The Art of Extreme Self-Care

    ‘Thomas Leonard’, founder of Coach University and the leading pioneer in the field of professional coaching, was the man’s name, and I’ll never forget what happened in our first session.

    During the intake process Thomas asked me to tell him a little about my life. As I listened to myself talk about my schedule, I have to admit that I felt pretty good. There was a certain level of satisfaction that came from being needed and in demand. When I finished, Thomas was quiet for a moment, and then, with a slight edge in his voice said, ‘Wow, you do a great job of taking care of a lot of people. You’re such a good person.’ I smiled to myself, thinking, Hmmm, he really gets me. But what he said next took me totally by surprise: ‘And the truth is, Cheryl, your “good girl” role is going to rob you of your life.’

    I was a good girl. I was so used to playing the role of caretaker that it had become a normal way of life. It had also become my identity and how I defined my selfworth.

    When it came time to talk with Thomas about what wasn’t working in my life, my complaints revealed something quite different. I had to admit that I had no time for myself. I felt resentful about helping to make others successful yet never getting around to doing what I wanted to do. I also had to face the reality that too many of my relationships were one-way streets. Some of my friends were extremely needy, yet I kept them in my life because they made me feel safe, in control, and significant. Yes, Thomas was right: I was a good girl, and it was sucking the life out of me.

    It was during our work together that Thomas introduced me to the concept of Extreme Self-Care.

    The Art of Extreme Self-Care

    As I slowly began to incorporate Extreme Self-Care into my life, it was clear that internal changes were required in order to make these behaviours stick. For example, I needed to quit being a martyr and focus on getting my needs met. I had to stop expecting others to read my mind and start being direct about what I wanted. I was challenged to try asking for help long before I needed it. Rather than bitch and moan about how others had let me down, I was to see my frustration as an indication that something needed to change. I also had to begin asking people to share the load instead of being a hero by attempting to do it all myself. Finally, I had to stop being an automatic ‘yes’ machine when people asked for my help and instead learn to say ‘no’ with confidence and ease.

    The art of Extreme Self-Care takes patience, commitment, and practice. It initially requires a willingness to sit with some pretty uncomfortable feelings, too, such as guilt – for putting your own needs first, fear – of being judged and criticised by others, or anxiety – from challenging long-held beliefs and behaviours. It’s an organic, evolutionary process; an art as opposed to science. Over time, you’ll make progress and become more comfortable with the process, but you’ll also regress. I know the dance well. There are days when I set firm limits on my availability so that I don’t feel overwhelmed with work, yet there are other days when I’m beating myself up, wondering why the hell I’m still in the office at 9 p.m. The difference today is that I’m much more aware of what it feels like when I’m getting into trouble, and I know what I have to do to get back on course.

    I’ve come to learn that over-giving is often a sign of deprivation – a signal that a need isn’t being met, an emotion isn’t being expressed, or a void isn’t getting filled. For example, while you might dedicate hours to coordinating the family’s social calendar, you may actually be yearning for deeper and more meaningful connections, stimulating conversation, or a greater intimacy with yourself. You might also be available and generous with others because on some level you have an unconscious desire to get what you give, whether it’s acknowledgement, affection, recognition, or support. Becoming aware of how and why you feel deprived can be a key to recognising what needs to shift emotionally and physically to achieve Extreme Self-Care.

    When you insist, ‘I always end up doing everything myself,’ the truth of what you’re really saying is: ‘I don’t ask for help.’


    People who feel overworked, overburdened, or under pressure ask me to share time-management secrets, or strategies for being better organised, so they can get a handle on their chaotic schedules. My response is always the same: ‘You can’t make sanity out of an insane situation.’

    The concept of creating a list of absolute no’s is important. It serves as a potent reminder of what you no longer do so that you can protect your quality of life. It can be eye-opening and helpful to read about what others consider an absolute no, especially if you have trouble creating your own list. That’s why I asked several friends to share their examples. As you read through them, notice how they make you feel, and put a check mark next to the ones that you’d like to adopt.

    The Absolute No list you create will tell you a lot about yourself. If you can’t think of anything, for example, it could mean that you need to put your needs on the front burner. If your list only has two or three items, then it may be time to give more consideration to what needs to change in your life. And if you look at your list and feel good about the rules you live by – the ones that protect you and keep you strong – then it might be time for a celebration.

    Starting your own list is an important step in learning about where you fall on the self- care spectrum.

    Post your list in a place where you’ll see it every day for at least the next month, and be sure to take five or ten minutes each day to read through it. As you do, imagine installing these new rules into your brain like a self-care software upgrade – a programme that will help you run your life more efficiently and effectively. The goal is to develop an Absolute No list that, over time, makes you feel safe, protected, taken care of, and free to be your best self.

    The Art of Extreme Self-Care

    My Absolute No list:

    I no longer…

    • Rush.
    • Jump out of bed in the morning. I give myself the time and space I need to start the day in a serene and relaxed state.
    • Live without pets.
    • Compromise my needs to keep peace with anyone.
    • Argue with people who see debating as sport.
    • Use my credit cards unless I can pay them off in full at the end of the month.
    • Keep anything in my home that I don’t love or need.
    • Tolerate, or participate in gossip.
    • Deal with difficult life situations alone.
    • Hire anyone – be it a lawyer, doctor, health-care provider, or what have you – who treats me with disrespect.
    • Take phone calls during meals.
    • Accept verbal abuse from a boss or co-worker.
    • Go to work when I’m sick.
    • Keep my opinions to myself when they don’t align with those of others in the room.
    • Let social norms dictate what I should be interested in, whether it’s clothes, art, music, or the like. I love what I love.
    • Invest time in relationships that aren’t aligned with who I am and who I want to be.
    • Accept wasteful packaging at restaurants, stores and so on.
    • Eat when I’m not hungry.
    • Get caught up in other people’s drama.
    • Feel an obligation to spend time with family members or friends who choose to live in chaos.
    • Feel bad about saying no when no is what’s best for me.
    • Let the TV networks dictate when I watch my favourite shows (I record what I want to see and then watch it at my leisure).
    • Throw away anything that can be recycled.
    • Buy cars that aren’t fuel efficient.
    • Spend time with people who talk at me instead of with me.

    This is an extract from Cheryl Richardson’s book, The Art of Extreme Self-Care, published by Hay House in 2009.

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