Meet Gina Biegel, Author of "Be Mindful & Stress Less"
Interviewed by Aviva DeKornfeld
"...take a rigorous look at how often you might be caring for others while not putting in the time and attention to take care of yourself. This behavior might occur because you are a giver or a nurturer who is always there for others; or it might be a way to deny looking at yourself. It is like organizing cans in the pantry when you have something else you really should be doing. I believe it is important to be there for others and for yourself, sometimes equally and sometimes sixty–forty. On any given day, the balance might flip to you or to another. I think that is what self-care is actually about, finding balance in your life, not perfection."
Gina Biegel's work is empowering teens, families, teachers, and caregivers with the tools of mindfulness, self-care, and more. In this interview with Aviva DeKornfield, Gina dives into the subject of mindful self-care, the effects of surfing social media, and offers useful "Mindful Takeaways" to experiment with in our lives and work.
In your section on self-care, you write, “You can’t care for anyone else until you first take care of yourself.” This sentence has become something of a rallying cry for millennials, the self-care generation. But, like most ideas that rise to prominence, the sentence loses its nuance as it gains popularity. Could you break down what this sentence really means, and what it looks like? For example, do you stop trying to care for others until you are perfect at taking care of yourself? Or do you work to improve both your self-care and care for others in parallel?
The takeaway here is to take a rigorous look at how often you might be caring for others while not putting in the time and attention to take care of yourself. This behavior might occur because you are a giver or a nurturer who is always there for others; or it might be a way to deny looking at yourself. It is like organizing cans in the pantry when you have something else you really should be doing. I believe it is important to be there for others and for yourself, sometimes equally and sometimes sixty–forty. On any given day, the balance might flip to you or to another. I think that is what self-care is actually about, finding balance in your life, not perfection.
I don’t see self-care as black or white, either/or—that you can only care for yourself or only care for others. In US culture, people tend to be in one of two camps: “selfish” or “selfless.” Neither camp is the way to go. Self-care is something I think can best be explored using the analogy of a teeter-totter. At times you are on the upswing and spending more time attending to your own self-care. At other times you are on the downswing and spending more time attending to others’ needs. Where you are is often dependent upon, and influenced by, the roles you play: are you a parent, caregiver, friend, professional who works to take care of others? All these roles will impact how often you are there for yourself or need to be there for others. The key takeaway is that if you are always giving, giving, giving to others, there has to be some swing back to yourself to maintain health and some semblance of balance. The healthiest self-care balance point lies not only in giving to others, but to also in giving to yourself.
In my book chapter, I point out what you allude to: that when you care for yourself you are also modeling for others how to take care of themselves. So often we are encouraged to give to others, to do for others, but the doing for ourselves isn’t taught. When you show your friends, family, and coworkers the little ways you care for yourself, it is a powerful reminder to them that it is both necessary and healthy to also care for yourself and that doing so isn’t being selfish. I want to point to my suggestions that there are differing levels of self-care and time commitments, from one minute to one day. Self-care doesn’t have to be a grandiose display, although it can be. Self-care in my opinion consists of the moments—no matter how small—when you are showing up for yourself and showing yourself that you matter, day in and day out.
Mindful Takeaway: Think of five things you love to do and do them. Don’t wait until the perfect spot opens up in your schedule or you have first accomplished ten things on your to-do list. Fill up your self-care gas tank and resource yourself for the times when you can’t attend to yourself and have to attend to another.
Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between mindfulness and self-care? How does one support the other? Do you have to do your self-care activities mindfully for them to be effective?
Mindfulness is about being present and aware of your life as it is unfolding moment by moment, whether those moments are awful, wonderful, or neutral. When you are mindful, you become more aware of and in tune with both your physical and mental health and your needs, and whether your self-care gas tank is full or empty. Mindfulness helps you know just how well you are doing from moment to moment with taking care of yourself. Every morning you can assess how you are feeling, what your mood is, and what your needs are, and then make adjustments to get to the balance point of what feels best to you in terms of engaging in self-care.
You do not need to do self-care activities mindfully for them to be effective or advantageous, but why wouldn’t you? I know that I get more out of minor self-care activities, like enjoying my yummy cup of morning coffee or picking a flower from my garden, when I am mindful—enjoying, savoring, and aware of these moments—than when I am doing them automatically or mindlessly, or also doing something else.
Mindful Takeaway: Create a list of the things you enjoy doing and consider self-care in nature. Then break them into three categories, (1) can do anytime—doesn’t require a lot of time, (2) takes a bit of scheduling, but I can squeeze it in if I want to, and (3) need to schedule this in and set some time aside. Now, start doing these self-care activities; they are as easy as 1-2-3!
