Ten Guidelines for Developing a Personal Self-Care Plan

First of all, we don’t mean to imply that everybody should have a self-care plan. If things are going well for you, if you are satisfied with the present pattern of your life and not particularly interested in making changes at the moment, good for you. Keep it up. These guidelines are for those who are already interested in making some gentle changes.
Second, remember that the advice that follows has proved useful for some people. They are ideas to try, not commandments.

Third, the goal-setting exercise that accompanies this article is just that–an exercise. It gives you an opportunity to define and state a commitment you would like to make to yourself. This is a commitment to yourself, not an irrevocable promise sealed in blood and cast in concrete. Think of it as an opportunity to “try on” some new behavior patterns. You are free to go back and revise your goals at any time.

You may want to make photocopies of the exercise so that you can be able to see it more than once.








Guideline One: Pick a Goal That Turns You On


Build on strengths. Cultivate excitement. Starve problems and feed solutions. If you are a smoker and the idea of a regular running program appeals to you, you might find yourself quitting cigarettes about the time you get up to three or four miles a day. If you have a problem with weight control, and you’ve always been intrigued by meditation, a daily meditation session might be more useful than a whole stack of diet books. Goals that enrich your life are usually more successful–and are certainly a lot more fun–than goals that deprive you of something.


Guideline Two: Start by Just Paying Attention


An excellent way to start an exercise program is to buy a pedometer–a small, watch-sized instrument that hangs from your belt and records the number of steps you take (available from running, sporting goods, and backpacking stores and chart the total miles you walk each day. A good way to start an eating program is to write down everything you eat for a period of time. To start a smoking program, write down where and when and why you smoke each cigarette. Pay close attention to the ways that other people support desired or undesired behavior in the area you have chosen. Do family members insist on offering you high-calorie goodies? Does everyone else at work light up right after lunch? Don’t try to change anything yet, just pay attention.


Guideline Three: Check Out Your Available Resources


Start with your own personal resources. Were you an athlete in high school? If so, maybe you can reconnect with some of the habits and practices that kept you in shape back then. Do you love to cook? Maybe you would enjoy developing some nutritious natural-food recipes. Is there a musical instrument or an art or craft that once meant a lot to you? Reconnecting with these areas of interest might be a way to further your own process of self-integration. Have you always had a dream of being a dancer? A painter? A writer? This may be an opportunity to develop these interests.


What individuals and groups in your community would be the best resources in your chosen area? Who already knows about what you want to know’? Are there support groups in your chosen area (Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, women’s consciousness raising groups? Do you have friends who have lost weight, who are runners, meditators, or whatever? What are the best publications in the area you have chosen?


Guideline Four: Brainstorm Many Possible Goals Before Narrowing It Down to One


If you want to start an exercise program, you might start by brainstorming such goals as swimming the English Channel, walking cross-country across America, running a marathon, running five miles a day, joining (or organizing) a weekly fun-run or running support group, running in place for five minutes before your shower each morning, riding your bike to work, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or taking a fifteen-minute walk after lunch three times a week. Be creative. Feel free to be completely unrealistic. Think of goals that would be fun. Remember you are just brainstorming. Find your own way to do it. Maybe the best way for you to start an exercise program would be to get a dog and take it for a walk once or twice a day.


Guideline Five: Design Freedom Into Your Goals


“I will allow myself to take work breaks to do yoga whenever I feel like it.” “I will go to bed early in order to give myself some quiet time in the morning before breakfast.” “I will leave one Sunday a month free to be alone in the woods.” “When I go running, I will let myself dance, skip, stop to look at a bird or a flower, or do anything I feel like.” These are some goals with built-in freedom.


Guideline Six: Support Yourself


Pay close attention to your successes and the benefits deriving from your new practices. Celebrate your victories. “I ran a whole half-mile today without stopping!” “Doing yoga sure makes my back and shoulders feel good.” Think of rewards you might give yourself for reaching short-term and long-term goals. (A hot bath after an evening run, a massage after logging your first hundred miles, dinner and a movie after completing a pet creative project.)


