‘Self-care’, ‘me time’, ‘relaxation’: the myths, the reality and what actually makes a difference.

RELAX!! NOW!! You’re missing it, you’re missing it- don’t waste this time: RELAX!!” Said my loud and insistent internal voice as I sit looking at the same sentence in my book over and over again as my to do list slides across my mind’s eye.

Does this feel familiar? Relaxation and taking some time for ourselves is a hot topic in my world of mums with primary aged children in England. We’re on the brink of primary schools returning in England and I’m looking forward to less intense days, less pressure, less juggling, more time for me, more time for relaxation.

It’s going to be amazing…right?

I’ve had a few conversations recently with working mothers (that’s pretty much my social scene after all) and the idea of relaxation is one that can feel elusive. We try to find time to ‘relax’ we’re told by the media and general societal expectation that ‘you need to take care of yourself to take care of others’ and ‘it’s important to get relaxation to balance your day’. But for many of us, this message is unhelpful: telling ourselves to relax is pretty much guaranteed to do the opposite.

I wonder if we’re falling into a trap of creating pressure for ourselves to relax and it ends being another burden that takes energy, effort and can feel like yet another thing that we’ve failed to do successfully.

So, what if ‘relaxation’ doesn’t have to be labelled up as that? What if relaxation could actually be noticing the different feelings from different activities in our day. Not prescribed ‘self-care’ but moments of something different, some joy or calm or 'time out' in our usual day.

I’m going to suggest that one way to try and get a bit more actual relaxation is to adjust your expectations. Your expectations of what ‘self-care’ is and what it looks like for you. Reassess your definition of ‘relaxation’; it really doesn’t have to be a zen hour of meditation or a quiet bit of time reading in the bath. It might be these things for some of the time for some people, but that’s not for everyone and its definitely not the only way to find a bit of respite in your day.

I’m going to talk about the idea of restful activities that actually matter and have value to you. Of feeling different as being the goal rather than feeling ‘relaxed’ and about aiming to reduce the intensity, frequency or number of thoughts or stressors, not to eradicate them entirely.

So, to demonstrate my thinking about relaxation, I’m going to talk about my plans for the long awaited Monday 8th- all three kids out of the house from 9.00-3.00. Exciting times indeed!!

My original thought for Monday was; drop off kids, eat nice food in front of TV all day, pick up kids. But then I stopped and thought about it. I don’t think that day would help me get to bedtime feeling relaxed. And here’s why:

Doing nothing all day will not get the things that make me feel stressed done, it won’t make life easier when the kids come in and it won’t do what I think it will because the person I was when those sorts of days worked (pre-kids!), is not the person I am now (see above re. REAX as a command not an experience).

So, I plan. I use my knowledge of myself, my environment and my occupations to plan for some down time in amongst a realistic expectation of getting stuff ticked off my to do list.

My new plan for Monday 8th:

  1. Say hello, share grins and feel part of something at the school gates with my friends

  2. Bacon sarnie and an episode of something with Rob

  3. Watch a film while I do the ironing or put the washing away or cook tea

  4. Have a general potter around the house, all on my own, luxuriating in the silence for as long as feels nice, doing the things that feel satisfying (e.g. moving things off the counter that don’t belong there!)

  5. Answer some work emails that have been on my to do list for a while

  6. Walk the long way around to school pick up the kids whilst listening to Desert Island Discs

It’s about the balance. It’s about allowing time for all the things that will actually help me feel different; acknowledging that anything that isn’t the juggle and the stress that have featured in lockdown is what ‘relaxation’ is all about for me right now.

I plan to give myself time to switch off in that traditional sense but then I also get a feeling of satisfaction from ticking things off my list. By doing things in the house, at a pace that works for me, I not only create myself some space to not focus on thinking but I also create a better environment for me to feel less stressed: not having to negotiate the toppling pile of laundry will help.

I mean, I know that sorting the washing is unlikely to feature in a glossy magazine’s spread on ‘self-care’ but it will make me feel less stressed EVERY time I walk past. Think about it- how many times does seeing something you need to do stress you out? By planning on doing some of that, I’m reducing my environmental stressors for I don’t know how many moments in my day.

So, my new plan means I’ll make my space feel calmer and nicer to be in; the activities I choose and the way I do them give me something to focus on that isn’t challenging but is enough to reduce the thinking that usually whirls around my brain. And, by doing more than one thing that I know needs doing, I’m less likely to get the twitchy RELAX command because I’ll be too focussed on what I’m doing to worry about the purpose.

Hopefully, by the end of the day, I will have made my space feel better, I’ll have done things that have given me a sense of respite and I’ll have freed up energy to focus on just being with the kids when they get in (inevitably tired, overexcited and potentially nowty). If I don’t have to juggle that with cooking, working and sorting out the house- what a change that’ll be!

You might even say it’s positively relaxing!

So, there we have it for me, relaxation = bacon butties, film, laundry, emails and a walk the long way round to get the kids. It’s not conventional ‘self-care’ perhaps but it is what works for me and that’s really what matters: working out what works for you and slotting it into the time that you have.

If this has bene helpful, perhaps have a think about what works for you, and remember the goal is not ‘to relax’, it’s about finding ways to:

  • Feel balanced in your time use

  • Feel different rather than ‘relaxed’ as a main goal

  • Reduce not eradicate thoughts and stressors

  • Work out what’s realistic and useful to you, in your life and your circumstances

Good luck, thanks for reading


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