Self-care begins inside our heads, with our thoughts and how we speak. Image Credit: Getty Images

We spend a lot of time looking after other people. We listen to our friends bemoaning the long hours they work, we take our elderly parents shopping, we drive our children around, we look after our homes for our families, and we nurture our pets. It's hardly surprising that at the end of the day, the one person we've neglected is ourselves.

When we get five minutes of Me Time, we get interrupted because some urgent ironing needs doing, or a child needs help with homework, or the phone rings, and sometimes we never get that time back that day.

Yet according to experts, the rules we follow when we're on a plane apply to real life too. We all know the safety drill on a flight - in an emergency we put on our oxygen mask first, then we helps others, including children. This applies to our everyday lives - if we're not looking after and loving ourselves, then we'll be in no fit state to administer to the needs of others.

It therefore makes sense to keep ourselves happy and strong so we can then help others. But how can we do that when there are so many demands on our time and energy?

Psychological therapist Lesley Broadhead says, "Self-care begins inside our heads, with our thoughts and how we speak. We can amend this by just being aware of it. There's a tendency to put others first and to make their needs more important than yours. Many people put their partners first and some parents put their children first. While I appreciate partners and children have a right to be high on our list of priorities, we're not teaching them to treat us as equals if we treat ourselves as doormats."

The language of (self) love

Lesley suggests we start our self-care programme by looking at our language and the way we speak, both to others and to ourselves. This, she says, can be done as we go about our everyday tasks and doesn't take up any of our time, but it can have astounding benefits.

"Begin by looking at the word ‘should' and see how many things you apply it to," advises Lesley. "When you use the words ‘should' or ‘must' or other phrases such as ‘ought to', you're not acting out of choice, and you are using the language of someone who is doing things for others and putting others first. If you say, ‘I should stay in tonight,' or, ‘I should do the ironing,' you sound as if you're doing those things to please others, or to gain others' approval, not because you want to have an evening in, or because you like to see your family looking smart.

"When you use empowering phrases such as ‘choose to' or ‘can do', you're telling yourself that you matter as much as anyone else and you're not being a victim or a martyr.

"When you say, ‘I choose to have an evening in,' you're talking from a position of power. You have a choice about what you do."

The way we speak to ourselves is also key and this is something that starts from the moment we wake up in the morning.

"I ask people what they say to themselves first thing in a morning when they look in the bathroom mirror, and it is often disrespectful," says Lesley.

"They tell themselves they're fat, or ugly, or they point out all the rolls of fat around their stomachs. They wouldn't dream of speaking to a friend like that, and I'm appalled they speak to themselves that way. If they started saying, ‘I'm awesome' or ‘I'm beautiful', they would soon start to feel differently about themselves." 

Take a deep breath…

The next step in self-care is equally simple. "Just slow down and take some nice deep breaths to oxygenate the body and the mind," advises Lesley. "We live in a world where we are all constantly stressed and our stress response is constantly switched on.

"Deep breathing tells the brain we're relaxed and actually switches off that response."

Finally, Lesley urges us to ask for help. "People are often scared to ask for help in case it's refused, and it's often easier to do things ourselves. When we want help, it's good to state exactly what we want - we can never assume that people are mind readers.

"For example, whether you want your partner to pick the children up, or a colleague to do the weekly report, or the children to help more with the washing up, it's best to ask directly and not play games or hint at what we want."

Get started!

Cheryl Richardson, author of The Art of Extreme Self-Care, has six easy tips for our self-care schedule. 

1. Save your energy

"Start by making a list of what you will no longer tolerate in your life," advises Cheryl. "Look at the commitments and situations that leave you feeling drained or resentful - it may be cooking every meal for your family, or spending every Sunday having long lunches with your in-laws. Once you have your list, put it somewhere you will see it and read it every day. It will make you feel safe and free to be your best." 

2. Find your hidden passions!

Go on a treasure hunt and keep your eyes open for a symbol or object that reflects part of you that wants to be expressed. "Notice when something catches your eye," advises Cheryl. "It may be a photo that pulls at your heart and something on television that forces you to look again. This will give you a clue as to what part of you needs waking up. For example, if you love hats, you might want to introduce fashion into your life or take up making your own clothes." 

3. Look after your body

"If there's a problem with your body, find an expert and get help," says Cheryl. "If your back is bad, see a chiropractor or book a massage. If a manicure and pedicure sound like an indulgence, think how much work your hands and feet do. Make a list of the top five things you would like to sort out and book some appointments." 

4. Love your space

Your home and office have an enormous impact on your health, energy and well-being. "Choose a room that you spend a lot of time in, such as your bedroom or your office. Think what this room means to you and what you can do to make it clutter-free and soulful. When you add items of beauty, make sure they're things you absolutely love."

5. Say no!

If you take on far more than you have time for, and say yes to things you don't want to do, it's time to learn to say no. "People won't like it at first when you can't give them a lift or babysit their children," warns Cheryl. "When you're asked to do something, say you need to check a few things before you commit. Then do a gut check and ask yourself on a scale of one to ten how much you want to do this thing. If it's nearer ten, go ahead and agree. If you're saying no, say it in a clear and decisive way. Measure your success by how you feel after you've said no, not by the other person's reaction."

6. Handle crises better!

When things are going wrong, it's a natural reaction to throw yourself into everything you can, making long to-do lists and existing on adrenaline. Instead of giving yourself time to breathe, you neglect yourself by not eating properly, skimping on sleep and rushing around. Being aware of how you react to a crisis is the first stage - keep a note over the next 30 days of how and when you deprive yourself of essentials such as sleep, emotional support and time to yourself.