Introduction to Emotional Self Care
As a highly empathic woman, I nurture others subconsciously. So…I had to ask myself: why is it so difficult to show up for myself? Aren’t I deserving of all the love that I’m constantly giving to others? The answer is a resounding, incontrovertible HELL YES! I am guilty of acknowledging the need for emotional self care without putting anything in place to make it happen. Thus, I have developed this emotional self care tool box to hold myself (and hopefully other women in the same predicament) accountable for our own emotional wellness.
It’s also important to note that emotional self care isn’t a response to chaos; it shouldn’t become a priority when the world is swallowing us whole! Emotional self care needs to be built in our lives. We need to view it as a regular part of our days, like showering or eating breakfast.
What’s in my Emotional Self Care Toolbox?
- An unwavering “me first” framework
When I wake up in the morning, I ask myself three simple questions: “Chiara, what do you want to do? What do you need to remain level-headed and grounded today? How can you structure the day around your needs and desires?” Chances are, if you’re reading this article, you likely neglect emotional self care. We’re not doing that anymore, not in this community. To conquer the day and exist in your full glory, you must first set yourself up well, which means prioritizing the things that will ensure your safety, sanity, and happiness. So, sis…what do you want to do when you wake up in the morning? Figure out the answer to this question (journal if you need to) and develop a breathing routine that includes everything you desire with reasonable time limits (e.g. reading for 3 hours is probably not reasonable). A routine that is “breathing” isn’t fixed; it’s flexible. Inflexible routines will likely engender unnecessary stress.
I would argue that the most fruitful emotional self care grows out of this mindset. Some people may think it’s selfish, but I disagree vehemently. An eternal and unapologetic commitment to self is an act of generosity, love, and compassion. Without this mindset as the foundation of your emotional self care toolbox, everything else loses value. Tracy Thomas, a clinical psychologist who specializes in emotional sensitivity, provides 5 specific reasons why putting ourselves first is the opposite of selfish. It’s time to change the thinking that doesn’t serve us!
- Daily Affirmations
In this article, I share my process for crafting daily affirmations and their effect on our lives. When you speak powerful words over your life, you pour into yourself, and you motivate yourself. While external words of affirmation are always lovely, you’ve got to be your biggest cheerleader. Shower yourself with language that (a) reflects the positive and unique ways you show up in the world and (b) reflects how you desire to show up in the world (affirmations can be aspirational too).
What constitutes powerful language? I don’t mean to get all technical on you, but my background as an English teacher demands that I ask this question. Just like writing a resume, you want to incorporate analytical (power) verbs and precise nouns (abstract nouns tend to work well for this type of writing). Verbs are essential because they are connected to action and states of being. Nouns keep you connected to people, places, things, and ideas (ideas arguably being the most useful since affirmations are both action and idea-driven).
Additionally, I recommend printing your affirmations on colored paper (like a BRIGHT yellow/green/pink) and putting them somewhere you’ll always see them (I taped mine to the bathroom door) OR keeping them on your cellular device. Anytime a negative thought emerges, counter them with your affirmations. Remember, many of the negative thoughts we have aren’t always rooted in reality.
You can also recite or listen to affirmations created by others because other people’s words do speak to us! For example, Audible has a nice range of identity-driven affirmations available for perusal and eventual purchase (tee-hee!). I recently purchased a book on Audible with affirmations developed for and by Black women. Since that’s how I present to the world and that is the identity to which I feel most connected, I incorporated them into my routine. And I must admit that they make me feel more alive, more visible, more present, and more valuable, which affects how I engage with myself and those around me.
Daily affirmations are a well-substantiated contribution to emotional self-care (they keep us focused on our intrinsic value and our aspirations) and are fairly easy to put into practice. If you find that you’re struggling with negative self-talk (and yes, some of the most talented and dynamic women do struggle with this), I highly recommend prioritizing affirmations. The ramifications of negative self-talk are far too great to allow it to persist.
- Identity-Conscious Literature
Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop—the mother of the multicultural literature initiative—uses a powerful metaphor (books as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors) to discuss the importance of diversity within literature and authorship. As an African-American woman who adores reading but did not always believe books engaged my lived experiences throughout my adolescent and teenage years, I am grateful for this framework. Growing up, I usually read books that functioned as windows and sliding glass doors. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it helped me develop a high level of empathy, one of my favorite qualities about myself. The flipside is that you feel like the world is ignoring your existence, the fact that your stories are worth writing and reading.
As an adult, I prioritize reading texts that reflect my lived experiences and identities, which often means reading books authored by Black or African-American women (please note that I am not conflating identity-conscious literature with race and ethnicity; being an African-American woman heavily influences my interpretive framework, and it is a sacred part of my identity). Genre and form don’t matter much to me either; I read fiction, non-fiction, short stories and poetry to name a few.
I want to emphasize my experience reading diverse, identity-conscious literature:
- It’s affirming. They are powerful reminders that I exist, and that I am worthy.
