Deborah Hill is a writer and anthropologist who is fascinated with the way humans and businesses interact.
Pick up any women's magazine, and you'll read the words self-care. If you're like me, you've always had a nagging uncertainty about what that even means. Do other people get more out of scented candles and bubble baths? Self-care is anything that helps to soothe your soul and gives you mental and emotional distance from stress. Self-care for you might look very different than for someone else, and it changes as you move through life.
You might think of self-care as routines or habits, but anthropologists would call it a ritual—a series of actions with intentional symbolic meaning. You’re already familiar with some rituals like holiday or religious traditions, graduation ceremonies, or family rituals like birthdays. University of Connecticut anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas says rituals can provide many “psychological benefits, helping us enjoy ourselves, connect with loved ones, and take a respite from the daily grind.”
In the U.S. and other cultures, women are taught to put others first. But, prioritizing self-care is a way to recognize that your physical and emotional lived experience is as valuable as your job and whatever roles you might fill—wife, partner, mother, caretaker. So your task is to create personal rituals that help you recharge. Make self-care a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly priority, and you'll find that you have more patience, energy, and intellectual curiosity about the world.
Your 20s: Explore who you are
This decade is all about leaning into possibilities such as finishing college and advanced degrees and creating a life on your own. Women in their 20s are launching careers, living their ambitions, and possibly starting a family. Self-care for 20-somethings can be a way to become who you want to be.
Nothing enriches your mind and heart like seeing the world. Home will be the same when you get back, but you’ll be different in ways that enrich your life. Make travel a priority—whether it’s exploring a neighboring town, a new restaurant and cuisine, or a faraway country.
Habits of health
Set high standards for personal fitness, healthy eating, and skin and dental care. You’re going to live in that body your whole life, and healthy habits are the best investment you can make.
When the focus is so much on creating a future, it’s hard to remember to be in the now. But without this centering habit, it’s easy for life to pass us by. Create personal rituals that help you be in the moment, whether that’s a cup of tea before the day starts or sitting outside for 15 minutes before going to bed. Check out Psychology Today’s five habits to be present.
Your 30s: Adapt to change
In your 30s, you'll experience tremendous change. Jobs, marriages, and children will shake up your social circle as friends move off in many different directions and your interests change. You'll be hitting your stride at work and possibly changing jobs to advance your career.
Value old friends
It's easy to lose track of old friends, but that's a huge loss. Old friends help keep you grounded. These people are a link to simpler times and a part of your identity. Be thoughtful about ways to stay connected even as life pulls you in different directions.
Create change management strategies
Big life events like moving, starting new jobs, having children, getting married, or going through a divorce can be curse word–worthy stressful. Take time to think through what would help alleviate your stress. Pre-planning is an adaptive strategy that allows you to rehearse mentally, and this makes the real-life events less chaotic.
Avoid the tyranny of the to-do list
You have a lot on your plate, and to-do lists can be a great way to keep track of responsibilities. But be realistic. If your task list is impossible to accomplish and you know it—you’re off the mark. Time management and prioritizing the right things first (hint: your wellbeing then your job) are defining challenges in your 30s. How well you figure this out will impact your life and career for decades to come.
Your 40s: Put the focus on you
Research shows that midlife blues peak for U.S. women around age 40 and taper away by age 50. It's a normal aspect of aging seen across the world, but it's still a bummer when you're in the dumps. Your career aspirations are coming to fruition as you take on increasing work responsibilities and potentially more extended hours. Adding to the pressure, you may be balancing a partner’s career demands while juggling parent/teacher meetings and angsty teenagers, endless errands, and carpools. And don’t forget the family pet’s vet check. Life can feel overwhelming and isolating.
Ditch social media
Seriously. Social media postings should be the afterthought of a great experience and not the focus of the event itself. Spend time in real life with your posse of women friends to get perspective on life and peer companionship.
Escape the illusion of multitasking
Do something just for you. It may sound impossible amid all the demands on your time, but it's so important. So, schedule a time for a hobby, a bath, a yoga class, or a cup of coffee without answering email. You need this.
The science is irrefutable: being outside is good for your mental and physical health. Even Business Insider agrees. Time in the great outdoors (or the local park) is a natural de-stressor, it fights depression, and eliminates fatigue. You'll be more creative, relaxed, and happy.
Your 50s: Trust in yourself
In this decade, you’re typically established in a career, financially beginning to see possibilities for retirement, and are thinking about what comes next. Mentally, women in their 50s feel more at ease with themselves. This decade brings challenges, though, as you and friends grapple with the funny and not-so funny aspects of menopause, caring for aging parents and putting kids through college.
Lean on women friends
Strong friendships with other women can boost your ability to survive an illness, and contribute significantly to your quality of life, according to Psychology Today. Keep your social networks strong.
Do what works for you
I have one dear friend who gets herself settled by “playing in her closet.” Making sure her clothes are all clean, mended, and organized helps her feel more prepared for the daily stresses of her work life. Knowing she can reach in and get outfits she loves and looks great in is a huge help.
Invest in your health and appearance
Menopause brings a host of new health challenges, and it's essential to stay on top of health care and be physically active. This is a big decade of personal change, but don’t get discouraged. Get informed, be gentle with yourself, and make changes in your personal care routines.
Learn new things
Reward your brain with new experiences. Mental stimulation is one of the best ways to age well. So take up new hobbies, take classes, and join that meetup group.
In Your 60s: Embrace new experiences
If you’re lucky, retirement is the big reward in this decade, but it's also one of the most significant adjustments of your life. You'll be leaving behind a big part of your identity, changing the structure of your days, and facing a new financial situation. It's a lot to deal with mentally and emotionally.
Make peace with grieving
Yes retirement is exciting, but it's also a letting go. Grieving can sneak up on you, steal some of your joy, and make you wonder if retirement is the right thing to do. Anxiety and fearfulness are natural parts of the process. Be gentle with yourself. Lean on your girlfriends. And know that the blues will come and go.
Get financial advice
According to a study from UBS Global Wealth Management, 58 percent of women are likely to leave financial decisions up to their male partners. If that’s you, think again. Now more than ever, you must be in control of your finances. Stepping into this is one of the best self-care investments you can make, and the peace of mind will enrich your life.
The quickest way to age fast is to sit at home doing nothing. Sure, plan to take that big trip and celebrate retirement. But then make a plan for how you want to contribute to your community and make a difference. It's about creating meaning for yourself. This might look like a part-time job, volunteer work, starting a foundation, or being on corporate boards. You have a lifetime of experience to bring to the table.