Putting Yourself on the Priority List


As a massage therapist, you dedicate countless hours to caring for your clients. From relieving stress to recovering from injury, your clients depend on you for a variety of reasons—and sometimes demand a lot of your time and energy. When your work involves taking care of someone else on some level, making sure you're also taking care of yourself is especially important—but also sometimes difficult.

But, consistently letting yourself drop to the bottom of your priority list can negatively impact all aspects of your life, from your work to your personal relationships. Self-care, however, isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor: only you can figure out exactly what works for you in terms of self-care. Marcie Stern, a leadership development coach and motivational speaker from Marcie Stern & Associates in Homewood, Illinois, talks about self-care this way with her clients: “We each have our own needs, various work/life demands and own definition of what self-care looks and feels like,” she says. “I encourage everyone to define self-care for themselves, especially in the areas of mental, emotional and physical self-care.”

Find Your Definition

When Stern worked in hospital administration, she saw a lot of health care workers who were very good at caring for others but not so good at caring for themselves. “This always baffled and saddened me, because you can only give so much, and if you aren’t taking care of your own needs, then you can’t do your job effectively,” she says.

Where to start?

The goal is to find a good balance between your professional and personal lives, and one place to start is by taking the time to really pay attention to your own needs. For Stern, assessing your needs, perhaps specifically in terms of self-care, is to thoughtfully consider your values. “It’s critical for people to know what their core values are and then align their decisions of how they choose to spend their time and energy with those core values,” she explains. “Using a values inventory exercise, for example, may help you have ‘aha’ moments as you drill down on your values.”

So, really think about what matters to you and how you define yourself. Then, identify where what you’re doing might be bumping up against these core values. Getting to the heart of who you are and what you value will make understanding what you need to take care of yourself less difficult.

Start Small

Particularly if you’re in a place where you struggle with self-care, starting with smaller, more manageable goals is helpful. For some, self-care is going to have to start with a change in perspective, moving away from putting everyone else first and taking time to really make self-care a priority.

“The bottom line is that if we can put ourselves on the priority list, then we will be more likely to take the necessary actions to support self-care,” Stern says. “This may require a shift in attitude because so many caregivers are people pleasers and want to focus on caring for others first.” According to Stern, when you’re able to shift your perspective to a point where “I matter” becomes a natural thought for you, self-care also becomes natural.

For example, do you find you have one client who is consistently late or asks you to extend your hours? Or perhaps you slowly let your schedule creep into time you used to spend doing something for yourself, like taking a yoga class, going for a walk or meditating. There are myriad ways people—especially those who own their own practice—let their professional lives slide over their personal boundaries. Reversing this trend and learning to more fiercely defend your personal time is a good way to begin—or reengage—your self-care.

Of course, this shift—even if you’re aware of the necessity and practice self-care—probably isn’t going to happen overnight. So, Stern suggests, start with small changes. “Think about where you are now across the areas of self-care and where you would like to be in the next 90 days,” she explains. “Then, break down these goals into small and reasonable steps that can translate into a personal action plan.”

So, can you pinpoint areas where you know something isn’t working and find relatively simple solutions? With a client who is consistently late, for example, you might take five to 10 minutes after a session to reiterate your practice policies and how future late arrivals will be handled. The conversation can be easy and light, with the message that your time is important and appointment times need to be respected.

Small changes go both ways, however. Stern also encourages people to take the time to say yes to those activities that support them and the work they do instead of simply eliminating those things and people who might be encroaching on their ability to practice effective self-care. “Doing both these things helps me put work/life demands into perspective and respond to them appropriately instead of acting as if everything is urgent,” she explains. “As a result, I truly do feel engaged, productive and happy.”

Stumbling Blocks

As with many things in life, self-care can have a two steps forward, one-step back feel sometimes. You might find you’ve diligently followed a self-care program and were derailed somehow, by an illness, for example, or an unforeseen scheduling change. The fact is that there will probably always be times when you find yourself slowly dropping down your priority list.

Knowing where you might stumble can go a long way in helping you keep yourself at the top of your priority list, however. “I suggest identifying barriers in advance,” says Stern. “Essentially, the people and situations that will be obstacles for moving forward.”

Here, you might consider if you have any difficult clients that you might simply need to not work with any longer. Or, is something on your schedule that isn’t necessary and could free up some time for you to focus on activities tied to your self-care? With some regularity, take an inventory of how you are spending your time, and who you’re spending your time with, so you have an idea of where your self-care practices may be falling through the cracks, as well as the situations and people that might be tripping you up.

Also, don’t be surprised when you find out that it’s you who are getting in the way of your own self-care. “We can be our own worst enemies when it comes to taking actions on our own commitments,” Stern says. “Putting yourself on the priority list is something that may feel uncomfortable at first, but with baby steps, people will start to seek out self-care activities in a fairly short period of time.”

Finding what works for you in terms of self-care is key. Remember, self-care is individual, and you need to find the right mix of self-care practices that keeps you at your best.

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