• Paula Azevedo, PhD

From passive to fierce: Three forms of self-care that will elevate your self-care practice

I’m passionate about the work I do. I love teaching, creating, writing, but in order to do all the work that I not only love to do but am called to do, I have to make sure that I’m taken care of. I can’t be fully present and immersed in my work if I’m exhausted and uninspired. I have to make sure that I have the internal and external resources to do the work and consistently do it well. So, what does that mean? That means I need to make sure that I take care of myself. That I practice self-care. Some people hear or see the words “self-care” and may be totally turned off by it for various reasons. Maybe they think self-care is just for those with privilege, or that it’s selfish, or they don’t have time. While others may not know what it truly means to practice self-care because they never witnessed it or were taught.


I had to learn about self-care and the importance of it the hard way. I was on the rollercoaster of high, almost manic, energy levels of producing and teaching and would also crash hard with lethargy and even periods of being ill. I knew I wouldn’t be able to thrive and do the work that I enjoy doing with such extreme periods of my life. I had to take a critical look at my daily routines and see where I could embed more moments of self-care.


This is where learning about self-care became such a life changing moment for me. I realized that I didn’t always have to be busy, doing all of the things, all of the time. And, that down time and rest throughout the day was necessary. I recognized that I couldn’t wait for the long-weekend to rest or the summer “break” to have a bit of down time. Those were too far apart and often I didn’t rest during my break, because I simply didn’t know how to relax, how to self-care, how to just be in the moment. Actually, I felt ashamed that I was resting instead of checking and responding to email or writing a lesson plan, or grading. And, if I’m completely honest, I still have moments where those old habits and thoughts creep up. There’s always something to do, but at some point you just have to rest and replenish your energy through some daily self-care practices.


Yes, you read that correctly. We need DAILY self-care practices. Remember, self-care doesn’t have to be expensive or extravagant. And self-care comes in many forms. There’s passive, active and fierce self-care and all are equally important and can be included in a mindfully crafted self-care plan.


Passive Self-Care

Passive self-care is practicing restful moments. A restful self-care moment can be brief and can be sprinkled throughout the workday. I like to set a timer or find a good point in my schedule to take a restful break. Taking these passive self-care breaks throughout the workday can help you maintain your stamina at work, but it can also help you clear your mind and breath in some more time, space and even perspective into your busy workday.


Here’s a list of quick and easy passive self-care practices:

  • taking a 15 minute nap;

  • sitting on the couch or outside alone or with a loved one (a friend, partner, child or pet);

  • standing outside for 5-10 minutes and soaking in the warmth of the sun or feeling the cool breeze;

  • mindfully sipping a healthy beverage;

  • listening to calming music, naturescape, or chanting;

  • slow, mindful walking practice;

  • soaking your feet for 5-10 minutes in epsom salt.


From the list of short passive self-care practices, which do you plan to include in your daily self-care? Which practice do you find useful and that you can realistically sustain on a daily basis?


Remember, if there’s a practice that you try but you don’t really care for then don’t do it. For example, napping is not a self-care practice that I enjoy or find particularly useful. This has been true for me even as a child. If you find me napping it’s either because I haven’t been getting enough sleep at night or I’m sick. However, I know people who swear that napping gives them superpowers (of course that is an exaggeration), but it just doesn’t do the same thing for me. So, instead I step outside for 10 to 15 minutes with Zoe (the poodle) and take a brief walk around the neighborhood so she can do her business while I relax for a moment and get some fresh air before I have to hop on to a call, grade, lesson plan or teach.


There are also passive self-care practices that take a bit longer and you may need to plan in advance, such as:

  • taking a warm bath;

  • getting a full body massage or facial;

  • receiving acupuncture;

  • yin yoga, restorative yoga, or yoga nidra;

  • talking, laughing, and enjoying the company of a close friend or family member.


The passive self-care practices that take a bit longer are great to have once a month or every couple of months. I like to think of these two types of passive self-care practices in terms of your car. You have to put gasoline or plug the car in more frequently in order for the engine to turn on and work. Well, the electricity or gasoline in your car are like the short, restful daily practices you incorporate, like taking a quick nap or a brief walk. While the more in-depth, longer passive self-care practices is like taking your car for the 7,000 mile routine maintenance check. You do the maintenance check-ups to ensure that the car is running optimally and is still in safe working condition. These routine check ups prevent you from experiencing mechanical or computer failures while driving. Well, the same is true for you. Instead of maintaining a car, you’re maintaining good mental, emotional and physical health with the more in depth passive self-care practice.


