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Self-care isn’t selfish. 

Why does that need to be asserted?

It could be a neutral, self-evident statement, along the lines of, “Water isn’t dry.” To be alive is to have needs! Who better to know what those needs are and to meet them than the one who has them? 

Yet it must be asserted, because, somehow, it’s… not controversial exactly, but vexed.

 For instance, I know you nodded your head along when you read “Self-care isn’t selfish,” but something in you wasn’t peaceful about it. There’s a conflict: you feel simultaneously bad about not taking better care of yourself and guilty when you do.

It’s a common stuck spot for women. Not for men, I notice.

I don’t mean that men are great at taking care of themselves but that none of the labels we put on men’s self-care – stress management, “working out aggression,” “doctor’s orders,” etc. – is associated with selfishness. 

Nor are they called “self-care”!

So, it’s a woman problem. When a woman takes care of herself, we have a special, catch-all name for it, self-care, and think it is both necessary and morally suspect.

Let’s investigate this conundrum together. Let’s find out how self-care and selfishness came to be associated so we can separate them and feel good about taking good care of ourselves.

Why “Selfish”? 

I define self-care simply as feeding your body budget. If your animal body has inadequate wholesome food and hydration, sleep, movement, time in nature, positive social contact, and meditation, it just won’t feel good.

Aside from hydration and sleep, I think it’s easy to be confused about what “adequate” is. What kind of movement? How much? What is “wholesome” food? Most confounding are “positive social contact” and “meditation.” How? What counts?

Indefiniteness over “what” and “how” creates anxiety. But uncertainty over how much” creates a dilemma: what do I do when my need bumps up again someone else’s? What do I do when taking care of myself means I’m not taking care of someone else? 

Women have a unique cultural duty of care to others. Though it is not an exclusive duty – men for care for others, too – it is unique in that is a duty of intimate, self-sacrificing care.

It’s the mother thing. Are you hungry? Eat my food. Awake in the night? I’ll sing you to sleep. We will do anything for our children, so we get really good at nurturing. 

I think it’s easy to lose ourselves in caretaking. We become victims of our own competence, the caretaking mission creeping into a habit of nurturing everyone – even people who can help themselves – and forgetting ourselves.

Creating Self-Care Habits

It’s so helpful to take a problem out of the moral realm of “good” and “bad” and think about it instead as a habit. Habits are powerful, yet weirdly unintimidating, and infinitely moldable. You can make them fit your life as it is now and evolve them as needed.

Do everything but start small. Take stock of your current self-care practices. Give yourself credit for what’s working well and identify the gaps. You want all your body budget bases covered, but you have permission to make new self-care practices small, and you must make them highly rewarding! When building a habit, you focus first on building the path; you can build it out over time. 

Experiment until it feels great. Self-care is for you, so build up your practices for your life and your preferences. Don’t compare yourself to others. And if something isn’t working – if a new habit isn’t sticking – get curious. Why not? Try making it smaller, more rewarding, or try something else altogether that feels better, until you have a habit that not only sticks but feels great.

What to do when cares conflict. A self-care habit that feels great is one that can withstand occasional lapses. Once your exercise habit feels great, for example, it’ll be okay if you skip it one day to stay home with your sick child, because you’ll miss your work out and look forward to getting back to it. 

Good self-care practices will eventually become part of the architecture of your life. They support you, but also your family, friends, and colleagues, too. Not only is a healthy, happy you better for the whole, you also are modeling self-care for everyone.

I love self-care so much, I wrote a sweet little guide to it, “Feel Better and Be Happier.” Grab yours here.

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