On board an aircraft, we are instructed to put on our own oxygen masks in an emergency before assisting others. Similarly, there’s a common saying that we should fill our cup before trying to fill someone else’s. These are both examples of self-care. Interestingly, both examples imply that it takes an extreme situation or a challenge that causes our cup to be empty for self-care to be taken seriously and given priority. The question is why do we need to be facing a breakdown before we start thinking about caring for ourselves? What stands in our way? This article examines self-care – what it is, why it matters, how to practise it effectively and the barriers that stand in our way of making self-care a priority in our lives.
Self-care is everything you do for yourself – beyond the care provided by medical professionals – that supports your physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual wellbeing. It gives you the energy and presence to show up fully in the world. It is being with yourself, tuning in to your body and listening to, accepting and being compassionate with yourself.
Research shows that major life challenges are the primary motivators for people taking on a self-care practice. Burnout, autoimmune issues, cancer, obesity, depression and other physical and mental health concerns continue to be major causes of pain and suffering in the world. Intrinsically, we all seem to know that you can't pour from an empty cup. And yet most of us don’t consider self-care an issue worth thinking about let alone prioritising in practice until we are struck down with a major life challenge. However, many of us will happily recommend self-care to others. For me, caring for myself is something I have always done largely unconsciously. In my mind, care was something to be consciously expressed externally to others, not to myself. It took the ongoing decline of my wellbeing due to a chronic health condition for me to start looking at the impact of my laissez-faire attitude. My health decline proved to be a blessing in disguise because it forced me to address my own relationship with self-care.
Barriers to self-care
A significant barrier to self-care that I have seen in working with clients is a concern for how others might perceive their prioritisation of self-care. They fear others might regard their self-care as selfish or even narcissistic behaviour rather than being responsible and maintaining one’s levels in the cup. In reality, it is unhealthy to consider self-care selfish when it is self-preservation to maintain the integrity of one’s Being. When we operate at an optimal level, we can be effective and fulfilled by the results we produce in contributing to society and humanity. Another major barrier to self-care is a lack of awareness about what self-care is and how one achieves and maintains it.
Most of us learn basic self-care practices like nutrition, sleep and hygiene from our parents/carers and teachers growing up. In the workplace, we may have access to regular breaks and resources like relaxation, dining and other communal spaces to help restore our balance. But we live in a world where the stakes, pace and pressure to perform are high. In our desire to conform, keep up, maintain quotas and impress, we largely ignore what our body is telling us when fatigue, headaches, insomnia, stress and depression start to creep in.
As we continue to push through, we eventually hit a wall. This ‘wall’ often hits us hard, resulting in the kinds of physical, mental and emotional breakdowns for which conventional medicine does not always have effective answers. Some continue to do the bare minimum and tough it out, donning their suit of armour to hide their weaknesses. Others count down the days until the weekend, which can lead to unhealthy methods of self-care (self-medicating). And then there are those who, in the face of the demands of having a family to care for, fall into a state of pathological altruism by always putting self-care last on the list.
When productivity is rewarded with more work, it can create a vicious cycle in which a lack of self-care becomes the norm. This can lead to a range of unhealthy habits, from poor dietary practices and a lack of physical exercise to relationship issues culminating in feelings of frustration, anger, fear, anxiety, and a sense of helplessness and powerlessness. In short, when we are always putting ourselves last for the sake of others, we risk total burnout. And when we burn out, we are no use to anyone. This is why I challenge myself and my clients to consider the following:
- What will my self-care cost?
- What will I have to give up to make self-care a priority?
- What’s the cost of apathy (of not prioriting self-care)?
Being authentic about self-care
In his book, BEING, Ashkan Tashvir describes care as one of four moods or drivers that set the scene for how we project ourselves to the world and perceive ourselves. He writes:
“When you care about something, you make it a priority in your life. You pay attention to it, are constantly aware of it and value it so much that you dedicate the time and effort required to ensure it thrives……Without care, nothing of importance can be achieved.”
Tashvir, A. (2021). BEING (p. 275). Engenesis Publications.
The above applies equally in terms of caring for oneself or self-care. If you still think it is selfish to prioritise self-care, I encourage you to return to the example of putting on your own mask in an aircraft emergency before assisting others with theirs. Consider that if you don’t look after yourself first in that scenario, you risk not having the capacity to help anyone else. That is the authentic reality of self-care. Being authentic, open and receptive to new ways of Being and dealing with self-care is critical to your overall health and wellbeing, which is ultimately beneficial to those you want to serve and support. If you don’t take care of yourself by prioritising self-care, how can you expect to support and care for others and be effective personally and professionally?
Developing a self-care plan
Developing a self-care plan begins with authentic awareness that self-care is critical to your wellbeing and the wellbeing of others around you. Then exercise responsibility by developing a plan that incorporates routines and practices you can realistically adopt and maintain. Your self-care plan is personal to you. It might include physical, emotional, mental, spiritual or financial aspects or a combination of those depending on your needs and priorities.
The following will support you to start and maintain your self-care plan:
- Know the power we all have as human beings over our state of Being – we are not fixed objects; we can transform.
- Take small steps towards your self-care – don’t expect things to change overnight.
- Try to surround yourself with people who are kind to themselves and value their own self-care.
Remember, self-care is not selfish. It is critical for our wellbeing and enables us to support others and contribute effectively in our endeavours. Furthermore, when we demonstrate self-care, we become a positive role model for others, including our children. If you are struggling with the importance of filling your own cup, consider that you are of no use to others if you’re always running on empty. Know that you are valued and needed, and have the peace of mind, confidence and courage to do and ask for the things you need, want and care about.
If you would like to learn more about the value of self-care and how to prioritise it in your life, I encourage you to ask about my 8-week online coaching program. The program is the result of my extensive work with several experts on self-care, including a national carer’s association representative, doctors, physiotherapists and other allied health professionals. If you would like to know more about this and other programs, enquire on my page here.