I used to subscribe to the notion that self-care wasn’t sexy. As a perfectionist and high-achiever, I focused my time and energy on what I could accomplish and give to others, rather than looking inward to my own needs. For years this worked just fine (give or take a few weeks of exhaustion and burn-out).
Society encourages the view of women as caregivers. Even with our integration into the workforce, we’re often managing a household, taking care of kids, helping out aging parents, volunteering in the community, and advocating for change in our spare time. I certainly bought into the idea that those areas deserved my attention, and I spent years trying to achieve a balance between all these roles.
On this crazy roller coaster of life, rarely did I encounter advice encouraging me to offer any attention to myself. And when society does promote self-care for women, the messages tend to be laced with unspoken expectations about the surface level of their character:
Man or woman, what matters is who we are deep inside. The questions no one seems to be asking relate to how we manage our time and priorities.
It’s not easy to fulfill our basic obligations to work, family and others, let alone find time to spend on ourselves. It somehow seems selfish or irresponsible—as if personal care is an unnecessary, extravagant luxury. That’s right about when life is forced to step in and get your attention.
Shortly after starting this blog, I began experiencing burning pain in my shoulder and arm. Though it wasn’t constant, when it did occur the intensity was excruciating. It also happened at the strangest of times—while driving, at mealtimes, and near the end of the day as I tried to fall asleep. Sometimes I would have to clutch my elbow through a conversation, and afterwards be unable to recall much of what was said. I was so focused on getting through my own suffering, I wasn’t able to be present for the people close to me.
Eventually I learned I had a compressed cervical nerve, causing a burning sensation to radiate down my arm. In response, the muscles in my back and neck had compensated for the pain by tightening up. A visit to the doctor for a 5-day pack of prednisone and a course of physical therapy were fortunately enough to put me right again. However, I felt on notice that something had to give, or I’d end up right back where I started.
So I took a long, hard look at how I was treating myself…and it wasn’t pretty. Long hours at the keyboard with bad posture, crazy commutes while driving the kids everywhere, and spending my free time catching up on everything else (housework, yard work, bills, meals, plus a little mindless screen time).
I finally stopped to ask:
What was so hard about caring for myself?
What matters are the answers you tell yourself—these motivations to make time for self-care will drive your actions. If you can’t convince yourself it’s important, you’ll lack the consistency to follow through with this life-changing practice. For those of you who are struggling to find your reason, or feeling guilty about the idea of prioritizing your needs, I offer a few thoughts for your consideration…
With so many demands placed upon us, both at work and at home, we tend to view our worth as a function of what we can deliver. Yet we’d never promote this viewpoint for the people we love and care about. Could you imagine:
We graciously see our family and friends as whole people. Sure, we acknowledge where they make mistakes and have room for growth, but we love and value them for who they are. Their very presence enriches our lives and touches our hearts.
Why is it so hard to give ourselves the same courtesy?
Your very existence, the simple fact that you are here—living and breathing—is the only reason needed to start gifting yourself with self-care.
Not just to the people in your life, but hopefully to yourself.
You are worthy of self-care.
Not because of all that you do. Not because of the amount of time or energy you dedicate to others. But because you are a unique and tender spirit who is no less deserving than any other.
Consider this permission to show yourself some love.
As the pain in my neck started to improve, I realized I had allowed my situation to progress because I hadn’t bothered to prioritize my own care. I knew my longer hours at the keyboard were cause for concern, but I didn’t make the time to practice proper posture and ergonomics. Nearly as painful as my nerve trauma was the admission that I hadn’t considered myself worthy of my own attention.
How do we teach our children to interact with others? We don’t assume they will know how to behave automatically. We don’t expect them to read the minds of their playmates. We don’t leave them to flounder or figure it out on their own.
Instead, we offer guidance and examples of how to share their toys, say I’m sorry, or give a hug. The biggest lessons they receive, however, are from watching us model these types of behaviors every day:
If you allow external demands to always come first, then you’re sending a silent message that other people shouldn’t be concerned about your needs either. A firm and deliberate No (or at least not now!) can alert people at home and at work that your care matters too.
