Is self-care selfish?
Out here in the big bad world, we’re made to believe that there’s always something better we could be doing with ourselves and our time.
Instead of having a nap, you could be finishing a report.
Instead of staying in tonight, you could be meeting friends you haven’t seen in ages.
Instead of spending the next hour on your yoga practice, you could be answering all those emails from people wanting your help.
I was the girl who would never say no. I was the girl who was so terrified of being thought of as selfish, that she would just keep doing and doing and doing. I was the girl who always tried to do more than she needed to do, more than what was even humanly possible (or sane) to do in each block of 24 hours.
Until I just wasn’t anymore.
I burned out. I hit that rock bottom place where all I could do was suck on sleeping pills and lie stretched out and exhausted. I was so sick of trying to do everything that I resorted, for a long while, to doing nothing. Some days, the best and only thing I could do was to take one deep long breath after another; and then collapse back into bed.
At that point, I was the girl who wasn’t any good to anyone at all.
I decided things had to change. For a while, I would be selfish… and I would enjoy it.
You know that announcement they make in planes before every flight, about putting on your own oxygen mask first before attending to anyone else? That oxygen mask became, rather dramatically, a metaphor for my own tiny life. I knew if I wasn’t breathing — feeling centred, whole, healthy and able — I wouldn’t be able to do anything for anyone, not least myself.
I decided I would relearn what it meant to look after myself and all the parts of me; I would relearn self-care. More importantly, I would relearn how to replace guilt with balance; exhaustion with strength; anxiety for peace. I had lived for so long feeling that any attention paid to my body, mind and spirit was an act of selfishness that this shift to self-care felt like entirely novel and radical.
This meant starting from ground zero — relooking what I was eating and how, whether I was getting enough rest, weaning myself off sleeping tablets, starting an exercise regime again, allowing myself moments of complete relaxation and quiet.
Apart from these physical routines, self-care was also about learning to relax into whatever I was doing and enjoy it without guilt. I took myself out to have coffee with a friend and do nothing but drink coffee and talk; I allowed myself entire afternoons of reading; I gave myself the odd indulgent treat of a manicure.
I felt like a selfish, nasty person through it all and I think it took me a full year to properly accept that any of this was okay, to not feel such smothering guilt. At every point, as I tried to sleep / read / drink a cup of tea, there were a thousand other things I felt I should be doing; a thousand different ways I told myself I was being selfish.
It got to a point that I could go nowhere else with this selfishness but to own it.
I declared to myself that I would be ‘selfish’ for awhile, that ‘selfish’ was needed, that ‘selfish’ was okay.
I didn’t intend to hurt anyone by this, nor to demand anything that would damage the people around me. But it was needed, at least for a while as I got myself back on my feet.
During this ‘selfish’ time, I started writing again, publishing articles that would garner thousands of views and which people would email me about, telling me how much it had helped them. I got a fantastic job working in a magazine with a stellar group of people. I got clear on what I wanted to do and decided to pursue a PhD in Women’s Studies, an area I’d always been passionate about and wanted to serve.
Being selfish eventually led me back to the strongest version of me, where I felt centred, peaceful, joyful and extremely clear about what I wanted and needed to do for myself and my world.
‘Selfishness’ for that year or so — where I focused almost entirely on making myself feel well and whole again — brought me to a place where I was able to live more fully and serve more effectively than if I’d just continued to plough on through the exhaustion, obligation, guilt and terror of the mere word: selfish.
So many of us force ourselves through what we do, believing that not doing it would be selfish and thinking of ourselves as despicable for putting our own needs or wants first.
But in that one year of putting self-care first, I learnt a big lesson — that there are plenty worse things than being selfish.
Things like: Being inauthentic, feeling so worn out that you’re ineffective, teetering on the brink of collapse, living from fear and guilt, not living your fullest potential, talents and desires.
So then, if you’re not living as truly and powerfully as you could be when you allow yourself a little TLC; if you’re not expressing your highest potential but just plodding along at a median level because you feel “you have to”; if you’re not the best person you can be — isn’t that also a disservice not just to yourself but to every person you interact with?
Yes, self-care is a little selfish. But it ultimately brings you to a place where you can be even stronger and more generous than ever.
Also, it feels bloody amazing. And I can think of no better way to put yourself out there than when you’re feeling your best.