I’ve been talking about the four things I say over and over again to people leaving academia.
- You have more skills than you think.
- The best way to find out what jobs actually exist in the world is to ask people what they do and what they like about it.
- Of course you’re exhausted and grieving, and that is as it should be.
- Step one is always abundant, luxurious self-care, as much as you can possibly stand.
Today I want to talk about self-care, and why it’s the number 1 priority.
Let’s start with what it is
Self-care is all of those things that, taken collectively, fill your energetic well.
Sometimes, often these days, it’s reduced to things that amount to relaxation: taking a hot bath, reading a good book. While those are also great, they aren’t what I’m talking about when I talk about self-care as the #1 priority.
I’m talking about getting enough sleep. I’m talking about eating regularly. I’m talking about taking your meds on time. I’m talking about showering on the regular.
I don’t even mean “eat healthy, preferably home-cooked food.” I just mean eat. Something.
You can think about it in levels.
- Level 1: Sleep every night. Eat something at least 3x a day. Take your meds. Shower at least twice a week.
- Level 2: Sleep at least eight hours. Eat foods that actively support you (i.e., nothing you’re allergic or sensitive to). Get sunshine on your face every day. (Plus everything in level 1.)
- Level 3: Sleep as much as you need, when you need it. Eat foods that make you feel your best. Move your body in whatever ways feel good and supportive to you. (Plus everything in level 2.)
When we get busy and overwhelmed, when we get emotionally tangled, when we’re in the middle of transition and trying to figure out what the hell is going on in our lives, we can lose track of even the basics in level 1. We don’t sleep. We forget to eat. Meds happen irregularly if at all. We shower if we’re leaving the house.
Basic self-care is essential to the system
As much as I would sometimes like to be a brain in a jar, I am not. Neither are you.
When life is going along, when we’re doing these things as a matter of course, we don’t necessarily notice how essential they are, because we’ve got enough of a balance going on that if we miss one meal, our lives don’t fall apart. If we stay up all night to get something finished, we’ll have a day or two of groggy functioning. Eh, big deal.
If those things happened regularly, though, you’d feel the effects. Your hunger cues would go wonky, or you’d go to bed and feel tired but wired and unable to fall asleep. You’d start having trouble remembering things, and you’d notice yourself getting clumsy. Tasks you were used to completing easily would feel more complicated.
When you’re in the middle of transitions or emotionally stressful times, two things happen at once. You’re using more energy, so you need more of that self-care to accommodate that, and your routines get thrown off, making it harder for the self-care to happen.
This is why I stress self-care so much. When you need it most is when you’re most likely to be having a hard time giving it to yourself. Unless you consciously insist on at least level 1 self-care, things are going to go badly. I can pretty much guarantee that. Even if you can pull it off for a while, there is an expiration date on that coping and the recovery will be epic.
If you’re even considering leaving, you need more self-care than usual. If you’re actually leaving and you’re in that transition, you need a lot more self-care than usual.
Sure, if you can include relaxing and fun things in your life, do it! But when we’re in transition, there isn’t usually space for that. Commit to level 1 self-care. Aim for level 3. Decide that some is always better than none. You might have to triage some other parts of your life to prioritize the amount of self-care you need. Remember that you are the essential ingredient here.
As much as possible during this period of chaos and upheaval and intensity, be good to yourself.