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Things Fall Apart: Let me explain the doing nothing approach to self-care

by Lia Hynes
18th Mar 2019

When Liadan Hynes’ marriage fell apart she had to work on adjusting to the new reality. In her weekly column, Things Fall Apart she explores the myriad ways a person can find their way back to themselves

Self-care is just one of many things millennials have been wrongly credited with both inventing and then ruining, along with avocados, feelings and beards.

The thing is that they are on to something. I grew up thinking of exercise as a boring chore one had to partake of in school, and then, in my twenties, as something other people did.

Like any parent the internet and social media and my daughter being a teenager is capable of terrifying me.


On the other hand.

Thanks to millennials on social media, it will be absolutely impossible for Herself to grow up not realising that exercise, not in a gym-selfie way, but in a just-get-up-and-get-out sort of way, will make you feel better. It seems so obvious now, but that really wasn’t part of our arsenal, or toolkit, ten years ago.

Looking after yourself emotionally wasn’t something you thought of. There was no arsenal. So thank you millennials.

But when you are in a real crisis, nothing is as futile as being urged to self-care your way out of it. No amount of meditating, gym-going or healthy eating is going to help when you are really struggling.

When all the willpower, energy and ability to get out of bed you have is required simply to do the stuff that needs to be done – the children, work, feeding, basic self-maintenance stuff – the idea of self-care can become simply another stick with which to beat yourself.

Even the things that you know from past experience the doing of will make you feel better?  In a time of crisis the thought of doing them can feel akin to climbing a mountain. The planned gym visits missed, the runs not taken, yoga classes unattended, healthy food not consumed, friends unseen, meditation undone, all become instead another thing to feel bad about.

As for the fripperyish side of self care, all the bubble baths and candles? That is treat yourself territory, rather than anything that might keep you afloat stuff during a crisis.

The absence of doing

So in a really difficult time, give yourself a break. For me, for a time, self-care became less an active doing, more almost invisible. The absence of doing.

Rather than take something up, some new habit to add to your to-do list, just stop something. Or do something entirely passive.

In the year when my marriage was falling apart I gave up alcohol. I’m not a big drinker at the best of times. But I knew I needed to give myself every chance to feel as good as possible, given the circumstances.

And so I stopped drinking, because hangovers are so much worse when you are already generally tired, upset, worn out for much of the time anyway. When you already have enough to deal with, why add to that load, I figured. When getting to a starting point of buoyant, or at least just neutral, takes work, rather than being a given.

On occasion, I stopped looking at Instagram, because when bits of your own life are falling apart, nobody needs the relentless display of alleged-life-perfection that is the Gram.

I stopped berating myself about not doing exercise, and had tea and a Bounty on the couch instead if that’s what I wanted.

Acts of omission, rather than an extra thing to try to manage.

When I did feel up to contemplating exercise, I would go to the gym and tell myself ‘do whatever you feel like’. Some days, that was merely bringing herself to Playzone, sitting and watching her zoom around with friends.

Podcasts are a good one on the passive self-care list. If you’re too tired to do any of the activities that will move your mood on, but you can’t focus on a book, simply sit on your bed and listen to two people talking; the distraction usually helps.

Related: 20 things that have helped me feel better

The support of girlfriends

You maybe can’t conjure this one up yourself, but having friends who check in a lot, even when they haven’t heard back from you, people whose friendship is never a chore, who will support you, but not mind if you neglect them for a time. Anne O’Leary, CEO of Vodafone, spoke honestly and powerfully at this week’s The Gloss Look the Business Awards about how she coped in the past year. She lost her mother, and her physical and mental well being came under extreme pressure. She spoke about how the shock of it floored her. Eight hours sleep a night was paramount. The occasional massage. Sea swimming. And the support of her girlfriends.

I interviewed psychotherapist Jason Brennan earlier this year, who with Brent Pope wrote the book Win, about sports, life and mental health. When you’re stressed, he said, you will notice if you start paying attention that there are aches and pains in your body unexplained by any physical undertaking you may have engaged in.

It’s the stress.

He talked about going to the gym, to either sweat it out with exercise or by sitting in the sauna. What if you can’t, I asked, because you’re too tired or busy?  Sit in a bath that is as hot as you can tolerate, he said.

It works.

Now that the crisis has passed I can generally do the stuff I know I need to do to stay in good mental shape. But sometimes, because everyone has bad days or weeks, or because life gets busy to the point of overwhelming, I can’t. And so I fall back on the doing nothing approach to self-care.

This week, I hired a cleaner again. Our last left over a month ago, and I thought I’ll do it myself. How hard? Which in real life translated into watching lots of @mrshinchhome Instagram stories, and going to Nolan’s to buy most of their stock of Zoflora (her favourite disinfectant cleaner).

So this week I got a cleaner. Because a clean, ordered home is for me one of the best forms of self-care.

Read more: It’s okay to talk about the bad stuff
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