If someone hadn’t been in the habit of practicing self-care, and then started following your guidelines for self-care, what are some of the changes they might experience?
The most important change when you engage and even increase your level of self-care is a sense of esteem and confidence. You are saying to yourself that you matter. You are showing up for yourself! It can be easy to get into a routine of putting yourself on the back burner or delaying things you like to do for yourself even though you know you always feel better when you do them. It is important to hold yourself accountable for taking care of yourself. No one else is going to do this better than you can or will. If you don’t show yourself that you matter and show others that it is important to take care of yourself, you are really saying you aren’t worth it.
A caveat here: I am not saying you need to engage in a weeklong silent retreat every month or spend hours upon hours every day on self-care activities, although there are times when these are indicated. What I am saying is that you can notice meaningful benefit and change simply by engaging in many micro moments of self-care every day. The science behind positive neuroplasticity supports just this point. Engaging in many micro moments of self-care each day can positively impact your physical and mental well-being. These acts can be as simple as savoring the sweetness of the spray of cologne you put on, or taking in a smile from a colleague, or noticing the radiance between tree branches as they part and the sun shines in.
Mindful Takeaway: Show up for yourself and show yourself that you matter. What self-care activities can you do the rest of today, even if micro-sized? Try to come up with three to five and do them! At the end of the day, what did you notice when you did these?
In your “Look Up from the Device” section, you mention that surfing social media releases dopamine. The release of dopamine sounds like something that would be good. It sounds similar to self-care, since exercising or petting an animal also releases happy chemicals. Could surfing social media be considered self-care? And if not, why?
The release of dopamine is a primitive way your brain lets you know that this person, place, thing, or situation feels good; however, feeling good isn’t synonymous with being healthy, and your brain can’t always discern the difference. For example, you come across a giant chocolate bar on your kitchen counter. It is really tempting and tastes really good, but after ingesting the entire bar, your stomach reminds you that maybe your brain wasn’t looking out for your best interest. It just primitively said, “Yum,” and “Eat this.” It didn’t explain that you might get a stomach ache or that you might not be able to sleep because you ate the chocolate right before you were trying to go to bed.
When I think about our relationship to and with social media I think, moderation, moderation, moderation. Some is okay and can, at times, even be a healthy distraction. It might also be a way for you to easily connect with your friends around the world. There are pros, but there are also cons. For example, when you are surfing social media at two in the morning and have to be up at six for a work meeting. The dopamine produced during your surfing—combined with the adrenaline coming from wanting more and more, and the FOMO (fear of missing out)—can prevent you from putting your phone down and going to sleep. This is a clear example of when dopamine and surfing are self-harm, not self-care.
Obviously, being on or off social media is up to you, but if it is something you like to engage in, remember: moderation, moderation, moderation. It is important to ask yourself: Am I doing this for healthy distraction? For enjoyment? For conversation and connection? Is it a good time to be on or not? Am I procrastinating? Should I be sleeping? Create a list of checks and balances that draw boundaries around your social media usage. It isn’t about having perfect social media hygiene; it is about being mindful and aware of your use and your reasons for using it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
GINA M. BIEGEL, MA, LMFT, is a psychotherapist, researcher, speaker, and author in the San Francisco Bay Area who specializes in mindfulness-based work with adolescents. She is founder of Stressed Teens, which has been offering mindfulness-based stress reduction for teens (MBSR-T) to adolescents, families, schools, professionals, and the community for over a decade. She created MBSR-T to help teens in a large HMO’s outpatient department of child and adolescent psychiatry whose physical and psychological symptoms were not responding satisfactorily to a multitude of other evidence-based practices. An expert and pioneer in bringing mindfulness-based approaches to youth, she is the author of Be Mindful & Stress Less: 50 Ways to Deal with Your (Crazy) Life, The Stress Reduction Workbook for Teens (first and second edition), the Be Mindful Card Deck for Teens and the forthcoming book Mindfulness for Student Athletes: A Workbook to Help Teens Reduce Stress and Enhance Performance. She also has a mindfulness practice audio CD, Mindfulness for Teens Practices to Reduce Stress and Enhance Well-Being, to complement the MBSR-T program; provides worldwide multi-day trainings and intensive ten-week online trainings; and works with teens and families individually and in groups. Her work has been featured on the Today Show, CNN, Reuters, the New York Times, and in Tricycle.