Type self-care into the search bar and you’ll be bombarded with opinions, but what is it you’re really looking for when you press enter? Getting down to the detail of what self-care is can be a challenge, so today we’ll dig a little deeper into how food fits in the bigger picture.
Most people Google dietitians and nutritionists because they want help to create a diet plan. They don’t expect to delve into conversations about self-compassion and what they really value in life.
Now, I’m no ordinary dietitian (you can find out more about my ethos and what gets me up in the morning here). The reason self-compassion does feature in my work is because it is the cornerstone of being able to practise self-care and how we feed ourselves is a big part of that.
Author, Chartered Psychologist and self-care expert, Suzy Reading points out that self-care is in fact healthcare, and given my background in healthcare this definition really appeals to me.
I’ve had the pleasure of quizzing Suzy on a couple of occasions about her work and passions, and here below I share some of our conversation from an Instagram live we did back in January.
I began asking her what it is about that definition of self-care that resonates so much and why she feels that perhaps we could argue self-care doesn’t feel very present within traditional healthcare?
What Does Self-care Really Mean?
“That’s an interesting observation because in my six years of study as a psychologist, I’d also never heard the term. I think that’s changed now. Coming up with a definition that dials down people’s resistance to engaging in it was really important to me.
I think for a lot of people they equate self-care to pampering or luxurious acts; I wanted to be really crystal clear that of course these things can be part of self-care but are not limited to that. I think understanding that self-care is fundamentally taking care of our health, that lends significance, because the reality is when our health works, we have a better outcome.
Another approach that I think can be quite galvanising is understanding that self-care is energy management. This is how we pace ourselves so that we can keep up and keep going. So, I think it’s about finding a language that resonates individually and that’s why these conversations are so important”.
How is Nutrition Related to Self-care?
This reference to energy management is key because that relates to how we navigate food. I talked to Suzy about the kind of clients I see – those trapped within diet culture and all of its food rules. Those that can’t see the wood for the trees in terms of what they feel is the ‘best’ way to eat and they lack clarity on the ‘right’ way to nourish themselves.
Behind the scenes what they’re also battling with is fundamentally how they manage energy across the day coupled with an emotional connection they feel to food. This physical need for hunger often collides multiple times a day with a deeper emotional need making it really hard to find the right path forward.
“That’s a great observation because I think when it comes to the nuts and bolts of taking care of our physical health, we know what we need to do, but when it comes to tending compassionately to our emotional health and our mental health, we need a broader toolkit, and this stuff wasn’t modelled for us growing up. We’re really learning about it now. Again, that’s why these conversations are so vital so that we can add to people’s toolkits.”
Common Barriers to Self-care
My clients tend to come up against the same barriers time and time again to advocating for self-care in the architecture of their health. This is the list I put to Suzy:
A lot of my clients have quite toxic relationships with food. These have built up over many years as a result of the diet cycle revolving door where food is something they go into battle with on a daily basis. Compounded by the diet industry that promotes rest as quite a negative thing. Because if you’re resting that must mean that you’re lazy, and if you’re lazy, then you’re not doing the thing that you need to do.
A lot of women who have dieted for many years have a really strong and harsh critic voice. The inner monologue is so strong that they genuinely don’t believe that they’re worthy of self-care.
The perception of others. A lot of the women that I see get caught up in worrying about how they will be judged, ‘what will other people think?’ We especially feel judgement perhaps from our mothers/ mothers-in-law for whom the generational message was just carry on.
The value that we attach to productivity in the doing sense. In a scenario where we’ve got this harsh inner critic, and we’re feeling so down on ourselves; actually when we tick stuff off our to-do list and we feel really productive, it sometimes does help us to feel slightly better about ourselves.
It’s scary to pause. Some of my clients have quite a lot sitting there in their heads. And actually, they don’t really want to pause, breathe and take that moment of mindfulness because they’re a bit worried about what’s going to spill out…
This was her response:
“It’s so interesting that you’ve seen those things, I’ve also encountered those, but can we also acknowledge that I think the knee jerk reaction is people say, I don’t have time. I don’t have energy. I don’t have the funds for this stuff.
But really, bigger than that are the fundamental beliefs that people have about themselves. Also that people have about rest and productivity. So much of this comes back to guilt and self worth.
