Is Self-Care hard for you?

I just returned from an amazing trip to Costa Rica, which means I sat through four airplane safety presentations and had plenty of time to ponder the oft-cited oxygen mask theory of self-care: Secure your own oxygen mask before helping others secure their masks. It makes sense.  If you cannot breathe, trying to help someone else with a mask sounds difficult, if not impossible. Worst case scenario, this means no one gets oxygen and everyone dies. 

Translated to self-care, it means that if we are not taking good care of our own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs, how can we possibly show up in our lives and give to others?  If the conditions of our lives are metaphorically (or not so metaphorically) suffocating us, we are significantly less useful to those we wish to care for.  This is a fairly straightforward conclusion that has a huge impact on our overall wellbeing, so it is amazing that self-care is starting to become a buzzword outside of the circles of spiritual seekers and health enthusiasts.  

However, the conversation usually ends here.  Take care of yourself if you want to care for others, period. What is usually not addressed is WHY, despite knowledge/training/best intentions, many of us (myself included!) still find it hard to care for ourselves.  I regularly see patterns of this struggle with my clients and colleagues who are healers, parents, activists, and/or caretakers in some way, particularly those who are highly sensitive people. The reason we push our own needs aside is that some part of us does not believe we are valuable unless we put others first. 

At a deep, fundamental level, we believe that we are only worthy IF (insert whatever it is here: attend to every whim of our children/partner/boss; are number one at work, etc etc).  In other words, we do not believe that we have an inherent right to exist.  We believe, consciously or subconsciously, that we earn our right to life because others need us.  So a core foundation of our identity is the role of the responsible and reliable caretaker,  the one always around to solve other people’s problems.   This doesn’t necessarily mean that we take on traditional care taking roles like parenting or healthcare, we can just as easily be found in the corporate world, although many people with this natural inclination do fall into caregiving vocations. 

This belief that we are not enough usually starts in childhood as a way to cope with conditions of instability.  Maybe we grew up with a family member suffering from addiction, experienced abuse, or did not have needs for food/safety/love met in some way.  Maybe we had loving families, but our race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation was deemed wrong by mainstream society.  Whatever the reason, we internalized the belief that the only way to meet our essential human needs for love and value came through other people's validation. This is why trying to take care of ourselves can feel confusing and awkward. 

The inability to practice self care usually manifests in some combination of the following:

  1. Saying no to requests from friends, partners, colleagues is like saying no to love and denying a core part of our identity. Why would we do that? We take on more projects, social engagements, or jobs than we should. If we do have to say no to something, we feel terrible about it and usually offer longwinded explanations and/or offers for something else in the future.  
  2. In order to cope with everything we take on, which usually ends up taking more energy than we have (even if we love the person, the work, etc.) we fall into patterns of escapism: TV, food, sex, maybe drugs or alcohol.  
  3. We get sick or burned out and start to feel resentful of the person, job, etc. that is taking all our time and energy.
  4. We create a reason to completely break ties with said person or job, which leads to either feeling guilty about saying no and going back to said person or job. OR: begin the exact same pattern with a new person or new job with the justification that the new situation is different in some way. 

Sound familiar? No worries, Basia Bulat here with the best anthem of self-deception ever: 

If we connect our most basic needs for love and value to other people, it makes sense that taking care of our own needs and finding our own inherent self worth will be challenging.  Good news is that awareness is the first step! Patience and finding tools that work for you are also key. 

Click here for 5 surprising tips for the self care challenged!