Not very many years ago at all, I found myself at a crossroads. I was working at a job that was highly fulfilling and meaningful, but also grueling, exhausting, and crisis-oriented. I wanted badly to continue doing important work, but found my own health and self-care failing as I tried to keep up. If I was to remain in that position, it would mean making physical, emotional, and financial sacrifices over time, truly letting my own needs go in the process. So I went rogue.
I picked myself.
Those of us in the helping professions (including everyone in healthcare and education) know the guilt that comes up when we choose ourselves. This is probably why, so often, we don’t – we are oriented to serve and trained to put those we serve first and ourselves last. Work 14 hours to attend to a crisis? No problem. Fill in for a sick colleague on your only day off? Of course. Place your own safety in jeopardy to keep everyone else safe? OK…
To put it bluntly, this is an unsustainable way to do work(and to do life, for that matter). We cannot be caretakers for others 100% of the time and expect our own emotional and physical health to keep up. Where do we begin in changing this pervasive mindset that serving others means sacrificing ourselves?
It’s not “selfish” to take care of yourself
We first need to challenge, in a significant way, this idea that it is somehow “selfish” to take care of ourselves, or even to put ourselves before others. The word “selfish” comes up all of the time in therapy to describe incredibly benign acts – “I selfishly took a day off from work when I was sick.” “I was selfish and said ‘no’ to working when I was on vacation.” Sheesh. You’d think “selfish” is a term that applies to anything having to do with the self at all.
So here’s the dictionary definition of ‘selfish’: “Lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.” I can think of almost no one to whom this term applies; certainly this does not describe me or any of the people with whom I have worked. So when it comes to describing self-care, let’s get rid of “selfish” already. It’s an unhelpful and inaccurate descriptor.
It’s not an either/or proposition
We do not need to pick from either being a helpful, compassionate, loving person, or being a self-centered, greedy, unkind person. There’s a whole lot of grey in there. In fact, we can choose to be a mixture of lovely things from the grey column that both support others and ourselves.
For instance, we can choose to practice good boundaries by saying ‘no’ often, being thoughtful, and helping out when we are able. We can choose to financially prioritize ourselves and our families, and be generous with a certain percentage of our earnings. We can choose to opt out of an optional meeting if it means sacrificing our ability to work out and have a good breakfast. We can choose to spend less (or no) time with people that bring us down emotionally. So many choices – and not one of them makes us a bad person!
We are no good to others when we’re a mess ourselves
If I still haven’t convinced you, let me appeal to your other-oriented nature, and confirm that we truly are less able to serve others to our best ability when we ourselves are worn out, sick, tired, unfulfilled, depressed, anxious, etcetera. The airline rule of the adult putting on their own face mask before attending to their child’s is true – if we can’t breathe, we can’t help anybody else breathe, either. If we aren’t able to justify caring for ourselves simply because we deserve it and it’s worthwhile (and we do and it is), then we must at least agree that, if we want to do the best job possible, we probably need to sleep a little bit, eat some nutritious things, and keep ourselves mentally well enough to avoid a nervous breakdown. At minimum.
We can and should consider our needs and wants as we decide how we want to move forward in life. If you are considering making a life change to improve your own well-being, I applaud and support you. You are not selfish – you are bravely taking steps to love yourself, which is just as worthwhile a mission as helping others. Why choose one or the other? We can do both.