Often when I encourage women to focus on themselves, I’m met with a sour look of judgment on their face, as though they pity the spouse and children who are saddled with such a selfish hag. There’s a total misconception of what it means to take care of yourself, and I’m here to slay it.
It happens all the time. You’re spinning more plates than there are in your cupboard, and that the men in your life even know exist. You have a huge presentation at work, you’re six year old has a “research” assignment the teacher seemed to have assigned just for you, the deadline for your teenager’s athletic form approaches along with the need to get him to the doctor’s office for sign off, and the ingredients for the lasagna you’re making for the potluck tomorrow still sits on the grocery store shelves, let alone cooked and assembled. You glance at your calendar and see that there’s a mandatory meeting at the school tonight to go over paperwork you’ve already filled out for your middle schooler’s Outdoor Lab, but they don’t trust you’ve done it accurately, so they want another hour of your time to walk through the forms “as a group”.
On your way from one thing to another you call your mother and complain, which is perfect timing because now you’re in a traffic jam and it adds to the story of your woes. You bask in your mother’s sympathy and fantasize about taking the bath, getting the massage and having the glass of wine she instructs you to do. You decide, that’s exactly what you’re going to do. You deserve it. They can all fend for themselves tonight, you’re going to take a long luxurious bath. And you do that. You also schedule the massage and get that too, and you set a date to see the girls for that glass of wine. You do all those things by way of “taking care of yourself,” and you start to do it regularly. After all, that’s what we’re told to do. Even our spouses are happy to take over, so we have the time to “focus on ourselves.”
So, if you’re regularly scheduling time for yourself, why do you still feel depleted and like you’re always failing? You get home from a massage on Sunday evening, relaxed and fulfilled and patting yourself on the back for doing something for yourself. Then you come in from the garage and see your child who was supposed to be in bed an hour ago, sitting bug-eyed, in front of the television clutching a bowl full of chocolate. Your husband is at the kitchen table reading a magazine in his pajamas even though the last thing you said to him before you left was to make sure to get the kid to bed and to be ready to go out to the thing that’s been on the calendar for three weeks, because the babysitter will be on her way. When you ask him why he’s not ready and he says, “Ready for what?”
The serenity of the waterfall soundtrack and the hot stones are a distant memory, and you lose your ever-loving mind. You march off into the bedroom to change your clothes shouting to your husband, “I don’t know why I bother to speak. You never hear a word I say!” An argument ensues which draws your child’s attention from the TV, and you feel an immediate pang of guilt. Your husband asks why you can’t just remind him nicely, “What’s the big deal? You don’t have to be so bitchy about it.” Your adolescent appears and throws you a scowl, clearly in agreement with his father. Eventually the babysitter comes, and you and your husband are off to wherever you need to go, but now you’re not talking to each other. The child who was in total contentment in front of the TV has now gone to bed, but in a tantrum.
You’ve blown your house up. What happened? It was such a nice day and now everyone in your house hates you. You did what you were supposed to do, you took care of yourself, why are these things setting you off so easily literally minutes after a massage? You spend the drive to your night out sneaking glances at your husband to see if he’s forgiven you, and you completely forget what originally upset you, trading malcontent with him for self-loathing.
Here’s the problem: baths, massages and glasses of wine, while lovely, are not self-care. Real self- care is less glamorous, but tenfold more effective.
Selfcare is nothing more and nothing less than developing a fierce loyalty to your intuition on a day to day, moment by moment basis. It’s about identifying what you’re okay with, and what you’re not. Does going to your in-law’s sound like a great time, or does it result in your being cranky and feeling like your husband owes you something? If it’s the latter, don’t go. “Oh, but” you’ll tell me, “I can’t do that, it will make my husband upset and my in-laws will judge me even more.”
Listen, first of all, your in-laws are judging you whether you’re there or not, so you may as well be doing what you want to be doing because whether or not people judge you, falls under the “things I can’t control” list. Second of all, your husband may be a little upset, sure, but once you stop blowing the house up with your fury after a week of throwing yourself under the bus, he will happily agree to letting you sit some of those parties out.
Will making everyone’s lunches this morning fill you with a feeling of peace, love and joy, or will you make yourself late to work, flustered at your meeting and land in a puddle on your desk feeling anxious and sucky?
“But if I don’t’ make everyone’s lunches, the kids may not eat, or they’ll eat crap all day,” you say.
Okay, ask yourself this: if my kids eat nutritiously, but I single-handedly start World War III at my house with my mood tonight, is worth it? Is having a peaceful family dinner and having everyone tucked in happily that evening, a decent trade-off for a day of saturated fat in their little bodies?
I’m not suggesting that one tiny decision each day results in a good or bad evening. What I am suggesting however is that a careful practice of identifying what you want, need and feel before agreeing to, or diving into doing something, will allow you to gain mastery over your emotions and allow you to take better care of everyone around you than you ever have before. It’s about identifying what you do and don’t have control over, and it’s about committing to not being a victim in your life to people, places and things.
It turns out the only thing in your control is your own behavior. I don’t know about you, but when my behavior is bad, not only does my family ostracize me, but I loathe myself, and that is perhaps the worst part of it all. That’s what ultimately motivated me to make big changes. It’s not because I’m inherently selfish or because it was in Vogue. It’s because I came to a point at which I hated how I was acting more than I hated whatever else was happening. I knew if I didn’t change soon, once my preteen hit adolescence, I would have snuffed out all the good will between us. I finally understood that when I take care of myself, I take better care of everyone else, and I am more likable not just to my family, but to myself.
The good news is, self-care requires less pampering and is therefore less expensive, because doing self-care correctly, results in your tank feeling full all the time – regardless of what other people are doing, thinking or feeling, and regardless of what’s happening in your life. You’ll know you are taking care of yourself not when you are buffed and fluffed, but when you feel a degree of self-love and you recognize yourself not reacting to the inevitable irritations of your life.
In order to practice true self care:
- Take 100% responsibility for who you want to be in the world and how you want to behave. Do not let yourself off the hook for bad behavior.
- Make decisions based on what is going to make you feel grounded and serene, not based on what others want or need.
- Check in with yourself constantly, and before committing to anything, to determine which action will maintain your serenity and which one will create a resentment.
- Let go of things that in the larger scheme of things, don’t matter.
- Practice self-love and compassion and mean it.
- If you fall off track DON’T beat yourself up. Shaming ourselves never leads to better behavior.
- Save massages and wine dates for rewards for taking care of yourself, not as a Band-Aid for not having taken care of yourself!