Self-Care Isn't Selfish
One of the most important things in recovery from mental illness is to keep up with self-care. However, this is also one of the things that most other people look down on and have a visceral reaction against.
Many of us learned this core belief- that self-care is selfish- as young children from our families and the larger society around us. As children we may have heard adults make fun of other adults who won’t work 80+ hours a week, or “those” parents who got a babysitter so they could go on a date together. As teens we may have been made fun of for saying “no” to drinking, drugs, partying into the night, or studying. As adults, god forbid a mother chooses to take a run or go to a dance class over being at home for a family dinner a few nights a week. Adults who exercise are often made fun of for being so selfish and self-absorbed. People pride themselves on how many tasks they can get done in a day, how few hours of sleep they need to function, and how little they enjoy their life. Running yourself into the ground and being unhappy is a source of pride for many Americans. Because we have been taught that taking care of yourself is selfish, we unconsciously refuse to take care of ourselves and we criticize those who do take care of themselves.
As Michelle Segar, Ph.D. write in “No Sweat: how the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness”:
“Our brain biology makes it easy for us to continue believing the core beliefs we’ve internalized, despite having evidence against them. Sometimes, even the deep understanding that we’re hurting ourselves when we cut corners on self-care isn’t enough to make us change our beliefs and priorities because it’s so much easier to keep believing what we’ve always believed. Some of my clients have had a very hard time letting go of the moralistic view that taking time to increase their sense of well-being and help them feel “good” is hedonistic and selfish.”
Research shows that we are often unable to combat these core beliefs not only because it is easier to keep believing what we have always believed, but because it is safer. The book Imaginary Crimes: Why We Punish Ourselves and How to Stop talks about core beliefs and how we hold on to many of them because it would be morally wrong not to follow that belief.
For example, I have seen young children remove themselves from a stressful situation, such as a party with a lot of people, because it is just too much for them to handle. They often go into another room and sit for a while, draw, or read a book. Too often, I see parents yell at their child, through gritted teeth, for being disrespectful, bratty, and mean and, literally, drag their child out of their self-care time and back into the party. If you learned that taking a break when you are overwhelmed is bad and even that it can hurt you (bring down emotional and physical abuse upon you), you will refuse to engage in self-care practices out of fear.
For those of us with mental illness, engaging in self-care is often too risky. Family, friends, and co-workers berate us for simple things such as not staying out late, or not drinking at a party. I used to think self-care was so wrong that I would argue with my husband every time he went out for a bike ride (cycling is one of his primary self-care activities.) I also gave my therapists a ton of reasons, moral reasons, why I could not get enough sleep, or go for a walk to increase my energy, or take a break to read or draw when I was overwhelmed, or even meet weekly with my therapist because I was taught that self-care was one of the most hedonistic things you could ever do. Not only was it hedonistic, you would be harmed for engaging in self-care.
This is why I was so happy to see Wear Your Label create a shirt that says, “Self-care isn’t selfish.” Wear Your Label was cofounded by young adults Kayley Reed and Kyle MacNevin in July 2014. Reed and MacNevin came up with the idea of Wear Your Label while they were both students at the University of New Brunswick, in Canada and they were both working at a local mental health organization. The two shared their own stories of mental illness and talked about how hard it is to tell people you have mental illness because of the stigma. They started their clothing line to help end stigma. When you wear a shirt with your label on it, you are sharing your story, you are letting people know you will talk about mental illness, and you are empowering others to share their story as well.
I was happy to buy my “Self-care isn’t selfish” shirt to help send a counter-cultural message to people in my community- that it is okay, even essential, that we all take care of ourselves. I want to help end the constant shaming of people who engage in self-care activities. I also wanted my friends to know that it is safe to put up self-care boundaries with me. If they are too tired to go out, that is fine- I won’t see their action as selfish.
When I don’t stay out late at a party or I don’t eat dairy (lactose intolerant) or I take a nap or I don’t go to every event in my child’s or husbands life, I am not being selfish. When I go to my therapist 1-2 times a week, when I exercise, when I say “no” to spending time with toxic people, I am not being selfish.
When I stay up late and then cannot take my son to school the next morning because I cannot function, I am not being bad, but I am also not being the person I want to be. When I eat things that don’t agree with my body and mind, which starts rapid cycling in bipolar disorder, I am not living the life I want, I am not happy, and my family is not happy. When I say “yes” to every request someone has of me and then I stop exercising, stay up late, and drain all of my resources, I eventually crash and can not function at all.
In “No Sweat” Segar says, “the understanding that self-care is a practical tool that we can use to fuel our daily functioning and performance changes the essential nature of self-care and its role in our lives… it’s the power source, an autonomous facilitator of everything we want to accomplish.”
I encourage you to pick one small self-care activity you want to do today, and do it. It can take only five minutes and still have a profound effect on your well-being and ability to keep on the road to recovery.