- Seeing the myriad of possibilities is inspiring. Because our society is obsessed with categorization (an act of control) , we can easily be pigeon-holed into experiences, identities, and labels that don’t speak to us. For example, while high and disproportionate levels of trauma are present in my community, those stories don’t always reflect my lived experiences. It’s healthy to see people like me living full lives and having a wide range of interests.
Even if you’re not a reader, you can apply this concept to other types of texts such as films or podcasts.
- An Aesthetically Appealing Journal or Diary
Many adults lack emotional intelligence (EQ), the ability to regulate and manage their emotions in healthy ways. This is important because EQ has internal and external effects, so it’s up to you to make sure you’re experiencing the benefits of high emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the cornerstone of emotional self care.
Journaling is an effective way to maintain a high level of emotional intelligence (or to develop emotional intelligence for some). Why? Because you’re in a position to get a handle on your emotions before they handle you. “Handling” your emotions entails giving yourself the space to express and process them.
When I wake up in the morning, the first thing that I do (besides running to the loo) is check in with myself. I open my journal, and I reflect on the previous day’s events and the goals that I have for myself on that day. Here are examples of questions that govern my journal entries:
- How did I feel yesterday? What factors influenced my feelings? Do I anticipate those feelings bleeding into today? If so, what can/should I do to effectively manage those feelings?
- What goals (concrete/abstract, grand/microscopic) have I set for today? How will I meet the aforementioned goals? How might I respond if I’m unable to meet said goals?
- How am I showing up in the world? How am I showing up for myself?
- What have I accomplished? How can I celebrate myself? What haven’t I accomplished, and what is stopping me from accomplishing it?
It’s important to write honestly and to avoid judging your feelings; allow yourself to feel your full range of emotions (this is a BIG one). After all, you ARE human. I know society pathologizes raw emotion, but your journal is your refuge, your safe-haven. Plus, failure to write candidly actually harms you…it is an act of self-destruction.
Some people judge their emotions because they don’t always seem/feel rational. But they still exist. If you don’t address them appropriately, you may lead with them, which can be detrimental to all parties involved.
I also entertain unexpected thoughts because I trust that they emerged for a reason. Working through these thoughts often leads to increased knowledge and wisdom and a greater satisfaction with myself. In other words, engaging with my thinking ALWAYS serves me. You’ll hear me say that I love my brain or that I am in awe of myself for this very reason.
The beautiful thing about journaling is that you’ll have a record of your emotions and experiences that you can return to at any time. At this point, I think I have about five journals filled with my thoughts and feelings from the past 2 years! If you’re not accustomed to journaling, it may be wise to use journal prompts to guide your thinking.
Finally, if writing is not how you process your life experiences, there are other ways to go about maintaining or developing a high level of emotional intelligence. For instance, you can use the record feature on your phone to make voice notes that address your feelings. The goal is simply to check in with yourself regularly.
Checking in with yourself openly and honestly is an essential act of emotional self care.
- An Aligned Therapist
Emotional self care is often laborious. It requires sitting with yourself, acknowledging the person you are + the factors that have shaped you, and making a commitment to sustainable growth. While knowing “the work” for ourselves is essential, sometimes we have to invite others to contribute to our healing journeys. Healing is communal work.
This is where having a good therapist comes in. First, you must identify your area of need so that you can find experts in that area! Are you struggling with self-esteem, self-love, and self-compassion? Having marital problems? Trying to navigate a divorce? Struggling with a combination of issues? There’s a person who will be able to guide you to the best version of yourself. I recommend using Psychology Today’s search engine to find a therapist who might be a good fit. You will also have access to other filters such as gender, ethnicity, religion, etc. Finding a therapist who shares your identity or background can improve outcomes for clients, though it is not mandatory in achieving emotional wellness.
Second, make sure that therapists who interest you take your insurance. If you don’t have insurance, there are many providers who will work with you and have you pay for sessions based on your income (generally referred to as “sliding scale therapy”). You could also consider online therapy, which is usually cheaper. Finally, I suggest “interviewing” therapists to ensure a good fit. Do they seem professional? Do you sense that they are knowledgeable about the field? Can they answer your questions thoroughly? Do you jive with them? Can they explain their approach to therapy and why their approach resonates with them? A therapist—like a doctor, dentist, and personal trainer—-will be a part of your wellness team, so it’s important that you choose wisely!
It’s also important to note that therapy isn’t reserved for physical, emotional, and/or psychological crises. Even if life is treating you kindly, therapy can still be beneficial.
As you can see, I am a fierce advocate of therapy. I’ve been w/o a therapist for awhile—around 9 months—-and I’m still standing because I developed good habits under my therapist’s tutelage. This is the ultimate goal.
- A signature look
What do Aaliyah, Marilyn Monroe, Beyonce, and Brandy all have in common? They ALL have a signature look. When I think of Aaliyah, I imagine slick, jet-black hair swooped over her eye; when I think of Marilyn Monroe, I imagine mid-length, blonde curly hair and red lips; when I think of Beyonce, I imagine honey-blonde tresses (#27); and when I think of Brandy, I imagine braids and brown lips.