Guideline Seven: Ask the Support of Others-And Support Them for Supporting You


Pick your support person (or people) carefully. Pick people who accept you as you are, who make you feel good about yourself when you are with them. Tell them that you’re working on developing your own self-care plan–you might even show them this article–and ask if they’d be willing to be your support person for the goal you’ve chosen. Tell them the kinds of things they could do to help support you. Be as specific as you can, for example, “Serve me smaller portions.” “Bicycle along with me sometimes when I go running.” “Come with me to the first meeting of a self-help group [or self-care class or workshop or whatever].”


The way to get the best support from a friend is to support her or him for supporting you. “I really appreciated it that you took care of the kids so that I could play my flute.” “It was really a help for you to take me into the medical library and show me how to look things up for myself.” “It was wonderful when you said every time I wanted a cigarette you’d give me a kiss instead.” ” I really love it when you compliment me for the weight I’m losing.”


You might also want to consider creating your own imaginary support person. A good description of one way to go about doing this can be found in ” Create Your Imaginary Doctor,” in The Well Body Book Mike Samuels and Hal Bennett. A somewhat similar approach, including both a written dialogue with your own body and a dialogue with an interior wisdom figure, is described in At a Journal Workshop by Ira Progoff.


Guideline Eight: Create a Supportive Environment


It may be easier to change your environment than to change your behavior. The easiest way to control your choice of foods is at the place you buy your food. If you have high-calorie, low-nutrition foods around, they’ll probably end up being eaten. What goes into your shopping cart goes into your family’s bodies. If you’re trying to cut down on caffeine, try mixing your present brand of coffee half-and-half with decaffeinated coffee. Trouble overeating? Put your scale next to your refrigerator. And if your new, smaller portions look too tiny, buy smaller plates. If you’re exploring yoga, massage, or meditation, try putting aside a special part of the house–or a special room–for these practices. Does soaking in hot water help you relax? Consider putting in a bigger bathtub. Having trouble finding a good place to run? Join other runners in a campaign for a community running path


Guideline Nine: Be Aware of Feedback and Be Open to Modifying Your Goal


How does your new practice make your body feel? How does your awareness change? If you have a cold and are reading about the physiology of colds and taking vitamin C, how does that feel, compared to the way you used to cope with colds? How does making certain changes in your diet affect the way you feel about mealtime? At what times of day do you find yourself using your new relaxation skills?


Be aware of negative feedback, too. If you’ve given a chosen practice a good try and it’s just not working, give yourself a vacation and re-evaluate. Are you trying for too much too fast? Go back to the paying attention and brainstorming stage. You haven’t failed; you’ve gained some useful information. Go back through the goal-setting exercise. Or, if it seems right, give yourself a vacation from goal-setting for a while.


Guideline Ten: Remember That Your Ultimate Goal Is to Discover Practices That Allow You to Experience and Develop Your Own Uniqueness


There are two approaches to developing a self-care plan. Method number one is to imagine the ideal way you think you should be or would like to be. You then focus your attention on all the ways you fail to live up to that ideal. Method number one is a very effective way of making yourself miserable.


Method number two is to begin by just tasting your own being, becoming aware of your own body without comparing it to anything or anyone. When you taste a good wine, if you are comparing it to another wine or to how an ideal wine would taste, you will not be able to fully taste the wine you are drinking. If you are reading a book or watching a movie and are too involved in criticizing the plot or analyzing the style, chances are you won’t be able to enjoy the story.


It may be that the most important part of developing a self-care plan is not the things you start doing, but the things you stop doing, a sort of psychological housecleaning, getting rid of some things you don’t need any more.


So–the best of luck in working toward your own tailor-made self-care plan. And remember that it is you who must be the tailor.


Worksheet for Developing a Personal Self-Care Plan



  • My main area of interest (eating, exercise, learning to deal with common illness problems, etc.)


  • My main personal strengths and resources in this area


  • The best resources for me in this area (people, groups, classes, books, etc.)


  • Some activities and goals I might choose to help me explore this area (Brainstorm!)


  • I would like to choose an initial activity that I could complete in about days/weeks/months.


  • Within this time limit, the goal I’d most like to set for myself is


  • Some small rewards I will give myself for making progress toward this goal


  • A big reward I will give myself for reaching my goal


  • I will ask to be my support person in working toward this goal.


  • I will contact my support person on (date) to bring him/her up to date on my explorations in this area.


  • My commitment, again, is to accomplish the following activities:
    between now and the following date


  • On that date I will give my support person a report on my explorations in this area.











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Tom Ferguson MD Written by Tom Ferguson MD

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