When you think of "self-care," you may consider that it will improve your mental and emotional health. But what if focusing on your mental health *is* the actual self-care?

It's easy to fall into the trap of believing that self-care has to cost money, take time, and be solitary--and it can be if you want it to. But most of the parents I work with are already busy, stressed, and in need of actual human connection. I hear a lot of half-joking mutters of, "I know, I need therapy," and a quick change of topic.

The ideas in this post will probably have some overlap with the other areas of self-care: physical movement creates endorphins and dopamine that reduce stress and improve mental health; social connections are social self-care as well, etc. Don't worry about the category; focus on what you need and what will improve your wellbeing.

Mental and emotional health are so important! And our actions model to our kids what our true values are, and talking openly about mental health helps de-stigmatize asking for support if our kids need it someday.

So here are some ways to focus on your mental and emotional health that will increase your patience and connection with your family. Who doesn't want that?

Counseling or Therapy

Let's start here. If you've been considering therapy but haven't gone, you're not alone. The process to find a therapist sounds daunting and combines the things that millennials (myself included) hate the most: health insurance, paying money, and UGH--phone calls.

So break the process into small steps and do what you can. Ask for referrals. Use a search site like Psychology Today or Inclusive Therapists. In San Diego if you want someone focused on parents, check out the Postpartum Health Alliance. Outside of San Diego, Postpartum Support International has a local resource locator. Try and email or talk to the therapist before meeting to see if they seem like a good fit, and you can always stop going if they're not. I know you can do it.

There are a lot of types of therapy that may be worth looking into for specific issues or trauma, and a therapist can help with tools for many of the ideas listed below.

I'll have a post with my experience in therapy soon, since I know it can be anxiety-inducing to try something vulnerable and new. Make sure you get email updates and I'll let you know when it's up!

Use a Journal for Writing, Planning, or Art

Mental load is a heavy burden, and keeping it all in your head is a lot of work. Writing things down by doing a brain dump, using a journal, or filling in a planner can reduce the stress of remembering anything.

A brain dump doesn't have to be fancy; it can just be writing down everything that's taking up space in your brain. Not having to hold it all in your head can be a huge relief.

A journal can work the same way, or you can write more specifically. You can find prompts, or write about how you feel, or just write about what happened that day until you feel better.

Taking the information from the brain dump, or just keeping everything together in a planner or bullet journal can help you plan your week and feel more in control, too. That's all we really want, right?

Or you can use the journal to practice gratitude.

Develop a Gratitude Practice

A gratitude practice is one of those things that makes a lot of us want to roll our eyes since it can sound really cheesy. But done in a way that actually works for you, acknowledging what's going well can actually change the molecular structure of your brain.

Here are some easy ways to start:

  • name 3 things each day that you're grateful for, either first thing in the morning, or before bed
  • keep a running list in your phone or a small notebook of what you're grateful for
  • write a letter or email to someone you appreciate to express your gratitude for them

Gratitude is contagious! I have a morning and evening gratitude practice that my kids have picked up on despite no pressure for them to join me. I've found that it helps me start and end the day with a more positive mindset.

Use Mantras or Affirmations

This is another one that can feel silly when you first start. Saying nice things to yourself? Someone has to do it, and your kids aren't reliable sources of praise for all that you do.

Here are a few to try, but get creative based on what you need to hear!

  • I am worthy of love just as I am.
  • I am loving and I am loved.
  • Choose love.
  • I'm doing the best I can, and so are my kids.
  • I don't have to be perfect to be the mom my kids need.
  • Today I will do my best, and that's enough.
  • No one is parenting AT me.
  • I make the best decisions I can for my family.
  • I am a human being who is allowed to have needs, too.
  • Connection before correction.

Write them on a sticky note and put them where you can see them, or save one as a phone wallpaper to remind you.

Create Healthy Boundaries

You get some boundaries! And you get some boundaries!

Setting a boundary simply lets people know what is and is not OK. It's simple, but not easy, since we often get pushback. In the moment it can feel easier to say yes when we don't want to, but it's detrimental in the long run. Healthy boundaries ultimately protect your energy and improve your mental health.

Signs that you need to set firmer boundaries:

  • resentment
  • guilt
  • procrastination or ambivalence

Doing things out of obligation, thinking you "should" say yes, or ignoring your gut feeling generally end up poorly. Instead, remember:

  • "no" is a full sentence
  • you don't owe anyone an explanation
  • it's kind to be clear
  • offer what you CAN do

There are whole books written about this, but parenthood can put us in a particularly tricky situation where we're trying to meet the needs of our kids, others (family, work, etc.), and ourselves at the same time. If this is an area where you need some support, I'd love to support you.

Feel Your Feelings

Most of us were raised to stuff our feelings down to avoid making other people uncomfortable. This is why we have a hard time holding space for our kids' big feelings, too. If you have trauma in your past this is even harder. I see you. ❤️

What happens if we continue holding our feelings in? We either fill up until we explode, or we have to find ways to numb the feelings.

If you really struggle with this, therapy is likely your best bet. If that's too much to think about, start by sitting with a feeling and locating where you feel it in your body. This is an exercise I walk my clients through as well.

Not sure what that means? Think about when you're about to cry, or sneeze, and how you know. Do you feel a sensation in your throat? Chest? Stomach? Face? Is it a pressure, texture, or temperature? Remind yourself that feelings are temporary and don't last forever. Journal about it if it helps.

Allow Yourself to Grieve

Especially in the U.S. we love speeding past feelings to "getting back" to capitalist productivity. But you're not just your labor, you're a human being. Giving yourself the opportunity to grieve is incredibly powerful.

Grieving could be the loss of a loved one (which is an ongoing process - you may never be "finished" and that is totally normal). It could also be grieving the loss of your previous identity, lifestyle, relationship, or more. Having kids is a huge life change, and missing your freedom, career achievement, or hobbies does NOT make you a "bad parent."

Trying to avoid "negative" feelings often takes more energy than facing the loss head on. You may need support from a group, loved one, therapist, or coach, to walk through this process as well. You deserve the support you need.

These are just some ideas to get you started. They may not be as sexy as a massage, but taking care of your feelings is just as important as taking care of your body.