7 Self-Care Strategies That Can Actually Improve Your Friendships

If anyone's ever tried to tell you that canceling plans when you're feeling down makes you a bad friend, they need to work on their definition of friendship. Spending a night prioritizing self-care rather than out with your friends can help you recharge so you have more energy for your people later. Even as it helps you feel better about yourself, self-care can improve your friendships.

"Caring for yourself first means that you are truly recharging in order to invest that energy elsewhere later," says Alisha Ramos, founder of Girls' Night In, a self-care focused newsletter and community. That energy can be reinvested in everything from your job and your hobbies to your friendships and relationships. Friendship as self-care works in reverse too; when you're at your safest, happiest, and most fulfilled, you are able to be a spectacular friend.

"Relationships are vital to our emotional wellbeing, so prioritizing seeing your friends is an important part of your self-care plan," says Lora DiFranco, founder of Free Period Press and creator of the Self-Care Master Plan, a workbook to help you find your own best ways to care for yourself. Friendship can be help you love yourself well, but self-love also needs to be an active component of your friendships. These seven self-care strategies are great ways to help you care for yourself and treat your friends well.

1. Ask For Help

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Asking for help can be absolutely terrifying. So many people have a history of receiving the opposite of help when they express vulnerability. When you tell someone you're depressed and they tell you to "just stop being sad," that sting doesn't go away for a long time. So it's pretty much our solemn duty to rewrite that script for and with the people we love, and that starts with asking for help ourselves. Making sure you speak up when you need something helps you do the hard work of prioritizing yourself.

Just make sure you're getting help you need from all avenues, Ramos says. "Of course it's nice to be vulnerable and confide with your friends," she tells Bustle, "but sometimes you need a professional, external, third party to chat things through with. Your friends will hopefully be there for you no matter what, but I find that it's helpful to talk to someone who is a licensed professional."

2. Practice Mindfulness

No, this doesn't mean you and your pal have to meditate together (though if you both want to, have at it!). But actively working to cultivate mindfulness can boost your mental health by keeping you connected to your own wants and needs. Whether you're meditating, gardening, or taking intentional walks by yourself, cultivating mindfulness a crucial part of your self-care.

Being mindful works in your friendships, too. By being paying attention to your friendships, you might realize that your relationship has become a series of likes on Instagram. That's OK if that's what you want. If not, though, being intentional about planning out some time together (even if that just means chilling on one of your couches with some good books and yes, Instagram) can help you reconnect. How you like hanging out with Friend A may be very different than how you and Friend B enjoy each other. Be mindful of that when making plans, and everybody wins.

3. Be Generous

Giving can be a profound act of self-love — just make sure it's not the only thing you're doing in a relationship. Sometimes, taking good care of yourself means heading to a friend's house with soup when they're sick, or volunteering at a local shelter because (a) puppies deserve it and (b) you deserve puppies. According to a 2017 study published in the journal BMC Public Health, volunteering can significantly improve your mental health, so spreading positive energy around can be a great way to gain some awesome vibes yourself.

This generosity is only going to help your friendships grow, not in the least because you'll feel good about yourself. It'll also help set up a pattern in your friendships of giving while building up the expectation that you, too, deserve good things from your friends.

4. Live Your Own Life (With Boundaries)

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It's amazing to be generous with your time and love, and it's amazing when your friends are generous in return. But it's just as important to make sure you're living your own lives and maintaining whatever boundaries you need. Being firm about your own boundaries is a great act of self-care, because it helps you protect your time as well as your physical and emotional energy.

"I've found that my priorities list shifts and fluctuates, and that's OK," Ramos tells Bustle. "One month, I might prioritize spending more time with my friends, while another month, I want to invest a little more into my personal/family life. I think as we grow older, friends understand this challenge of balancing our time and priorities." Making sure these boundaries are actively respected in your friendships is key to making sure the relationship doesn't crash and burn after filling up with resentment when you or your friend don't get enough "you" time.

5. Ask Tough Questions

It can be super scary to stand back and ask yourself, really, if it's time to make that career change you've been dreaming of, or take that trip you've always promised yourself. Asking tough questions is one of the things you do with your therapist, and it's no coincidence that when you're brave enough to ask the hardest questions, you grow the most.

Sometimes, even and perhaps especially when you're taking good care of yourself, you realize that certain friendships aren't what they once were. That can be benign, like growing apart after college or moving. It can also be less benign, like with toxic friendships that require you to make yourself small so someone else can be comfortable. Even if they're not doing it on purpose, it can still damage your self-image and esteem. Checking in with yourself about what you're getting out of a relationship and how this person makes you feel will help you make sure you're protecting yourself, your time, and your emotional energy. As for the friendships that you decide are worth your time and effort, they're sure to get stronger when you're clear about what you need and expect.

6. Schedule Your Time

The sensation of flying by the proverbial seat of your pants isn't pleasant. Knowing with a fair amount of certainty and consistency what you're going to be doing from one day to the next is a strategy to get all your stuff done. Scheduling your time so that you've got enough time for all your obligations and yourself is such an important way to make sure you're carving out enough time and emotional space to carve for yourself.

Coordinating schedules between you and your friends can be frustrating, but it'll only make your friendships stronger when you're intentional about your time together. "Scheduling reoccurring friend dates is an easy way to prioritize friend time," DiFranco tells Bustle. "If you have a book club every third Tuesday or walk with a buddy every Monday after work, you don’t have to go through the trouble of finding a time that works for everyone’s schedule." These kinds of scheduling hacks can help you feel more organized, all the while making sure that the friendships you want to cultivate aren't accidentally falling by the wayside.

7. Be Selfish

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It's great to make consistent time for your friends, but it can also be solid self-care to just say no. Being selfish isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially when selfishness means asserting what you need. If you're the type of person who tends to put others first (I see you, fellow Hufflepuffs), you might be used to defining friendships as "I give so much and sometimes I get." You deserve to "get," too.

Your relationships can be just as much "get" as they are "give," though, and that doesn't make you a bad friend. The act of love and trust involved in saying, "hey, can it be 'me' time now?" is profoundly intimate. And intimacy is exactly what you're looking for in your close friendships, so really, everybody wins.

Figuring out how to prioritize your own mental health while being a good friend can be tricky, but it's well worth it. Cultivating self-love is perhaps the primary ingredient of being a solid friend, because your own relationship with yourself really should be your first and foremost friendship.

Studies Referenced:

Yeung, J.W.K. (2018) Volunteering and health benefits in general adults: Cumulative effects and forms. BMC Public Health, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28693551-volunteering-and-health-benefits-in-general-adults-cumulative-effects-and-forms/?from_term=volunteering+mental+health&from_pos=2.

Experts:

Alisha Ramos, founder of Girls' Night In

Lora DiFranco, founder of Free Period Press and creator of the Self Care Master Plan