Now, this more restful form of self-care has become popularized in recent years in popular culture and social media. However, there’s more to self-care than passive or restful self-care practices. Remember, each of these forms has a purpose, a time and place to practice. So, let’s look at some active self-care practices.


Active Self-Care

There is nothing restful about active self-care practices. While the restful self-care practice can put the mind and body at ease and have calm and soothing qualities, the more active self-care practice can be challenging and even uncomfortable at times. However, it is the active self-care practices that help us to assiduously develop a healthy body, mind, and emotional state.


Active self-care practices include:

  • exercise that increases your heart rate;

  • walking or hiking outside ;

  • yoga;

  • “spring” cleaning and organizing work and/or home spaces;

  • mindfulness and meditation practices;

  • practicing breathing techniques;

  • reflecting and journaling;

  • setting intentions or goal-setting

  • artistic projects (dance, composing a song, writing, painting, pottery, etc).

Notice how different the active and passive self-care lists are. These self-care activities can be just as nourishing and supportive as the passive practices. However, sometimes they can be challenging to start and even maintain because it does take a commitment towards yourself to practice this form of self-care.


For instance, I don’t love cleaning my house, but I know it’s important for my family and me to maintain a clean and organized home. There are daily housekeeping routines, such as making the bed and cleaning dishes, but I’ll admit that we’ll get so busy that the mail starts to pile up, dust bunnies start to roam the house, and there’s a clear layer of dust on the furniture. It’s that moment when I know I need to do a deep clean and reorganize areas of the house. Do I love it? No, of course not. But, I feel physically, emotionally and mentally better when I’m done cleaning. It’s like a breath of fresh air has gone through the house and everything feels so much lighter, brighter and I can move with greater ease. I even find that when I clear and organize my workspace I have more creative and productive energy. Cleaning just shifts the entire energy of the home and workspace. So, sometimes the act of doing the active self-care may initially feel uncomfortable and even annoying, but once you get started and see the results of your self-care practice you immediately feel better. So, try one or more of the active self-care practices at least a couple of times a week and see how you feel after a couple of weeks of practicing active self-care.


From the list of active self-care practices, which do you plan to include in your weekly self-care plan? Which practice do you find useful and that you can realistically sustain on a regular basis?


Of course, self-care practices can go much deeper than the passive and even active practices. This next form of self-care takes real courage, self-compassion, and awareness to implement.


Fierce Self-Care

Fierce self-care is an empowering form of self-care that cultivates compassion and self-compassion. This fierceness isn’t coming from a place of hate or anger. The fierceness isn’t about being reactive and potentially doing something that will make an already difficult situation worse. But, rather this form of self-care is about being mindfully responsive to a situation that isn’t sustainable, that is potentially dangerous, and that lacks compassion. The fierceness is coming from a kind heartedness within you. Fierce self-care is about taking responsible action with compassion and care for yourself and even others around you. It’s stepping up into your own authority and leading. It's about setting clear boundaries and not being afraid to say “no” and not backing down when lines have been crossed.

Fierce self-care practices includes:

  • drawing clear boundaries;

  • saying “no”;

  • evaluating your routines and habits and establishing new and healthier ones if needed;

  • receiving mental health care services;

  • taking a sick day from work when you’re sick;

  • participating in personal or professional development (taking a course, reading books that inform and inspire you, etc);

  • evaluating relationships and making healthy changes or having challenging discussions that supports your needs in the relationship.

Fierce self-care starts by being honest with yourself, and recognizing when you’re not okay. Listening to those whispers that tell you something isn’t right and boundaries have been crossed. But, this inner knowing doesn’t have to stay within you, but rather you make it known. You can write or speak the words out loud to yourself and to others. It’s about making your needs for additional resources and support known and heard. It’s about taking clear, actionable steps to get the support you need. It’s about setting very clear boundaries, verbalizing these boundaries, and sticking with them.


