The Self-care Series: Habits and the Book We Should All Read, by Bethany Kjergaard
When Mary asked me to write about self-care I was a little unsure until I actually read her entire note. I’m probably one of the laziest people I know when it comes to personal grooming. I love reading about elaborate beauty routines, but I come from a family of women who shower a shockingly low number of times/week. The motto of the Kjergaard women is “we clean up well.” So I wasn’t sure what I could write about in terms of grooming or beauty routines. Then I actually read what Mary had written instead of skimming through, and it was more focused on habits and discipline. When it comes to habits, I could write all day, but I’ll focus on how habits tie in with self-care and the one habit that helped me to take care of myself. In the world of education, the importance of establishing good habits has been a hot topic. That of course, is a different story for a different time, but as a teacher I’ve been reading and thinking about habits intensively.
One of the most influential books I read was The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. She was a Yale law school grad, clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor, and chucked it all to become a writer. Her book is a blend of memoir and research sprinkled liberally with excellent quotes (the way to my heart is a well-used quote by an author I admire). Her next book is titled Better than Before, and it focuses entirely on habit formation. The biggest thing I’ve taken away is that habits set us free. For example: if I have to decide that I will make a healthy choice each and every meal, I will be exhausted. No one can sustain that kind of inner struggle on a daily basis. If I can somehow form the habit of eating healthily, then the decision has already been made, and I’m freed from making that daily choice. She defines four different personality types (she calls them the four tendencies), and she stresses how important it is to “know thyself” when thinking about how to form habits. What works for me might not work for you. I’m internally motivated, and any amount of external pressure or accountability will backfire. Sadly, I am not the world’s most coachable person. But for someone else, external motivation may be just what she needs to help form a habit. It is a book well-worth reading just for the framework of the four tendencies.
After reading The Happiness Project, I felt guilty for liking it so much. It wasn’t spiritual or faith-based (although not hostile to faith), and it seemed selfish to be so focused on personal happiness. But really, taking care of ourselves is not selfish. As a teacher, I lived through a year where I put my job before everything else, and I paid the price, but I also think that my students suffered. I was resentful of how much of my time the job was consuming, and I wasn’t keeping myself happy or healthy. If I had gone on like that, I would have burned out just like so many starry-eyed teachers fresh out of college. So reading this book opened my eyes to the necessity of self-care.
And this book is chock-full of practical advice. Since reading it, I now make my bed every day, I keep a clean nightstand, I floss every single day no matter what, I eat the same breakfast and variations on the same lunch for the entirety of the school year, and I no longer check my email outside of school. But the biggest habit I have formed and the way I most practice self-care is through the discipline of running (or my running practice if I want to sound really hip and edgy).
I started running purely out of vanity. In a friend’s wedding pictures, I had been shocked at how chubby I looked. I think there’s the case to be made for loving yourself no matter what your weight, but it’s still a balance. I wasn’t happy, and I didn’t like how I looked. So my primary motivation was looking hot at all the weddings I’d be attending, and I’ll confess that this is still a partial motivation. And my blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol numbers were all pre-diabetic. So I started running. The first few months were hard physically and mentally. But gradually it got easier. I signed up for a half marathon. And I ran the whole dang thing. And I ran another, shaving 19 minutes off my first time. Three weeks ago I ran my first marathon in hot, humid conditions. It wasn’t a great race, but I did it. Four years ago I was 30 pounds overweight, and I couldn’t run a mile. And now I have this bumper sticker on my car and bragging rights for life (although in CO everyone has run a marathon, so I can’t brag too much).
There are many reasons I run and will continue to run, but for me the biggest is my health. Physically, I have never felt better. Emotionally and mentally, it has helped me cope with stress in other areas of my life. I am forced outdoors all four seasons which means I know and appreciate my park and neighborhood in ways I couldn’t if I wasn’t a runner. It makes me uncomfortable, and it allows me to succeed and fail (both of which are valuable). And, glory be, it seems to be a habit that I’m stuck with for life! To go back to Gretchen Rubin there are two things she wrote or said about habits that have influenced me the most. Firstly, we don’t take a break from good habits. In the same way, I wouldn’t take a break from brushing my teeth or wearing a seat-belt, I don’t take a break from running. Of course there are ebbs and flows. I’ve been taking it easier since I finished the marathon, but I was back out running two days after the race. Secondly, the good habit is its own reward. I love this for its simplicity. When I started running, I would give myself rewards for going on runs (usually indulgent foods). But now the reward for going on a run is going on a run. It sounds kind of spartan and maybe intimidating, but the whole point of making self-care a habit is that it frees us to do good work. I love this quote from Gustave Flaubert: “Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.” Whatever self-care looks like for you, continue to fight the good fight. There is no regret, and should be no shame, in working to establish healthy habits for yourself.
Bethany is a Colorado native living in Colorado Springs. She teaches 6th Grade History, and can be found occasionally writing on her blog.
Photo by Hannah Katherine.