As we navigate the challenges and demands of midlife, it’s easy to put our own self-care on the back burner. However, taking care of yourself is not a luxury but an essential component of overall well-being. In this comprehensive guide, our expert Dr. Ellen Albertson delves into the secrets of self-care specifically tailored for those in the midst of midlife, providing a roadmap to unlock the door to a healthier and more fulfilling midlife experience.
Like many women, I struggled with negative body image. In a vain attempt to improve it, I worked on transforming my body by dieting and exercising rather than my mind and relationship with my body and myself.
The negative body image and fit obsession started in college. Most evenings my roommates and I would meet at the rooftop lounge of our dorm for an hour of Jane Fonda-style killer aerobics. After too many fire hydrants, pulsed circles, and ab crunches we’d refuel on salad (sans dressing) and diet Coke.
Fast forward two decades, I became a certified personal fitness trainer and group exercise instructor. I was addicted to exercise, so the job was like being an alcoholic working in a liquor store. Along with teaching several strength classes a week, I worked out with all my clients typically 4-6 hours a day! At night I’d do a diet recall to make sure I’d been good and not exceeded my fabricated calorie limit.
Sure, on the outside, I looked great (if your aspiration is to resemble a fitness model) but inside I was miserable, exhausted and completely depleted.
Fortunately, in my 50s I found self-compassion which flipped my self-care script. While looking for my dissertation topic, I was fortunate to connect with Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field of self-compassion, who helped me with my research on one condition: I had to learn self-compassion myself.
Since then, this practice has no longer been about changing and perfecting myself. Now the aim is to be kind to myself, feel good, and nurture my body, mind, heart, and spirit.
I stopped dieting and started practising intuitive eating and mindful eating. Instead of spending hours weightlifting, I practised yoga, played, and relaxed. I discovered that self-care was about much more than physical health. It was about enjoying life, experiencing pleasure, and having fun.
Over the years of working with hundreds of midlife women, I’ve learned what self-care is and isn’t, what impedes practice, and how to practice self-care like a rock star.
Here’s some of what I’ve learned.
Why self-care is essential during midlife
Like adolescence, midlife is a major phase of life. Everything including how you feel, think, make decisions, and interact with the world is shifting. Self-care practices are a vital tool to support this growth.
The hormonal changes associated with menopause trigger physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual shifts. That dip in estrogen, not only contributes to an expanding waistline, thinning bones, and a reduction in muscle mass it can make you feel like a teenager angry, grumpy, and anxious one moment; weepy and overwhelmed the next.
Relationships also shift at midlife creating changes in self-definition and generating emotional and physical stress. Empty nest, ageing parents, divorce, and losing a loved one necessitate learning to care for yourself in new ways.
To rock self-care in midlife, you must change your self-care mindset. This means moving from self-care to avoid burnout or reverse disease mentality to self-care to be your happiest, healthiest, most vibrant self.
There is nothing wrong with you or your body. Problems, failures, wrinkles, creaky knees, and tennis elbow from too much pickleball are a normal part of ageing and being human. Rather than trying to fix everything or make problems disappear self-care starts with a simple question: What do I need?
That question is at the heart of self-compassion, essentially treating yourself like a good friend. When you notice that you suffering, stressed, or struggling rather than ploughing forward you pause for a moment of mindfulness. You take a moment, or several for yourself, and then you give yourself what you need.
What self-care at midlife is and is not
Defining self-care is simple: It’s the deliberate, conscious actions you take to promote physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Practising involves engaging in activities that lower stress, increase happiness, and build a healthy lifestyle.
It’s not what you’re supposed to do because you feel guilty or shameful. For example, going on a fad diet after having a threesome with Ben and Jerry and then beating yourself up at the gym because you tried on a bathing suit and you didn’t like how you looked.
Self-care also isn’t a luxury or something selfish reserved for special occasions. It’s a necessity and fundamental to ageing well and enjoying a balanced life.