Let me provide an example from my own life. Like most teachers I rarely take sick days. More often it’s easier to be under the weather and power through the school day rather than create plans for a substitute teacher while hoping that your students behave themselves and get something out of the lesson. There was a day that I was progressively feeling worse as the day went on. I powered through and finished teaching all of my classes and decided to go home early that day and even sent an email to the administrative assistant that I was going to need a substitute the next day because I was unusually under the weather. I thought I was being proactive and doing the right thing. I even sent the sub plans so I wouldn’t have to worry about it later that evening, because I knew when I got home I was just going to curl up in bed.


I walked to the main office to sign myself out and as I did I thought I would verify with the administrative assistant that she received my sub plans. She hadn’t read my email yet and so was unaware that I was requesting a sub to cover my class the next day. She stood up and leaned across the desk yelling at me that she didn’t have enough substitutes to cover my class because there was a biology field trip and that she needed subs to cover for the science teachers that were going to be on that field trip. I initially didn’t believe what was happening. I just stood there in a bit of a daze not sure if I had a fever and was hallucinating all of this or if she was yelling at me because I was sick and needed a day off to recover. When she finished. I simply looked at her and said, “Well, I’m sorry, but I really don’t feel well enough to teach tomorrow. I only have one class tomorrow so hopefully a sub can cover that one class.” And, I walked out of the office to my car in shock, but deeply heartbroken by the incident. However, I knew that I did the right thing. I calmly drew a boundary and stood firmly. I didn’t back down. I needed a day off because I knew I wasn’t going to be a functioning teacher for my students. I had the sub plans ready. Her stress wasn’t my problem, even though she decided to take it out on me.

Being a teacher, a parent, a counselor or school leader doesn’t mean being a martyr, because a martyr is useless to the children and teens in our lives. Those who practice fierce self-care aren’t indulging themselves or being selfish when they draw clear lines at work or in their personal lives, they are preserving themselves to make sure that they are the best teacher for their students everyday in class or the best parent for their child.


Finally, now that fierce self-care doesn’t have to be done alone. The drawing of boundaries and saying “no” can be done with other colleagues, parents, and students who agree and support you. There is definitely power in numbers when a collective of teachers, counselors, parents and school leaders draw a distinct line. And, when you’re fiercely self-compassionate with others the burden won’t simply rest on your shoulders and these fierce actions won’t be so lonely.


Is fierce self-care challenging? Of course, but like most things in life, it’s a practice. But, you have the fierceness within you to be self-compassionate and care for yourself. It’s taking baby steps and yes, sometimes you’ll stumble, but like a baby learning to walk you get up again and try again. So, listen carefully to your inner authority and with compassion use that inner strength to be fierce.


From the list of fierce self-care practices above, which do you think you need to start practicing? Which practice do you think will be the most potent and have the greatest impact on your life?


What self-care isn’t

People today throw the word self-care around a lot, and for good reason. We all need more moments of authentic self-care. However, remember that self-care has to be authentic to who you are, what you feel comfortable with and what’s going to be sustainable to you for this moment in your life. Self-care isn’t a chore. It’s not another thing that you have to do. If it feels like that then reevaluate your self-care practices and ask yourself, “Is this self-care practice really authentic to me? Is it healthy? Is it sustainable?”


There’s also no need to be self-critical about your self-care practice and how often you practice self-care or not. We all have seasons in our lives when our self-care practice is incredible and we just feel like we have a lot of space for these various practices. But, there are times when having a multilayered self-care plan is just not doable. For instance, when you have a major life changing event, such as a newborn, someone is sick in your family, a death of someone close to you, a new job or a major move, these are moments in our lives we often don’t have the resources to sustain our own self-care. But, this is when your support system rallies around you to help where you simply may not be able to. There are other periods in our lives that may be less dramatic, but life just gets really busy. I know that at the end of each semester there is a flurry of activities, meetings, and tasks that simply need to get done and so I may not do all the self-care practices that I normally do. So, what often happens is I change my self-care practice briefly to meet my needs during that short time period that I’m extra busy. That’s why it’s important to have a self-care toolkit where you can pull a self-care practice that fits your needs.


Finally, self-care should never be used as an excuse for your own bad or unhealthy behaviors, habits or those of others. Passive, active and fierce self-care practices are empowering, healthy, and sustainable. That’s why we need to take self-care more seriously and that is mindfully incorporated into your life with self-compassion and compassion for others. So, make sure that your self-care feels good during and after your practice. And, have fun with your practice by exploring, learning and trying new self-care strategies that you’re curious about.


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