Lately, as I’ve met with my clients, I’ve sounded like a broken record; “Put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put it on others.” There is a good reason why I continue to urge my clients to take better care of themselves. The bottom line is that we can not expect to be able to take on all of the stressors and burdens of life without caring for our own well being.
When clients talk about how stressed and overwhelmed they feel, it sometimes surprises me when I hear that they do not address their own basic needs. Instead, they focus on making other people happy and checking all the boxes on a list of “shoulds”. It’s no wonder that what is left is a person who is tapped out of inner resources. This leaves them vulnerable to stress-related medical problems and mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression.
Taking care of others is not a bad thing, it can be very healthy to nurture those we care for. The problem is that we often become so focused on taking care of others that we overlook or forget that we must also take care of ourselves. I find that a lot of folks have a hard time with this concept. There is a sense of guilt that seems to come when they think of spending time nurturing themselves. It's as if they fear it would make them selfish. This is not at all the case.
Let’s go back to the idea of the oxygen mask to see why. Imagine losing oxygen on an airplane and immediately struggling to put it on a child amid a sense of panic. You can’t focus, you start to panic more. You are unable to meet the task at hand, and everyone suffers. If, instead, you first remember to breathe, to take a deep breath through your own mask, you can now focus and you have the stamina to meet whatever comes next. This certainly would not imply that you are selfish. No. It makes you wise. This is the reason why the airlines instruct us to put the oxygen mask on ourselves first.
We can also apply this concept to life in general, through cultivating attitudes and behaviors of self-care. What is self-care? You’ve likely heard about it, but it is important to see more closely what it looks like. You must understand it more deeply in order to start working it into your life, and sticking with it. You need to understand the intent behind it, the value in it, and the specific details of what taking care of yourself will look like.
The intent behind self-care is to make sure that you are giving yourself what you need to take on the demands of life. I find it very helpful to understand this idea if you imagine it as a simple mathematical equation:
Resources – Stress = Functioning
You need more resources than your level of stress in order to function well. If the stress is too high and your resources too low, you can see that your functioning will fall below zero. You might start to have panic attacks, become depressed, and perhaps lash out at others.
With this equation in mind, if you know that your stress is going to be higher for a particular reason, you simply need to increase your resources to make sure that you stay afloat. For instance, around the holiday season, you might schedule a few massages or yoga sessions to counter-balance the added busyness.
This is where self-care comes in. What I refer to as your “resources” is largely based on self-care. It gives you the energy, the mental and emotional space, and the patience to tackle the inevitable stress of life. In other words, if you want to be better at handling stress, you have to implement a plan for self-care.
A great place to start cultivating self-care in your life is to write down a list of actions. To make a list of actions, simply ask yourself what feels good, nurturing, and healthy to you. Examples of self-care actions include the following:
Going for a walk
Taking a long, warm bath
Getting out in nature and taking in the moment
Getting a massage
Taking the time to prepare healthy meals
Curling up with a good book
Make this list available by perhaps keeping it in a journal or putting it on your bathroom mirror. This will be especially important when you are stressed and it is hard to come up with ideas for self-care. If it’s not something that you have been doing regularly, it might not naturally come to mind in any given moment.
Self-care can be broken down into actions and attitude. The two are closely interwoven. Actions are what we first need to start with for the attitude to follow. Self-care actions will look different for every person because, for example, taking a bath might represent a caring act for one person and not for another. Some of us benefit from taking a short vacation, and for some that may not be possible or may even cause more stress.
The reason why we sometimes need to start with the behavior for the attitude to follow is that many people feel they do not deserve to do these things for themselves. This touches on the concepts of self-esteem and self-worth. Rather than first convincing yourself that you are worthy of being taken care of (a process which can often take years), doing these things whether or not you feel you deserve them can have the effect of showing you that you do. The internal thought process may look something like: “Well, if I am doing all these good things for myself, then I must be pretty worthwhile.”
It follows that when we don’t do these types of things, we are confirming the false belief that we are not worthy.
It helps to have some structure and guidance when you start something new. Below is my recipe for self-care.
Ask yourself what you need to feel taken care of, and make a list of actions.
Start with a few actions that you know you can follow through on.
Make those actions a priority, perhaps doing some of them at the beginning of the day.
Notice how you are feeling when doing these actions and remind yourself that you deserve it.
Establishing a routine for self-care, as well as cultivating an attitude that values self-care, are essential to prevent depression, anxiety, and overwhelm. Remember, in doing this you are not being selfish, you are being wise.