Self-Care Is Not Optional

“Do you know the difference between indulgence and self care?”

I looked into her tear-stained face.

“No,” she said. “My whole life, it’s been about working my ass off, and then, when it gets to be too much, give myself a ‘treat,’ which I always regret later. No one ever taught me how to take care of myself. The only way I can do anything nice for myself is if I do it for someone else, or for my dog.”

My heart broke for her. Here was my brilliant, funny, smart, sarcastic, big-hearted, talented friend, who regularly gives joy  to more people than I can count, completely falling apart. For months, I’d watched her work and work and work, and today, she was about to throw the towel in on everything she had built.

By every measure, she was a “success:” Owner of a kooky, whackadoodle dream business, adored by thousands of people who frequently thanked her for her work and for changing their lives, doing the thing she loved most in a gorgeous city with a loving partner and an awesome dog. But no amount of talking about “self-care” could override the programming she got as a child that she was worthless, and didn’t deserve to be taken care of.

Especially by her own self.

We’ve all had moments of reaching for the sugar, the no-good lover, the trashy novel, the junk food, the new gadget, the porn, the expensive shoes or the chocolate. And we’ve all had times when what we needed was a nap, someone to feed us or touch us lovingly, a walk, some sunshine, or to get out of our own head.

Some of these are indulgence, and some of these are self-care. The messages we get about them are confusing. Marketing is full of women laughing while eating yogurt and chocolate being equated with sexual abandon and men stuffing themselves full beyond belief. We’re sold relaxation at hundreds or thousands of dollars a pop, as if taking a nap in your own bed is verboten.

How many ads for vacations, food or massage have you seen that include the phrase “sinful” or “indulgence” as if taking a break, eating food, or being taken care of wasn’t valuable in and of themselves?

We are encouraged to “work work work” and any deviance from that is labeled “selfish.” It can be nearly impossible to tell whether it’s okay to prioritize yourself, and if you do, how to actually take care of yourself instead of just having a “break” that leaves you feeling worse than you did before. So let’s break it down a bit.

What’s the difference between self-care and self-indulgence?

Self-care: Leaves you feeling nourished Associated with feelings of well-being May be hard to do at first Regular and consistent Addresses core needs Builds you up Self-Indulgence: May leave you feeling depleted or hung over Associated with feelings of guilt Often surrounded with language of shame, sinfulness or indulgence Happens inconsistently Doesn’t address underlying needs Costs you Can be fun

Now let’s be clear: there’s actually nothing wrong with indulging from time to time. Sometimes, being excessive can be fun. It can be a nice break from everyday reality to have too much wine or sugar, to chase after someone who’s not a good match for you, or to run away from your responsibilities for an afternoon. I am, in fact, unabashedly unapologetic about my enjoyment of the occasional hedonistic experience.

But as a substitute for self-nurturing, indulgence will always fall short. Because indulgence costs you, after you indulge, you may feel icky, tired, blown out or even more overwhelmed than when you started.

Self-care, on the other hand, helps you build your energy reserves. It leaves you feeling balanced, sated, clearer or more grounded. It’s listening to your body when you need a nap, or drinking a glass of water when the sugar cravings hit. It’s turning down a date with a needy-but-entertaining friend and exercising instead. Or Inviting that friend to go on a hike with you, so you can get your exercise in.

Self-care is not working for the sake of working, but working toward your goals, which are in alignment with your values. It’s knowing what your goals are in the first place, and how those goals support you as a person. It’s setting yourself up to win, not at the expense of other people, but by pro-actively creating an environment around you where you (and others) can rest, recharge, and evaluate.

Self-care is asking for help, letting others know your limitations, and picking your battles.

Self-care is not selfish.

When you’ve been taught that your job is to take care of everyone else around you, when you are expected to be responsible for other people’s emotions, when you’re the person in your family who is literally responsible for the survival of everyone else, taking care of yourself may seem selfish. It may seem like you are putting yourself before the family or the community.

But the thing is, self-care is what enables you to continue to be of service to others. It is the precise opposite of selfish. Without self-care, you are not able to continue caring for others. As Jada Pinkett Smith puts it, “You cannot be good to other people if your health is declining. You cannot be good to other people if you’re miserable. You cannot be good to your children if you have them, to your spouse if you have one, to your job and your career if you are not emotionally and mentally and physically healthy.”

What does self-care look like?

What's on your puppy checklist?The details of what self-care looks like will be different for each person, but it can be helpful to start with what my pal Q calls “The Puppy Checklist” — that is, doing for yourself the things that a puppy needs to be happy and healthy:

  • Eating appropriate amounts of healthy food on a reasonable schedule
  • Drinking enough water
  • Moving your body, even if it’s just a few walks a day
  • Spending time sniffing around your neighborhood and noticing things
  • Playing with toys and with others
  • Being petted
  • Getting to bed at a reasonable hour and getting as much sleep as you need.
  • Taking care of your basic health needs, going to the doctor and taking your meds on time
  • Listening to your body and doing what it tells you it needs

Other self-care approaches may be impacted by your health or what you do for a living. For example, someone who experiences frequent migraines may take steps to adjust the lighting in their workspace and home. At work, self-care may be about leaving your desk at 5:30 sharp, or setting clear boundaries with clients about when you’re available. (Boundaries in general are an important self-care tool.)

Take Action

Wherever you’re at in your self-care journey, I invite you to take a look at one thing you could do today to take better care of yourself. Think of one habit you’d like to build (the simpler the better) or one thing that you will say no to. What’s on your puppy checklist?

Remember that although you get to indulge and be selfish when you need to, that self-care is not selfish. It is vital and necessary for your wholeness and your ability to be a light shining into the world. Please take care of yourself like you’re someone you love.

Even if that someone is a puppy.

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