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Radical self care is, quite simply, recognizing that you need to meet your own needs before you can or should try to meet the needs of others. It’s not possible to give what you don’t have.

Love may be infinite, but energy definitely isn’t – and if you let your well run dry, you have nothing left to share with anybody else.

Taking care of yourself first is what gives you the capacity to heal and to move forward into your next chapter of life.

If you put more energy into caring for others than into taking care of yourself, you’re unlikely to heal as well as you would otherwise, and you’re likely to be sicker longer when you are managing any form of disabling condition.

What radical self-care is

Radical self-care is taking care of yourself first. It’s making sure that you have what you need to live the best life you can, and making sure that you are taking care of your needs, before you invest energy into helping or taking care of others.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t help others. Social connections are also vital for our health and wellbeing, and connecting with other people is healthy – and that always involves some give and take.

self-care can be as simple as making sure you get plenty of water!

It is important, though, that every day, you make sure that you have the spoons needed to take care of yourself before you run out.

With most chronic or disabling conditions, doing anything requires more than others assume it does(and often more than you assumed).

Hold onto that idea when you need to- and know that if you don’t practice radical self-care, you won’t be able to do even as much as you can now.

Another way to look at this focus on your needs is that you aren’t just taking care of yourself now, but instead that you are helping your future self do and be more than you would otherwise.

For example, one thing I try to do every night is making sure that when I go to bed, I have a full glass of water beside the bed.

Do I feel like getting that glass of water in the evening as I’m trying to go to sleep? Not always.

It’s another thing to remember, and I can struggle to sleep in the first place.

But when I wake up (whether it’s in the morning or in the middle of the night), and I can quench my thirst without getting out of bed, I am grateful that I thought ahead the night before.

Changing is hard. You will need to change some aspects of your life to better care for yourself.

Radical self-care often involves thinking ahead and anticipating your own needs.

flight of stairs with 'we all fall...it's up to you to rise again' written on the wall
Your primary responsibility is taking care of you.

This often involves saying ‘no'(I can’t, I’m not available) and ‘yes'(I’ll take you up on that offer, I do need this item) more often, and in a different way than you are used to.

Breaking habits is hard, as is building new ones.

Many of us have the bad habit of offering more than we have and of valuing other’s needs or comfort over our own.

While there are times when such a noble sacrifice is warranted or appropriate, we need to take time to re-evaluate our abilities and our needs. We need to better understand ourselves and our bodies – and that requires a lot of internal focus.

Taking really good care of yourself involves recognizing, then breaking, the habits that hurt you as you work on creating realistic new habits that will help you improve your life.

There are a lot of things to consider, but the important thing with radical self-care is that you want to do what’s best for you, and that you are able to work towards this goal on a regular basis while you build on past experiences.

What radical self-care isn’t

There are things that just don’t fit into the idea of radical self-care.

woman relaxing in beach chair by the water
be kind to yourself – the most important part of radical self-care
  • Laziness – Taking time to rest when you need to, or cutting down on activities due to fatigue are reasonable things to do in the face of your condition, and doing so is helping your long-term health. Even if you need to sleep 18 hours a day for a while; if that’s what your body needs, you are not being lazy.
  • Being uncaring – Yes, the people we love also have needs, but it isn’t possible in the long term for you to keep doing everything you were doing before your condition kicked in, at least not in the same way. Something needs to give. And you can’t afford to lose more.

It’s kinder to all of you to figure out what your limits are so that you can sustainably show your love than it is to push yourself so hard to help them that you end up in worse shape.

  • Being selfish – Yes, you may treat yourself to a massage or a beautiful new outfit, or that piece of chocolate that you’ve been craving, but these are all being done with the goal of you being able to participate more in life, and to be able to be happy in the long term.

That massage may relax your muscles enough that you can make it to your child or niece’s recital, or to your friend’s engagement party, or to fulfill your need to be touched.

That outfit may be the key to your attending your friend’s wedding, rather than missing it. Or feeling confident enough to go to that interview.

That piece of chocolate at the right moment may protect you from binging on a bunch later, or may be that little bit of normalcy that you’ve been missing.

  • Self-care is also not punishing yourself for failure

Sometimes I do get frustrated about it, but when I look at the situation, I’m usually able to see why a goal didn’t get achieved, and what I can do now to rebalance the situation.

I set a lot of goals for myself – and I miss a lot of the goals I set. It’s better to have them, even if I miss them, than to have no goals.

One of my goals, for example, is to go out for a walk every day. I haven’t been on many walks in the past few months, but I know why.

When I’m sick, just like anybody else, the best thing for me to do is rest and not physically exert myself too much.

person walking on a path through snow with trees on both sides
I would love to go for a walk in the snow!
As long as I feel better at the end, not worse.

This winter has been rough, health-wise. I had bronchitis for much of November, and my recovery process was slow. I spent months going into severe coughing fits and having trouble breathing if I breathed any cold air.

A brisk walk in the cold is pretty unattractive if the attempt closes your airway for a bit and leaves you exhausted.

I stayed congested almost constantly from late October until the last few days.

I got strep throat a couple of weeks ago, and just finally felt better a day or so ago. As I said, it’s been a rough few months.

If I beat myself up for it, the exercise still wouldn’t be done, but I’d feel a lot worse.

Instead, I took each day on a case-by-case basis and recognized when I wasn’t in good enough shape to go out on my walk.

I forgave myself each day I didn’t go out(some days it was easier than others), but I didn’t give up on the idea of doing it.

Also, although my ideal is to go out in the early morning right after I wake up, I have mostly been sleeping longer than average(I’m probably averaging 10 hours a night), and waking up later than I’d prefer.

Going out for a walk in the afternoon is definitely better than not going for a walk at all.

I’d rather put energy into my blog or other projects than into beating myself up for something I couldn’t manage to do on that specific day.

Conclusion: Radical self-care is good for your health

The idea of taking care of yourself first is important for all people to consider.

For people with disabilities, our risk is more extreme and we often fear being seen as a burden.

woman surrounded by bubbles
You deserve to be in the center of your own best efforts – and those around you will benefit from you being your best self!

This makes it more, not less, important for us to take care of ourselves first. Others are less apt to share our needs and so are less apt to think of them.

The better care we take of ourselves, the more likely we are to have a better quality of life. By making smart self-care decisions we also reduce the likelihood of needing more help later.

The more balanced my emotions, the fewer symptoms I’m likely to have. The fewer symptoms, the less likely I am to pull, strain, or sprain something, and the less likely I am to get a headache from muscle tension.

This leaves me happier and able to do(and enjoy) more of my life – and prevents me from needing to ask Al to do more than he safely can.

For my partner Al, who is dealing with hip pain and osteoporosis, the better he sticks with an exercise regimen, the less likely it is that any other bones will break, and the better his overall health.

The more aware he is of what he eats and the healthier a diet he follows, the lower his risk of heart attack or bone loss(eating enough calcium is important).

While each person has their own skills they need to develop, we all need to work towards being more self-aware, more mindful, and in the best possible physical, emotional, and mental shape.

What acts of radical self-care are you practicing?

What do you most want to do to take better care of yourself?

I would love to hear your thoughts on radical self-care and your self-care routines.

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