It wasn’t easy for me to juggle a couple hours of physical therapy a week into my already packed schedule. But intense pain has a way of re-organizing your priorities. I accepted it was time to bump self-care up a little higher on my list.
So I committed to daily stretching and cervical alignment sessions. My family quickly learned that when I’m decompressing my neck and rolling out stiff muscles, they’re going to have to wait for my attention.
I also slowed down my work routine in order to take more frequent breaks. Looking away from my screen, getting up from my chair, and moving my neck and shoulders through their range of motion are now priorities. No matter how busy I am or how fast the approaching deadline, I don’t sacrifice my own care anymore.
It’s difficult to nurture others when your own tank is only half-full. Care-taking is hard work—demanding patience, perseverance, and focused energy—which isn’t truly possible when you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Over the years, I’ve known periods of being a devoted care-giver, with constant demands on my time. When I didn’t also support my own needs, I felt worn out, frazzled, and not effective at helping others.
Our professional, personal, and creative lives suffer when we don’t approach them from a place of rest. Though I’ve managed to turn in acceptable work when stressed or pressed for time, my best endeavors occur when I’m coming from a more balanced point.
Luckily, I was able to shift some projects around when my pain began to flare. I made therapy my priority, which allowed the time I did have to be more focused. I also enlisted the help of my family to handle several household tasks that aggravated my neck, so I could connect with them without the unwanted distractions.
It starts with little signs at first…the barest of whispers, prompting you to change. If you fail to heed the warnings, though, the Universe isn’t beyond whacking you with a sledgehammer. I learned this lesson the hard way—though it took over a week of suffering before I figured out the cause of my pain, I’d missed subtle signs along the way. Now I recognize the heightened need for vigilance and self-awareness, lest the problem recur and sideline me again…or require more drastic measures to correct it.
In hindsight, it’s easier to see where you might have made a better choice. Yet why wait for heartache (or physical pain) to teach you a lesson? Self care doesn’t have to be costly or time-consuming.
It just has to matter.
We all have a list full of responsibilities and goals to accomplish. One of the most important, though, is learning when (and how) to take care of ourselves. Encouraging moments of daily joy increases our energy and allows it to flow more freely.
Life is a gift. Pure and simple. When we ignore the pursuit of our passions and the self-care that gives our days meaning, then we’re not really living, we’re simply existing.
My obligations haven’t changed dramatically since my pain disappeared. Even after stepping back from my editorial work, this period in my life is still quite full. I have, however, taken greater control over my time and priorities. I’m no longer rushing from one obligation to the next, checking off boxes frantically. I’m continually asking questions about what self-care means to me, and how to make a consistent practice which nourishes me and in turn supports those whose lives I touch.
When I make time for myself—doing something loving that’s just for me—I’m reminded that these are the moments I’m supposed to be living for.
I hope I’ve inspired you to thoughtfully examine what self-care feels like for you.
The way to a more harmonious life starts by incorporating this practice in ways that are relevant to you and in amounts which are self-sustaining.
For your Small Step this week, consider a few questions related to self-care and how it currently measures up as a part of your habits and lifestyle.
When was the last time you did something purely for your own self-care?
What limiting beliefs might be stopping you from practicing self-care?
How often do you make self-care a priority?
What activities or self-care choices feel exquisitely tender and loving?
If you’re struggling with the premise of self-care—feeling unsure if you have time or the willingness to make your own needs a priority—I encourage you to practice repeating these affirmations.
It may feel false or awkward in the beginning…but remember that loving yourself first is the only way towards nurturing others and the world with your whole heart.
I am worthy of exquisite self-care.
I practice self-care so that I can care for those I love.
I encourage people to treat me well by modeling my own self-care.
When I practice self-care, I open myself up to living with joy.
What are your challenges with self-care?
How often do you practice putting your needs first?
What does exquisite self-care look like for you?