Many people I work with need to learn self-care, but as soon as we start talking about how to put that into practice, they start feeling uneasy, worried that doing the things they need to do means they will be “selfish”.
That, in itself, is a red flag, a signal that actually confirms that you need to work on this. Why? Because your worry tells you that you don’t know the difference between what is healthy self-care and what isn’t. Your worry is based in what we call “all-or-nothing thinking”: “If I take care of myself then I am being selfish.” That clearly doesn’t make sense, does it? One way to evaluate this is to think of someone you care about, someone who you would want to be healthy and happy. Ask yourself: “Would I consider him/her selfish if they did this?” If the answer is no, then the same should apply to you; it is only reasonable to want yourself to be happy and healthy as well.
Your worry also tells you a little bit about the problem pattern and why you persist in doing it. It means the pattern you are stuck in is based in a fear of some sort – a fear that people won’t like you, or that people will judge you if you focus on yourself, that you will be a “bad person” in some way.
The fact that you worry about being self-centred also should reassure you that you are not being self-centered. It tells you that you are concerned about others, and that is your normal, default focus, therefore you are probably not someone who needs to worry about this. Even if learning to take care of yourself means that you do become a little bit selfish for a little while, that is ok, too. You have lots of practice in putting yourself aside, so it will be no problem to shift aback in that direction if you need to!
By the time you notice that you need to learn self-care, it probably means either that you are somewhere between chronically tired and burned out from patterns of people-pleasing, or that you are realizing that you are never able to accomplish the things that you want, the things that are important to you, because you are deferring to others’ wants and needs. Sometimes, though, the cause is more that you have been stuffing down your true feelings for too long, neglecting to deal with what is bothering you.
I find that because of how we are raised and socialized, women tend to worry more about being judged as “selfish” if they take care of themselves, while men worry more about being judged as “weak” or “lazy” or not holding up their end. In both cases, you may notice that the worry is about not meeting others’ expectations.
To some degree people also worry about losing their own sense of self. When you have identified yourself as someone who helps others, who is “reliable”, who sacrifices your own well-being for the good of others, who can be counted on, etc. you take some pride in that, because these are qualities that everyone admires and that you can feel good about. If you step out of that pattern to take care of yourself, you might fear losing the very basis you have for feeling good about yourself, maybe even your identity.
You might also worry about how others will react. Again, that tells you something about how you came to develop this pattern. It means that you probably developed it as a way to get approval or acceptance, or just to avoid judgement, criticism or punishment. In one way or another, it became a way to either get by or get ahead on your environment. But is became a rigid pattern of what you do that at some point in life doesn’t work for you. For one thing, it never really delivers on its promise; you are never able to totally relax and coast, because every day you are starting all over again to preserve your place, to avoid rejection, to feel good about yourself - or whatever it is for you. The cost becomes greater than the benefit. But some part of you still fears the consequences of letting it go. If that wasn’t the case, simply acknowledging that a habit, a pattern or behaviour isn’t working for you and is causing negative outcomes, would be enough to cause you to change it.
When you feel a resistance to changing the pattern – or even if you don’t feel that resistance, but you just notice something in you avoiding making the necessary changes – then you know that there is a fear of the consequences of changing. So sometimes you need to work through those obstacles – to clear the road – before you can move ahead with learning self-care.
Self-care in itself is simple, but if you are needing to learn how to do it, it means that you need to take the time to put in the effort to learn something new. Often, we think it’s a two-step process: “I need to stop doing A and start doing B.” And then we feel bad when we can’t seem to successfully do this, and maybe eventually even give up trying. Your habits are your habits; at the best of times, changing habits is a process with many parts that takes focus and effort. It means:
1) creating an intention to change them;
2) committing to the goal of changing them;
3) making the effort to spot the habit, the pattern you are trying to change when it happens (you’ve been doing this for years; it won’t change overnight!)
4) choosing not to do what you usually do that you know isn’t working for you;
5) learning new behaviours; and
6) applying those new behaviours. And it means purposefully focusing on this every day!
…And along the way, there is the job of dealing with any resistance that comes up. Whatever reason there was for developing this pattern, the subconscious “part” of you running that “program” is committed to continuing the pattern, and it will resist change. You might even experience it as if one part of you is undermining you, undermining your attempts to be healthier and happier. So noticing this and dealing with it is part of the process.
Whereas your old patterns that are leading you to feel unhappy, burned out, or even sick, are unconscious patterns that you unconsciously re-commit to every day by default, creating new patterns is a process of taking conscious control of yourself and of your life, of making conscious choices, of being conscious and living consciously. That takes more effort than living unconsciously, but – do I really need to spell out why living consciously is preferable?
What Does Self-Care Mean?
There isn’t the space here to cover that topic fully; this is more about getting past the obstacles to practicing self-care. But here are a few basics. Self-care starts with simple things like taking care of your health. Eating better, drinking less, going to bed early enough to get a good sleep, getting some form of exercise. Again, setting an intention, committing to the intention and acting on the intention.
Self-care means learning to check in with yourself, whether to find out how you are feeling, or what you need, or what you want. Now, the key here is that checking in with yourself is not mainly done in thinking. Your mind is half the problem, and your mind is stuck kin the very patterns you are trying to change. Checking in means stopping and focusing inward. Your body is where the true information lies. Your body always tells the truth. It tells you when you are tired, or pushing yourself too hard. It tells you when you are in pain and need to take care of yourself. It tells you when you are hungry, angry, sad, anxious, happy, relaxed, tense, etc. Self-care means taking the time to tap into what the body is telling you about how you’re feeling and what you need. (You can read a lot more about that in my book: Listen to Your Heart: Using Mindfulness to Make Choices That Are Right For You.)
Your body will even tell you things like what foods it really needs, whereas your mind will think more about what it wants. That applies equally to other aspects of conscious self-care such as choosing activities. Even noticing what kind of TV show or movie would make you feel good and consciously choosing that over something else, is part of self-care.
Another part of self-care is being able to separate what others want or expect from you and what you want or need. This part of self-care is partly about learning to set boundaries. With good boundaries you can hear what others wants or expect, but you don’t immediately take that on as an obligation or a pressure. With good boundaries you feel free to choose how to respond, and your response is a balance between your own needs and theirs. That balance is not always a half-way point, a compromise. Sometimes that balance is recognizing that others’ expectations are unreasonable, or simply not compatible with your own needs.
The first step, though is identifying what isn’t working in your usual pattern of behaviour, so you are clear on what you need to change and why you need to change it. Otherwise you will never be able to really commit to changing it or to push through the resistance you will probably encounter to making those changes. The next important step is dealing with that resistance so it stops being an obstacle to becoming healthier and happier.
You can use the Guided meditation called Envisioning Your Life that I posted here. It will also help to focus your intention and follow through. Using the guided meditation regularly helps you to clarify the "what", the "why" and the "how" to change your old habits and patterns, and to stay on track.