In the words of philosopher, poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
There’s a consistency to self-care, too. It’s a practice which means it’s something you do daily, like brushing your teeth, something you make a habit of.
However, forget about reaching an endpoint. The journey is the destination, and the aim isn’t perfection, weight loss (although that can be an outcome) or getting it right. The goal is to just do it.
The practice also isn’t an escape, something you do to avoid problems or responsibilities rather than addressing them. True self-care involves finding solutions for what’s keeping you up at night. This might mean getting therapy or coaching to heal old wounds and improve your relationship with yourself so you can move forward.
Comparing your self-routine to others is also verboten. Not only is comparison the thief of joy, but it also triggers feelings of inadequacy or pressure to conform to unrealistic standards. Each woman’s self-care needs and preferences are unique and what’s key is finding self-care practices that work for you.
What’s the biggest self-care block?
While you may think the biggest self-care block is time, followed by money, that’s false. Self-care can take seconds. Take one deep breath and exhale slowly. Bingo, you just practised self-care in under 30 seconds for free.
The biggest block is low self-worth, lack of self-love, and guilt. When you don’t value and love yourself, you believe your needs don’t matter, and you neglect self-care because you don’t think you deserve it.
When you lack self-love, practising self-care typically triggers guilt. Since guilt is uncomfortable, you may decide to forgo self-care and instead do something that feels more productive or serves others.
Sound familiar? Neglecting your own well-being to address your to-do list or putting someone else first is incredibly common for midlife women. It’s not our fault. Our hustle culture promotes productivity. Plus, we’ve been taught to put other’s needs before our own to the point where the “put on your own oxygen mask first” metaphor has become a mantra.
How to kick off your self-care journey
To improve self-care, it’s better to start by elevating self-love and practising self-compassion. As self-love grows and acts of self-compassion accrue these practices naturally flow and unfold.
Motivation and intention are easy: to feel good and be kind to yourself. Ideally, you should start by making a list of ways you already care for yourself. Then you can expand it as you please.
Here are some examples:
- Physical self-care (sleeping well, going to the doctor, having regular health screenings, staying hydrated, exercising, and eating right)
- Mental self-care (limiting screen time, laughing, breath work, therapy, journaling, enjoying hobbies)
- Emotional self-care ( meditating, listening to music, aromatherapy, reading for pleasure, drinking a cup of tea)
- Spiritual self-care (attending a spiritual gathering, spending time in nature, praying, practising forgiveness, connecting with art and beauty, gratitude practice)
- Relational self-care (i.e. spending time with loved ones, volunteering, learning healthy communication skills, setting boundaries)
- Creative self-care (drawing, painting, dancing, writing, playing an instrument)
Embracing self-love and moving past the guilt
With practice, you can move past the guilt. Start by noticing when guilt arises. Say “Hello Guilt” when it appears. This will bring guilt into your conscious awareness where you can process it rather than allow it to control your behavior.
Next, locate where you feel guilty in your body. We often carry guilt, (which can feel like a heaviness) in our shoulders, neck, or lower back.
Finally, practice self-care. What do you need to help release the guilt and stress? A hot bath? A conversation with a friend or therapist? Stretching, yoga, or self-massage? Journaling why you feel guilty when you take time for yourself can also be a powerful tool to heal and experience freedom when you practice self-care.
Along with guilt release like the oxygen mask metaphor, it’s a toxic BS story that fuels your people pleaser, the part of you that prioritizes everyone and everything else over yourself.
I’m not saying ignore others. What I am saying is stop thinking about self-care as something you do so you have the energy for caregiving.
Just put on your own beauty self-care mask (clay or avocado), fix yourself a smoothie, take a nap, or go for a walk. Give your beautiful self what you need to step out on your stage of life.
Listen to your inner Buddha, “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”
Remember, midlife is not just about surviving, but thriving. It’s time to prioritize your self-care and unlock the secrets to a happier and healthier you.