A lot of unpicking is required in terms of how we take care of ourselves. Because we’re embedded in a culture that tells us you snooze, you lose, that somehow, our self worth has been conflated with productivity. That we should be hustling every minute of every day. You know, the fitness industry tells us no pain, no gain. We’ve got to question these beliefs as a starting point, because I can give people 100 nourishing practices that don’t take a lot of time or expense but we’re not gonna do any of them if we feel like it’s not okay for us to do them.
That’s why I would bring it back to self-care is healthcare and self-care is nourishment. I think even those definitions kind of don’t touch the sides. People need to connect with what self-care facilitates in their life. I don’t expect anyone to care about self-care justice. I don’t expect people to care about sleep, or healthy eating. The fact is people care about what those things facilitate. So when it comes to us nourishing ourselves, the thing that galvanises us as an individual, we’ve got to spend a little bit of time thinking about what is important to us as human beings, what matters to us as human beings and understand that self-care is the thing that facilitates us taking action in service of that, or showing up in that role as we aspire to”.
You can see why I value this woman and the words she speaks – so powerful!
Where to Start With Self-care
She had advice for those not knowing where to start or feeling so lost because the voice telling them it’s not important or doesn’t matter is so loud…
“For people who feel like I can’t do this because I don’t deserve it, please can we take action even in the face of that impulse? What I find is that you don’t have to feel worthy to begin with. Nourishing action cultivates a feeling of self worth. The tenderness cultivates the feeling of deserving. Even if it doesn’t feel comfortable just start”.
Supporting women to do this is a part of the programmes I run, because it is so fundamental to our biology and to our desire for certain foods. When we feel so down on ourselves, food is always going to be there to self-soothe. So, if we can alter our brain chemistry to enable more pause in our choices, then that gives us power. Hence why my self-paced course is called Pause to Nourish.
This lead Suzy and I onto chats about the nervous system and what’s actually going on in our bodies.
How Does Self-care Relate to Our Nervous System?
“So, we have the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system, and they’re in opposition to each other. We’ve all had fight flight; we all understand that it’s not just Sabre-toothed Tigers that elicit that response. It’s also an uncomfortable message in your inbox that creates that same kind of activation.
We can’t be in fight and flight mode at the same time as rest and digest mode. The important thing to understand is that as soon as we go into fight or flight, that’s when we’re in self-defence mode. The prefrontal cortex goes offline. We find it very hard to empathise with other people because we’re busy defending ourselves, for example. So much of my work is helping people come back to learning how to regulate the nervous system so that we can actually make conscious choices aligned with our values.
There are lots of different ways of regulating the nervous system. Whether it is gentle movement, whether it’s being connected with nature’s beauty, maybe it’s using the breath, or touch which elicits oxytocin and the feeling of being at home and feeling safe. In the context of motherhood it facilitates loving bonds and also, it’s present in any loving interaction, whether that’s touch that you receive from someone else or touch that you extend tenderly towards yourself. So, there are lots of different mechanisms at play”.
So, assuming we have gifted ourselves 5 minutes, how should we spend it?
“I came to the term self-care at a time in my life when my dad becoming seriously ill, coincided with giving birth to my daughter. Honestly, it was such a squeezed chapter. I can’t even begin to put into words the depth of depletion I felt; the best description I can give it is energy bankruptcy. I literally felt like I’d got nothing in the tank so that’s where my calling came to really develop the toolkit. So, if anyone is feeling like they’ve not got time or energy for this, I get it.
We need an effortless receipt of energy. My own experience led me to develop my work around these micro moments of nourishment. For example, stuff like:
- Five minutes of legs up a wall.
- Feel the sunlight on your face.
- Listen to a piece of music that moves you.
- Repeat a mantra that calms and soothes your soul.
- Have all the hugs.
- Watch your cat.
- Look at the eyelashes of your child”.
It was such a joy to get a little of Suzy Reading’s magic into my community. You can find out more about her free resources and books via Suzy Reading’s website. Her book Rest to Reset is a nourishing asset to dip in and out of too.
Pause to Nourish
If this has prompted you to want to take a more nourishing look at your relationship with food and body, then I invite you to pause with purpose through a Pause to Nourish gift box.
This little box of nourishing resources allows you to pause, reconnect and reflect back to your body and what it’s telling you. Often signals for what, when and how to eat get lost, especially when life is busy and so many things disrupt our ability to tune in. This gift gives you the opportunity to take that first step to cultivating a happier, healthier and more consistent relationship with food that feels calming and grounded.