Some time ago I was sitting in my therapist’s office complaining about a situation at work that had me all hot and bothered. As the steam coming from my ears dissipated into the room like the mist after a storm, my therapist said, “I’m just curious, Mike, when was the last time you exercised?”
My response was something eloquent like, “How in the hell is that even relevant to what I’m saying?” She explained to me that the problem seemed like it wasn’t really what was going on at work; the problem was that I hadn’t been taking care of myself, and I was buckling under the pressure.
I like to exercise – a quick run, some weight lifting, it clears my head and gets my frustration out. But I looked at the calendar on my phone and realized that it had been a few weeks since I had made time to exercise. That's because I’m a husband, a dad, a son, a teacher, a friend – and all of those hats come with responsibilities and a schedule that never slows down. But what I forget is that I’m also a guy who needs to take care of himself.
I’m not sure if it’s born out of pride or naiveté (though perhaps those are synonymous), but there's a melancholy delusion among men that we can handle all of the pressure of our daily lives without any form of self-care. This is, as my therapist says, stupid. Yoy may be strong, focused, driven, and all that – but you also have mental and emotional needs, and if you want to keep your momentum, you had better start taking care of yourself.
A great way to start is by making a list of what makes you feel positive, and then decide which three or four of those things you really need as a bare minimum. Here’s what I’ve found works for me.
Before my daughter, Izzy, was born, I lifted weights five days a week and ran at least four. I looked good. I felt good. I was a machine. After Izzy was born, I was lucky to lift twice a week. And now my wife and I have two kids running around the house, which means that carrying the laundry from the basement up to our bedroom usually constitutes my workout for the day.
The problem is that when I’m not exercising, I don’t feel too great about myself; I get more easily frustrated, and I feel lazy (even if I’ve spent the day chasing two toddlers). I have to exercise, and twenty minutes is always better than nothing. It’s hard to make that time, and frankly, I don’t always want to. But I know that I need it. I’ve had to ask my wife for the encouragement to get my ass down to the basement and lift weights when there’s an open window of time. It’s gotten to the point that she won’t offer me the time, she’ll demand that I take it. “You’re flustered. Go lift for a few minutes; I got this.”
Sure enough, I exercise, my brain resets, and I feel better.
I have two English degrees, but I legitimately can’t remember the last time I read a book for pleasure. I’m reading two different novels right now, but that’s only because I’m teaching them. Reading for pleasure somehow calms me and focuses me simultaneously. I love reading. I love sitting on the couch in a silent room with a hot coffee, reading a book. But I don’t remember the last time that happened: for that matter, I don’t remember the last time there was silence in my living room.
As I was preparing to write this piece, I ordered a book that I’ve been wanting to read. I’m not teaching it, and I don’t have to write anything about it. I’m just going to read it because, damnit, I enjoy reading. It feeds me. This will mean some intentionality on my part. I might have to stay up an extra twenty minutes for a few nights to make the time. I may have to double-time it at work so that I don’t have to bring papers home to grade. It will be time well spent, coffee well drank, and I’ll take care of my need to read.
Get a Hobby
When I was a kid, I got my first film camera. I’ve been hooked ever since. When I was in college, I started photographing weddings (before everyone and their brother was a photographer), but after six years, I realized that it wasn’t fun anymore. My photography wasn’t mine anymore; it belonged to other people. I’d lost my hobby by making it a business.
So I stopped shooting weddings and started shooting for myself, and I haven’t stopped. Almost everywhere I go, I have a camera in my hand (except for funerals – not a good look). When I play with my kids, I take photographs. When we walk to the ice cream shop down the street, I take photographs. When a leaf falls onto my driveway and catches my eye, I take a photograph. It soothes me. Photography slows me down and makes me focus on the minute details of life that I may otherwise miss: composition, lines, shadows. Flexing those creative muscles forces me to be in the moment – not staring at my phone, not worrying about work, and not ignoring the beauty around me. In short, photography makes me happy to be alive, and that’s what a hobby is supposed to do.
See a Therapist
Three years ago, I went through a divorce. My ex and I saw a therapist for a few months beforehand, but ultimately, we couldn’t make it work. But I liked the therapist. I liked the way she made me feel like it was ok for me to be me but still challenged me to see that there are valid perspectives beyond my own. I started seeing her for one-on-one sessions, and I still see her to this day.
I consider myself a fairly intelligent man, but I’m not so smart that I know how to solve all of my own problems. I don’t see a therapist because I’m unhealthy: I see her because I want to stay healthy. She doesn’t solve my problems for me. She listens; she helps me process, and she gives me tools to move forward in the face of struggle. There's a stigma around therapy that men especially seem to uphold. It’s the idea that going to a therapist is a sign of weakness; that you need help because you just can’t cut it as a man. What a foolish sentiment. I don’t see a therapist because of my weaknesses; I see her so that I can hone my strengths. I see her because I believe the measure of a man is not his ability to remain stoic in the face of adversity, but his ability to be humble and vulnerable for the sake of personal growth. I’m not saying everyone needs a therapist, but I do know that it’s one way for me to take care of myself.
Self-care looks different for everyone. You may look at my list and realize that none of these items is a check in the box for you. That’s fine. Make your list. If you can add just one new element of self-care into your routine this year, you will increase your quality of life tenfold. And you deserve that, because we all wear many hats in life, each with its own weight daring you to buckle under the pressure. It’s time to start taking care of yourself.