The Self-Care Habit: Mastering the Art of Putting Yourself First
As runners, we tend to take good care of ourselves—most of the time. But life can get busy and stressful, distracting us from healthy habits like good nutrition, restorative sleep, and a sensible work/play balance.
Catherine Petit Wu, a self-described master of habit change, knows all about living life out of whack. “I had a demanding job in investment banking,” she said at a recent 101 Series talk at the NYRR RUNCENTER. “Being a good mom, employee, wife, daughter, and friend was my badge of honor. I was keeping up with everybody and everything—but some days I’d secretly wish I’d get sick so no one would expect anything from me.”
Petit Wu knew something was wrong, but in response she just piled on more to-dos, first making the rounds of dozens of NYC health clubs, then trying every fad diet she could find. “I was still at war with myself,” she said.
Eventually she learned that the secret to healthy and lasting change lay in shifting her mindset to prioritizing her needs before those of others. “The quality of our lives is completely different when we take care of ourselves first,” she said. This may seem counterintuitive, especially for women, who are conditioned to be givers and caretakers. But in reality, no one can give without limit, and it’s harmful to try.
“Self-care is actually the greatest gift you can give to others,” said Petit Wu, who ditched her banking career and is now a health coach who specializes in helping high-achieving professionals feel better fast by upgrading their food, movement, rest, and personal foundation to get even better results at home, at work, and in life. “You’re actually doing a disservice to others when you don’t take care of yourself first. Because when you’re exhausted, stressed, and cranky, how available are you really to support those around you?”
Petit Wu outlined five guiding principles for making changes that stick:
- Work on one area at a time—she suggests starting with eating or sleep.
- Determine your motivating factor—Is it more energy? Better concentration? You decide.
- Declutter to create an empowering environment—clean out your pantry, ban late-night TV, delete social media apps. Align the choices with your motivations.
- Be willing to fail. “No judgment, only curiosity,” she said.
- Make it fun and make it play. Because if you’re not enjoying the mind-shift process, what’s the point?
Self-care doesn’t happen overnight, Petit Wu said, and she encouraged the audience to embrace the challenge and remind themselves of four self-care truths: It’s a necessity (not a luxury), it’s not selfish, it’s honoring your priorities, and it’s not instant gratification.
Petit Wu encourages exercise as part of self-care but she urged the audience to start with small changes. One client, she said, started by just putting on her walking shoes when she got home from work. After a few days she started walking around her house for five minutes a day. Only when that felt comfortable did she progress to taking walks in her neighborhood. “At each stage it felt easier to do it than not do it,” Petit Wu said.
The ripple of effect of changes can spread to all areas of life. Exercise can lead to better sleep, resulting in more energy, increased ability to focus, fewer food cravings, and so on.
“We’re told that in a crisis you must put on your own oxygen mask first,” Petit Wu said. “A crisis is an invitation. It invites you to make a decision to focus on what you truly care about.”