You feel weary and worn out. You feel like you’re dragging. You feel like you have weights attached to your ankles. Everything — from washing dishes to driving to work to actually working — feels hard. Maybe even impossible.
You’re officially depleted.
Which might be because you’ve got loose boundaries and neglected needs. That is, when we don’t check in with our deepest needs, such as the need for restful sleep or time alone, “we operate without boundaries, as though we’re maintenance-free robots (which don’t even exist, by the way; even robots require maintenance),” said Helen McLaughlin, a life coach and writer who helps powerful women realize their power to create anything they desire in this life.
Maybe we think our needs aren’t as important as the needs of others, said Gail Brenner, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist, author and speaker who joyfully helps people discover that suffering is optional. Maybe we feel guilty or selfish for caring for ourselves. So we don’t.
The reality, though, is that when we tend to ourselves, when we fill our well, we have more to give. We’re able to really sink into a task, give someone our full presence and perform at our best, McLaughlin said. Below are some ideas to do just that.
Construct boundaries around your basic needs. First it’s vital to get crystal clear on your basic needs. To do so, McLaughlin suggested asking ourselves these questions:
- When do I wake up feeling most refreshed and ready for the day? What has to happen the night before (e.g. bedtime, room temperature, hygiene routines, warm bath or device-free in the hour leading up to sleep)? How does the morning have to unfold?
- What does nourishing eating look like for me? What foods and beverages fuel me? Where and how does my best refueling happen (e.g., while watching TV or sitting on a porch swing or eating out)?
- What kind of social life feels the best? Do I like to go out during the week? What kind of weekend activities do I like best?
Once you’re clear, set boundaries. For instance, you might give yourself a bedtime during the week, and set hours for when you will and won’t work — especially if your commute is from the bedroom to the living room, she said.
Take deep, slow breaths. This is the simplest and quickest tool to try. According to Brenner, “Stress is fueled by thoughts in the mind that tell us we’re not good enough, not doing it right, not adequate, that there’s too much to do.” When we take deep, slow, conscious breaths, we redirect attention away from our mind and into the present moment, she said.
This “calms the nervous system, softens the jagged edges we feel when we overdo, and expands the muscles and connective tissue in the body that contract when we feel stressed.”
Shift your perspective. Try to be fully present during whatever activity you’re doing. Because when we’re fully present, we are “not contracted in the mind, and we’re open and caring. We bring heart to what we do,” said Brenner, author of the book The End of Self-Help: Discovering Peace and Happiness Right at the Heart of Your Messy, Scary, Brilliant Life.
Similarly, it’s helpful to shift your thinking from I have to do this to I’m choosing to do this. Brenner shared this example: An elderly woman is a caregiver to her husband. She feels obligated to care for him. But really it’s a choice that’s likely aligned with her values and commitment. When she realizes this, she’s able to find meaning and feel more alive in the moment as she helps her husband.
(“And if we truly are obligated, maybe there’s some activity that can be let go of to make things less stressful,” Brenner said.)
Prioritize pleasure. Incorporate activities into your life that are completely pleasurable, and thereby restorative, McLaughlin said. For instance, “finger-painting is playful and sensual; lying down near a window and watching the trees shake their leaves is a gateway to daydreaming; sunrise walks make the world feel quiet and peaceful.”
According to Brenner, the possibilities are endless. She shared these additional examples: taking a bath with candles lit, practicing yoga, reading a book, getting a massage, taking a walk. Again, she stressed the importance of presence. For instance, when you’re walking, you focus “on the feel of their feet on the earth, the sounds and sights, the light and shadows, the air on [your] skin.”
Pleasure will look different for each person, McLaughlin said, so it’s important to pick something that’s truly satisfying to you.
When you lead a full life — with all sorts of responsibilities — you might assume that feeling depleted is inevitable. You might assume that feeling depleted is something you can’t change. But filling your own well is vital. As psychologist Jessica Michaelson, Psy.D, told me in this piece, it’s essential to our survival. Which is why it’s important to make self-care “a way of being in life,” Brenner said. A way of “staying connected to yourself inside so you know when you need to take a break. A way of being incredibly kind to yourself, of treating yourself well.”