job, compromised relationships, and shifting priorities are just a few things that can cause us to feel depleted.

Living in a busy and fast-paced city comes with its own culture and norms. One's work, social life, and outward-facing success often gets prioritized over health and wellbeing. From an early age, one is taught that to achieve wealth or financial stability you must work hard and invest in the future. The romanticization of the “grind and hustle” of being an adult is potentially one of the most unhelpful myths we internalize from society. But if this is the only model and expectation we have, how can we break away from it? Investing in oneself in a way that works for you is what makes all the difference.

Achieving a balance

We can't eliminate all stressors, but we can control how we respond to them. The more grounded and present we are, the higher our tolerance and resilience towards challenges will become. We can prepare this by practicing self-care and nurturance. Investing in oneself is like taking a vitamin each day—i.e., a small dosage of wellbeing that can prevent our battery from getting drained. In the same way, we take our vitamin C or multivitamins to build up our immune system and prevent ourselves from getting sick, we can cultivate routines to strengthen our mental health. 

Self-care

Self-care doesn’t just have to be visits to the spa or bubble baths. It’s about finding the formula that works for you. Checking in with yourself more often, setting boundaries, and ensuring that your basic needs are met are some straightforward ways to begin incorporating self-care into your life. It’s up to us to ensure we take care of ourselves. 

Checking in with yourself is just as important as checking in with others, and ideally should happen just as often! Any moment is a good moment to stop and ask yourself, “How am I feeling?” You can start by pairing this question with a task you do every day, which might make it easier to hold yourself accountable. For example, try checking in with yourself before you brush your teeth or shower in the morning. What are the feelings and responses that seem to come up the most?

Setting boundaries can be a challenging thing to do, and the boundaries you set may also need to change over time. At this stage of your life, what would you like to prioritize? Start with what is important to you. What do you value? Your boundaries may reflect these. You might want to set aside time and reevaluate the things that make you happy. When was the last time you asked yourself, “What brings me joy?” Most of us cannot afford to quit our jobs or eliminate certain relationships (e.g. with managers, coworkers, family), but setting boundaries allows you to define what is acceptable and not acceptable in these relationships. If a certain dynamic is doing you more harm than good, it can be a sign that you should re-evaluate your boundaries there.

Baby steps can go a long way towards prioritizing your relationship with yourself. What are some of the things you’d like to do more of? Some everyday examples include going for walks, spending time in nature, reading, buying your favorite drink, or simply giving yourself breaks. What kinds of rest are most accessible to you? Over time, the things we do in our day-to-day routines can help us build a more broadly fulfilling life by encouraging a healthy diet, regular exercise, limited time with technology, and good sleep.

Aftercare

A lack of self-care can result in feelings of stress, burnout, irritability, and inconsistent eating and sleeping patterns. Suppressing these feelings and/or behaviors can lead to increased symptoms of anxiety, depression, and debilitating exhaustion that can impact your relationships over time. The good news: even if you find yourself depleted, aftercare is possible. 

Remember how we were supposed to take our vitamins? Well, once we catch that cold or flu and find ourselves actually sick, taking that vitamin C won’t provide the relief we seek. We’ll have to resort to another plan—which may include antibiotics, taking time off from certain obligations and/or responsibilities, relying on others, resting more, etc. 

When planning self-care, it’s important to have realistic expectations and goals. If you find yourself feeling this way, what’s something you would like to do differently from now on? What are a few signs you can recognize or pay closer attention to as possible red flags of depletion? We are constantly changing and our needs reflect that, especially as we go through different life stages and transitions. We started with the example of a college student entering the workforce—but what about when one enters a new relationship, becomes a parent, or changes jobs? It’s necessary to meet yourself wherever you are in your self-care journey. Maybe this is your first time pondering self-care, boundaries and finding a balance in your life. Perhaps you’re returning to the practice of reflecting on what’s working or what needs to change. Regardless, all of these are okay as you continue to practice self-care.

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