Mireille Reece, PsyD changelog.com/posts

Self-care should result in more margin

Margin gives you more energy in your emotional bank account

With constant change being our new normal these days, I cannot attest enough to the importance of implementing the habit of self-care. The biggest reason, aside from the sheer benefit of taking care of yourself, is the crucial by-product of margin that we gain. However, the challenge is that we often know what's important for our health, yet we fail to incorporate these "knowns" into our daily lives.

We’ve talked about habit formation on Brain Science and the key takeaway is that in order to create AND sustain new habits, there has to be an immediate pay out. We have to have an emotional benefit in order to repeat behaviors and form habits.

In this post I cover what self-care is and the ways to establish habits that can help you create more margin in your life.

What does self-care look like?

First and most importantly, self-care looks different for everyone. Because we all care about and enjoy different things in life, the activities we take part in are going to speak to us and care for us differently. That being said, having a mental framework for what self-care is can be helpful in identifying behaviors we can do to move towards adaptive self-care strategies.

Simply put, self-care is any activity done intentionally and deliberately to care for our emotional, physical, and spiritual health.

Emotional self-care focuses our awareness on our emotions and gives space to take the necessary steps to honor and care for these emotions, which might include things like:

  • Setting boundaries like saying “no” to things that cause unnecessary stress
  • Giving yourself permission to take a break
  • Spending time with others, like setting up a weekly “meet” (even if done virtually)
  • Writing or journaling
  • Playful activities like sports, games, or other hobbies
  • Taking a digital detox

Physical self-care focuses on managing the fundamental aspects of your brain and body, which might include things like:

  • Prioritizing sleep (protect the asset)
  • Engaging in some form of regular exercise or deliberate movement
  • Eating healthy by choosing nourishing foods instead of highly processed foods

Spiritual self-care focuses on the activities that provide you with a sense of meaning or contribution to the world in a positive way, which might include things like:

  • Committing to a religious set of beliefs or attending a religious service
  • Practicing gratitude (research shows that for this to have the most significant impact, you’ll want to express these in writing or verbally)
  • Spending time outside in nature

What is margin and why should I care?

We’ve discussed the concept of margin several times on Brain Science, but I don’t think we’ve ever properly defined it.

Richard A. Swenson defines margin in his book titled Margin as the following:

Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating. Margin is the opposite of overload. If we are overloaded we have no margin.

We enable margin in so many other areas of our lives, but we often don’t consider it when it comes to managing our mental health. We’re taught the importance of a savings account when it comes to our finances and learning and responding to pain signals when it comes to our bodies. It’s important to learn how to create margin for ourselves in terms of recognizing the cues and clues that signal “I’m stretched too thin”. If we don’t deliberately allocate space between our input and output, we end up having less resources to do the things we need to do or want to do.

What will more margin do for me?

Creating more margin allows for more room, more buffering, and more flexibility. When we encounter challenges or frustrations, we have more room to breathe and respond with kindness or gentleness both with ourselves and with others. We are able to choose our response as opposed to simply reacting. This is so important because we may have learned a default way of responding that can be problematic in terms of our work, relationships, our bodies (think food habits), or even our finances (can anyone say, retail therapy?).

I want to have the space to reflect on the choices I’m making throughout my days, and be able to ask myself, “Are my activities are moving me in the direction I want to go? Or, are they derailing my personal or professional efforts?”

If I don’t have the internal space to think, I’m likely to just default to what I’ve practiced most often throughout my life, regardless of my desire or will. We all only have so much strength when a muscle has been under tension for too long. Eventually something has to give, and that’s when we begin to break down.

What ways can I create margin in my life?

You can be creative when prioritizing self-care in your life, but the key thing to remember is that self-care should result in more margin — which, according to Richard A. Swenson, gives you “space between your load and your limits,” which results in more energy to continue to do the life you want to live.

We have to learn to be deliberate around engaging in activities routinely that feed us and help us keep going even when as it’s said, “the going gets tough”.

Emotions are energy and therefore, we are all making efforts around managing what we take in and what we put out. If I engage in being outdoors with friends doing something that provides me positive emotions, I will have added more energy in my emotional bank account. In the same way that we have to refuel or recharge our cars, if we want to continue to use our cars to get us to the places we’re trying go, so it is also with our minds and bodies.


If you want to know what to do right now, consider the two A’s. Pay attention (i.e. be aware) and ask yourself questions. If you’re not aware of the feedback that your brain and body are giving you, you won’t recognize the need to change or the limited margin you are working with. Practice slowing down or taking small breaks to “check-in” with yourself about how you’re doing and how you feel. Ask yourself questions about what you want, where you’re headed, and what’s working or not working. Without reflection, you forfeit the opportunity for deliberate change in the direction you want to move.

If you enjoyed this post, continue down this path by listening to Brain Science #31: It’s OK to self-care where Dr. Mireille Reece and Adam Stacoviak discuss the topic of “self-care” and how important it can be for healthy living.


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