At the end of 2018, I had finally reached the breaking point. A stressful job. A husband who was frequently on the road in a potentially dangerous part of the world. A son in his crucial senior year of college, and two older daughters embarking on their own careers in cities far from home. What’s more, I had the stress of my elderly parents, who live with us, and who, at the end of a long working day — when the one thing I need most is some peace and quiet and perhaps a glass of wine — cheerfully ask me, “What’s for dinner?”
I needed some self-care. And fast.
It was something my family had also noticed. “You need to find space for you,” my youngest daughter said to me over the holidays, echoing advice my husband had also given me. I knew the “space” she was referring to was not my bed or a bar, so I decided to get to work.
To enlighten myself on the movement, I Googled “self-care” and felt overwhelmed when more than 80,000 results came up on the Amazon site alone. How does one choose between “Self-Care for the Real World,” “The Smart Girls Guide to Self-Care” and “The Book of Self-Care,” let alone all the other similarly themed books that pop up such as “The Little Book of Mindfulness” and “The Gift of Being Yourself.”
That was just the beginning. Soon, I found affirmation cards, pamper kits, chakra stones, self-care retreats, workshops, life coaches, and hundreds of podcasts. How had I missed that taking care of one’s own mental health had become a $10-billion industry.
Wondering how this publishing juggernaut had emerged, I reached out to the president and publisher of Penguin Books, Kathryn Court. Penguin is the publisher of one of the newer books that had caught my eye, “The Art of Simple Living: 100 Daily Practices from a Japanese Zen Monk for a Lifetime of Calm and Joy” by Shunmyo Masuno. That book has sold a half-million copies in Japan, and it is now available in 25 languages.
According to Court, books in this space have been successful for a while, but their popularity has grown in the last two years. “Since the election, I think there has been an increased need for people to find books that calm them down and make them feel less stressed so they can deal with the difficult world we are living in,” she said.
John Siciliano, the editor of “The Art of Simple Living,” concurred with Court. “I think the boom is a response to the information age worldwide,” he said. “These books are selling well everywhere because our brains are in overdrive and the counterpoint is mental wellness.”
But what, I asked, was the difference between “self-help,” (a term tossed around a ton in the ’80s) and “self-care”?
“Self-care is about being kind to yourself,” he said. “Self-help is about finding ways you can overcome problems.”
Me time begins
Eager to get started, I downloaded a popular meditation app, Headspace. The app has been downloaded by more than 31 million people since it began almost a decade ago, and I soon understood why. Listening to the hypnotizing, English-accented voice of Headspace’s co-founder, Andy Puddicombe, temporarily shut down the to-do list running through my head like a roller-coaster. I started meditating with Andy at least 15 minutes a day.
Next, I signed up for an evening Zumba class. Dancing to merengue music quickly channeled my inner Shakira and held the promise of weight loss. And I enrolled in a Thursday evening adult beginner, group piano class, where I could make new friends while competitively learning to play “Camptown Races” every night during the recommended 30-minute practice sessions.
But, by far, my biggest leap into self-care was deciding to see a therapist for the first time in my 57 years. I could not believe how great it felt to pay someone to not interrupt me for an hour.
By February, I was a self-care convert. By March, my routine had gone rogue.
Between work, family, travel, and my outside commitments, I started falling further and further behind on my self-imposed schedule. My 15 minutes of Headspace gradually shrunk to 10, to five, to zero because I fell behind on piano and had to practice first thing in the morning or give up Zumba in the evening.
I wanted to know why I was failing at self-care when I genuinely wanted to be nicer to myself. So I reached out to some of the experts in the field.
I started by calling Alexandra Franzen, the author of several books, including “You’re Going to Survive,” “50 Ways to Say ‘You’re Awesome’ ” and a recently published novel, “So This Is the End: A Love Story.” I had heard Franzen being interviewed about her latest book on Kelsey Murphy’s podcast, “Whiskey & Work,” which is about finding motivation, purpose and passion in your life.
Upon hearing my dilemma, she told me I had been too ambitious and unrealistic about what I could accomplish. Considering Franzen writes a regular newsletter that goes out to 14,000 subscribers, runs workshops, and consults with clients on a variety of creative projects, I wondered how she copes. “One of my self-care practices is to write down every single night my checklist for the following day, but it always includes moments of intention, like listening to your favorite song, taking a moment to go outside, or just taking a deep breath.” That sounded far more doable in my frenetic life than learning to play “Jingle Bells” at dawn, in the springtime, no less.
Franzen also runs a seven-day residential retreat in Hawaii, but the cost to “breathe, recharge, write and create,” seemed a bit steep for me at nearly $5,000, without airfare, though I appreciated the monthly payment plan option on her website.
I decided to call Murphy next. Catching up on her “Whiskey & Work” podcast, which airs twice a week, I noticed one particular episode that spoke to me, “Stop Overthinking & Start Doing: The Psychology of Gentle Wellness.” Murphy lives in San Diego and coaches executives at Twitter and Nintendo, after previously working in advertising. “Self-care can feel intimidating,” she said, speaking my language. “The reality is not a lot of us have time for it, and sometimes all you need is a five-minute phone call with your best friend, not a day at the spa.”
A day at a spa actually sounded great to me, but I appreciated her point. “Don’t get caught in the trap of what people say is self-care. We need to be asking ‘What are the pillars of who we are?’ and listen to our intuition,” Murphy said. She also suggested I download her Morning Routine Planner, which I did straight away but have not found time to plan yet.
My Zen moment
Wanting to reap the benefits of the only self-care book I ordered, I sent the Zen monk Shunmyo Masuno, the author of “The Art of Simple Living,” a question that had been lingering since it arrived: What should I do if the thought of his 100 daily practices was stressing me out?
“Feeling as though we ought to do things can, at times, only add to our stress level,” Masuno wrote back. “That’s why, when we are able to, we do the practice proactively. But when there isn’t time, it’s best to try to make just one of the practices our goal for the day. Open the book each morning, and pick whichever practice is found on that page.” He added that a good practice to start with is waking up 15 minutes earlier each morning to do some cleaning.
I took his advice and now wake up earlier. But I am not cleaning, or practicing piano, or doing Headspace, I am just sipping a cup of coffee on my couch. I am also saying “No” to things that don’t give me comfort or pleasure. One thing that gives me great pleasure is seeing a therapist. When I shared my self-care stress with her, she responded knowingly, “My self-care almost killed me.” I laughed but didn’t ask her to elaborate.
My time with her is, refreshingly, all about me.