Self Care - Stick vs Carrot

One of the things that I really enjoy about my work with clients is seeing them progress through from an injury to recovery, or to slow and gentle unwinding of a painful muscular situation. But with 168 hours available each week, I am unlikely to spend more than one hour of their week working ‘hands on’ to help them. So we end up talking about ‘homework or self care’.

Ugh, I know. From my very first appointment with a physiotherapist when I was about 9 years old, I have struggled with the concept of physical homework. Okay, so if I’m really honest homework has been something of a nemesis for me from my first spelling homework at about the age of 3 or 4. It all gets really irritating when I realised that putting in the effort and doing my homework, whether it was learning my spelling, practicing scales or doing exercises, makes a difference. Sometimes this is small, but occasionally it is huge.

Part of the issue I had when I worked as a personal trainer was that I was so busy working as a PT, and doing my massage course or building Bristol Massage Therapy, that I actually had very little time to train myself. It made me feel uncomfortable. Hypocritical. On the plus side it gave me a greater sense of compassion to my clients when they struggled to do anything outside our sessions, but at least they were actually coming in at least once per week to have me train them.

This isn’t quite fair though. Whilst I was working, I was doing a lot more than I gave myself credit for. On my feet for an average of 14 hours at least 5 days per week, completing a spin class whilst shouting above the music to teach, bouncing and sweating buckets whilst teaching aqua aerobics. But I felt guilty none the less.

The self care ‘stick’

This is something that sometimes upsets me … as a practitioner I might talk about one or two little hints and tips that might be of benefit, but the next time that client comes in they talk guiltily about having not done the stretches or make excuses for not increasing the amount of water they have been drinking. I don’t give ‘homework’ to cause anxiety, guilt or additional pressure. I work very hard to try and suggest things that can be incorporated into every day life. For example:

  • To try and drink more water, pop a large glass by your bed and the next morning, before you get up, down the glass. At least this way you are a large glass ahead and even if nothing else changes … it’s an easy win.
  • To stretch and open your chest, each time you pop to the loo, stand in a doorframe with hands at ear height and propping the elbows on the doorframe too step through slightly to stretch the chest. I suggest doing this on the way to the loo … unless you are desperate!
  • Tight hip flexors from sitting lots do benefit from stretching but they also benefit from relaxing which can be done simply and easily by lying down for 5 minutes a day. This might not be easy to build into a routine, but we all go to bed at least once per day so upon getting into bed get into the ‘Rest Easy’ position and try to settle down relaxing the hip flexors for 5 minutes before falling asleep!

Its very easy for me to be harsh on myself, but it is much harder for me to forget the good things I do for myself. I’ve got a rather self-critical side, which over the years I’ve envisaged as one of those tiny, slightly sinister monkeys that whispers all that self-talk that isn’t helpful. Think Abu from Aladdin! The thing is, he doesn’t know any better. What makes it worse is that the more attention I give my ‘Abu’, the worse I feel about the lack of stretching, yoga, exercise that I might have done in any particular week.

Whilst I’m very good at mentally beating myself up, giving audience to that self-critical monkey on my shoulder, and taking on the negative feelings this can bring about, over the past few years I’ve been working to develop mechanisms for being gentle and kind to myself, establishing good practices to develop positive habits.

The self care ‘carrot’

I’m one of those people who is very good at being busy. I run a rather full diary, and rest assured if it is not in my diary it isn’t going to happen. With such a full diary I have become very good at identifying tasks which can be automated, or delegated. Any time that I can save is a bonus and frees me up for being ‘productive’. But the time I have realised I struggle to fit into the diary is time for me.

As is often the way, it took a friend and colleague to hold a mirror up to myself for me to make this realisation. Last autumn, I received an email titled “Looking after your greatest asset: You”. I sat up. Even the sub-heading spoke to me: “Productivity doesn’t have to mean burn out”.

I know about burn out. I went there several times during my stint at David Lloyd, and have come close again in recent years. I’m getting much better at reading the warning signs … not sleeping well, brain in overdrive, no energy, on the edge of a cold for weeks at a time.

The email newsletter came through from a friend and colleague who is a highly successful counsellor and is training to become a life coach. In one of life’s serendipitous moments, we met working at The Practice Rooms and just clicked. We try to meet at least once per month for breakfast (the only way we can work our diaries together) but we are both victims of our own drive and success.

“For someone who is forever goal setting, I tend to have multiple projects on the go at once. I’ve always understood the idea that slowing down and not trying to do everything at once is a healthy way to goal achievement but when the to-do lists are piling up, I haven’t always found this easy always to put into practice. Which (surprise, surprise!) leads to overwhelm and eventually burn out.” - Ismene Cole, Counsellor

Yep, there’s our next breakfast meeting being rescheduled right there! (Actually, we are off gallivanting to celebrate her birthday this weekend so do forgive the artistic license!). Ismene’s email came through in October, but personally I don’t really struggle with the early autumn season change. I find it invigorating, the perfect time to reflect, sew seeds that will take root over winter, etc. THIS is the time of year I struggle with.

OK so the weather has been incredibly kind to us here in Bristol recently. Freezing cold yes, but clear, bright, light, hopeful and joyful. Ironically I find this freezing air a challenge, it takes my breath away, starts my asthma, means I struggle to do my outdoor exercise … and this is one of my carrots. A mud-fest circuits class on the Downs makes me smile! Not being able to catch my breath doesn’t.

All about balance

Over the Christmas break I realised that I had the inmate wisdom to incorporate the changes that would help me regain balance. I stopped. Not completely, but very nearly. It felt very strange because this was the first time in many years I had done so little.

  • It took me four days to write a document that would usually have taken that many hours … and it still isn’t finished!
  • I re-examined my working week, planned a few tweaks and will honour these until Easter, when I will reassess
  • I'm being gentle with myself
  • I've started reading again
  • I took a break from writing because I felt empty … but here I am. Again.
  • I will give less audience to that monkey, which I can hear chirruping as I write … you’ve written this before … remember the article last year explaining what your Ma had said? “All work and no play …” So I give the monkey a pat, a nut and keep knowing that I’m obviously needing to revisit this lesson a fair bit

I burnt out three times in 2 years at David Lloyd. I’ve come close a couple of times over the past few years, but standing with my toes over the cliff edge IS better than free falling. Standing a few centimetres back from the edge is better still.

I believe that’s the lesson. Life is meant to be long, a continual progress towards growth, empowerment and betterment (forgive the poor grammar!). I am learning to be comfortable with not being perfect, getting things right first time. I can’t take risks without risking making mistakes. Mistakes have value, enable us to learn and develop.


Don’t get me wrong … this is NOT a resolution piece. I don’t really like the concept of resolutions, I much prefer a cycle of reflection and progression, encouraging myself and others to follow your dreams. But what’s not to love about a little more carrot in our lives? Particularly in cake form!