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Self-care isn't selfish. It's a necessity

Spending time with others can be a great form of self-care.

How many times have you made plans to take a walk, go to the gym or spend time with family then skipped it because a something “came up at work”? “Who has time for meditation, exercise or sleep when there’s so much to do and so little time?” We’re often quick to drop a healthy activity in lieu of a work demand, but less inclined to scale back work to support our health.

“But I have responsibilities, a mortgage, car payments, bills!” you might respond. “If I take time for myself something important won’t get done.” As a very hard working single woman shouldering the financial responsibility for a household I can relate.

Taking time to decompress, exercise, sleep or heaven forbid do nothing seems virtually impossible when you’ve been conditioned to believe that self-care is selfish. What’s more, for many of us, the culture of our workplaces makes it difficult if not impossible to prioritize our health. The truth is, if we don’t take care of ourselves no one will. What’s more, nonstop lives come at a cost – burnout, illness, and frayed relationships.

In his ground-breaking book, When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection, world renowned physician and best selling author Dr. Gabor Mate notes a number of mindsets and emotional styles that can increase our risk for disease. Among them are an inability to say “no”, repression or suppression of emotions like anger, ignoring our needs to care for others, and chronic emotional stress.

These tendencies are common among those who defer their needs. Alone or in combination, they can wreak havoc on your health.

If self-care has been a slippery slope for you for months, years or even decades you’re not alone. You may be able to postpone self-care for now, but inevitably something will break down. The good news is, making time for yourself doesn’t need to be an elaborate event.

Here is how to bring some self-care to your daily life.

Make wellness doable

One of the biggest obstacles preventing us from taking care of ourselves stems from the belief that we need to make big changes quickly. If you barely exercise and plan to run a marathon in 9 months there’s a good chance you’ll get discouraged and possibly quit training. Start with small commitments that are doable. On super busy work days sometimes all that I have time for is a short walk with my dog, and that’s OK. The most important thing I’ve learned is to not beat myself up when I can’t do as much as I’d planned. Doing something, anything, is better than nothing.

Give yourself permission to say yes and no

No is a taboo word in our culture, particularly at work. Many of us fear that if we turn down a task that that next promotion or raise will go to the Energizer Bunny down the hall who is always the first in and last out of the office each day. Truth is, that bunny is probably in the same boat – too afraid to say no and teetering on the edge of collapse.

It takes courage to say no to unrealistic work or home demands, and to give yourself permission to say yesto taking care of you. That may mean passing up that committee, turning down the board position, or not coaching the kid’s softball team this year. That “no” may free up just enough time to close the door, breathe, and listen to soothing music, take a yoga class, call a friend or stare into space. Those precious moments may be the best investment in your health and career that you’ll ever make.

Build wellness into your day

Everyone I know is struggling with the “not enough time” problem. Whether it’s caring for an elderly parent, an unrealistic workload, or over-commitment-itis most of us find ourselves overscheduled and under rested more often than we’d like.

Try making a simple plan and scheduling activities into your day.

In the university course that I teach on stress and illness, every student, whether 24 or 64, laments that they know what they need to do to take better care of themselves, but don’t have time to do it. To counter that we make a plan. Each student is asked to come up with a schedule of regular, brief activities that they can stick to each day to unplug. Often students find that it is easier than they think.

What’s worked for me for the past 30 years is to put my daily workouts into my calendar and treat them like appointments. Once I schedule my time it becomes much easier for me weave an exercise routine into my hectic life, rather than blow it off.

You need to nourish to flourish.

Speak your truth

We live in a social world, and living a healthy, balanced life requires support. Once you’re clear on what you need to care of yourself, it’s important to communicate those needs. That can be easier said than done in “all out, do or die” workplaces or environments where you feel as though you have few options regarding your responsibilities.

Ultimately it is in the best interest of companies to support your wellbeing rather than to front the cost of having to train someone else. You are a valuable resource, and employers can pay many thousands of dollarsto replace you, and lose thousands moreif you’re ill or burned out. Likewise, your medical bills can be costly to you and your family, so it makes sense to take care of you now, rather than pay later.

Take the long view

It can be really hard to stick to wellness activities without motivation for doing so. Gym memberships and yoga classes can get costly, but so can medical bills and unpaid sick leave. Getting off the couch might feel like a chore now, but if you stay there long enough your body may lose its ability to do the activities you love as you get older. There are often days when I’d rather stay parked at my desk working on a juicy project than drag myself to the gym. But when I can hike up and down hills for hours or run down a beach with my dog I realize how much momentary sacrifices pay off in the long run.

Need a break? Try this short breath-awareness exercise.


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