If you know anything about me, you know that I LOVE presenting my best self to the world! I love a nice pair of statement earrings, a red lip, a high-heeled pair of boots, a voluminous wig, a form-fitting dress, and the list goes ON & ON.
Most people don’t know that getting dressed often feels like a JOB to me; it is overwhelming! Why? Because it usually takes me about 2 hours. Looking good shouldn’t monopolize our time!
To reduce the amount of time it takes to get dressed (and ameliorate stress), I decided it was time to develop an everyday look, one characterized by ease! I try to keep my hair braided/twisted, which means I don’t have to style my hair; I ensure that my lashes are applied every two weeks, which means I don’t have to waste time applying (or buying) mascara; I keep my eyebrows waxed and plucked, which makes them easier to fill; in the summer months, I avoid a full-coverage make-up routine and opt for concealer and some lip gloss (or lipstick depending on my mood); and when it comes to attire, I routinely choose dresses because they’re stylish and easy to throw on. If I really want to spice it up, I’ll opt for a two-piece!
Lastly, find a scent combination that you wouldn’t mind wearing every day. I love vanilla-based scents, so many of my products—lotions, oils, body spray, deodorant, and perfume—have vanilla or coconut or amber as a primary note.
How is this related to emotional self care? Well, when you look and smell good, you feel good!
- An intense media cleanse
Toxic media is one of the biggest threats to emotional self care; you must be cognizant of what you consume! Evaluate the books, shows, films, music, podcasts, youtube channels, news sources, celebrities, and social media pages you access regularly. Think about your friends on Facebook and your followers on instagram/twitter/tiktok. What are you noticing? I noticed that I was consuming a lot of reality tv programming that showcased unhealthy familial, intimate, and platonic relationships (a lot of anti-women rhetoric); unattainable beauty standards; and an uninterrogated commitment to hustle culture. We may think we compartmentalize well (i.e. “My life is my life, and it is different from the lives of the people I see on the internet and on television), but the reality is that constant exposure to toxicity changes us, albeit gradually. It begins to seep into our worldviews and our value systems and our thought patterns, and it influences how we move through the world.
One of the best things that you can do to optimize emotional self care is to restrict your access to content that does not serve you! Remember, there is plenty of entertaining, high-quality content available for your consumption.
Once I recognized what I was exposing myself to, I unfollowed and unfriended. I blocked. I unsubscribed. I silenced. I disengaged. And it brought me immense peace!
- An entry requirement list (for both platonic and non-platonic relationships)
You are NOT for everyone. You need to develop some sort of system or protocol to weed out harmful people. Have your list readily available because people will regularly attempt to bypass your fortress. And if we allow this to happen, these people can cause us a great deal of harm. Additionally, be sure that a person meets all of your requirements, not just some. When I allowed people to enter my life without meeting all of my requirements, I was harmed. Don’t allow your empathy and compassion for others to create problems for you. Don’t play with yourself like that, ever!
To be fully transparent, I’ve only developed a list for non-platonic relationships at this point, but I suspect that there will be a ton of overlap between the two.
- Impenetrable Boundaries
Assuming that the people in your life are supposed to be there (i.e. they have all the qualities and characteristics necessary to have access to you), the next thing you must consider is erecting impenetrable boundaries, a necessary component of the emotional self care toolbox.
Demarcation is a deliberate act. It is you telling yourself and others where you end and where they begin. Setting boundaries and maintaining those boundaries is an act of self-preservation. Others may view your boundaries as an inconvenience because you may no longer be accessible to them in the ways you once were. But that is their problem! Never apologize for prioritizing your emotional well-being.
- A Community of Critical Friends
There are many points in our lives where we need to reevaluate our friendships! I wish adults spoke about this a little more. We need to normalize forming new friendships and connections as adults and releasing relationships that don’t enrich our lives. From personal experience, I can tell you that having good people in your circle makes life more pleasant and easier to manage!
I’m sure we’re all familiar with the old adage, “tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are.” We should want to be associated with people who share our value systems. For me, that means having friends who are principled. Goal oriented. Supportive. Gregarious. Empathetic. Discerning. Authentic. Reliable. Generous. Intelligent (cognitively and emotionally). Inspirational. Honest. Introspective. Inquisitive. Loyal. Communicative. Responsible. Growth-oriented (you have to enjoy reading). Solution-oriented. Healed-healthy-whole-and-uplifted. These are the type of people who bring peace and joy into my life. As an adult, I’ve never had significant problems with friends because we all share these traits.
If you have friends who are drama-oriented, internally chaotic, self-serving, unkind, unempathetic, disloyal, stagnant, irresponsible, unreliable, and *insert a wide range of other negative attributes*, it reflects poorly on you, and your life is likely less peaceful because of it.
I believe that friendships are meant to be exciting and fulfilling. Generally speaking, they shouldn’t add stress to your life. Prioritizing healthy platonic relationships is undeniably an act of emotional self care.
All of these strategies have helped me take better care of myself, but they aren’t the only ones! In part two, I’ll be sharing additional items—some of which are abstract—that keep me level-headed and grounded and are an essential part of my emotional self care toolbox.