As a first-year teacher, I remember calling my mom on my drive home from work well after 9 pm to brag about all the work I’d put in that day developing the minds of our next generation. “Can you remember in college when I was only studying and working part-time? And now look! I’ve put in like 12 hours today! That’s like a day and a half of work in just one day!”
Over the years, the nature of the bragging changed from, “Look ma! Look what I can do!” to a crushing sense of responsibility: “How can I go to the doctor? There will be no one to cover my class, my kids won’t learn anything, and when I get back the next day, my room will be trashed anyway. It’s better if I just go in sick.” What began as an act of responsibility TO my society by serving our students resulted in me feeling an absolute responsibility FOR them – as if their entire wellbeing and future success was contingent on me playing my role well–regardless of the personal cost to me.
Fast forward through a decade of colds, dozens of prescriptions, nearly two years of perpetual sinus infections, five years of therapy for generalized anxiety, and a mental and spiritual breakdown awakening and with clarity, I see a young woman hellbent on making a difference. I see a woman who learned from the other women around her that we are mothers, wives, teachers, nurses, and employees first, humans second. As caretakers, first, we are imbued with a sense of responsibility FOR others’ wellbeing in a way that fundamentally puts their rights and health and happiness before our own.
In practice, this means that we have millions of women worldwide who are expected, internally and externally, directly and indirectly, to prioritize others. This means that we have women showing up to work exhausted, burnt out, sick and tired of being sick and tired. Our patients, students, children, partners, and families are actually getting a less than optimal version of who we are, and perhaps less than optimal care. And we, for sure, are living less than optimal lives.
To say “yes, I’m going to turn my phone to Do Not Disturb and get a full eight hours of sleep tonight” means potentially saying “no” to someone who may ask for help.
Saying, “yes, I do deserve down time” means saying “no” to a boss or to a co-worker asking for a favor.
And saying "no" means we are at risk of disappointing someone–an incredibly daunting task as a woman.
To choose the scarier path, the one that may involve disappointing someone in an effort to take care of yourself, is to choose bravery and to choose yourself. It is to acknowledge the values that are being propagated onto us (productivity=self-worth), weigh them against our own, and choose ours (e.g. health). This is no small feat.
On the surface, such an act of brazen defiance may appear selfish. Consider what we're really saying here: to give ourselves the time and energy we deserve is wrong. We're being selfish because we're using personal resources to promote our own well-being, instead of someone else's.
To admit that self-care is selfish is to admit a second-class citizenship and to admit that we exist to serve.
Most psychologists and adult development theorists agree: When our basic human needs aren’t being met (read: nutritious food, restful sleep, intimate connection with others, belonging, love, etc.,) we spend significant energy in pursuit of coping or seeking that which will meet our needs. Alternatively, when these needs are met, we have greater energy left at our disposal to commit to executive functioning, like creative pursuits, considering others, enlightenment and empowerment. And, when we show up to engage in such activities rested, content, and fulfilled, we contribute with more happiness, with more energy, and longer, as we avoid our own burnout.
This was, in part, one of the many reasons I started Go Love Yourself. I fundamentally believe that the better we take care of ourselves, the better able we are to do the good work that the world so badly needs, longer.
Imagine a world in which you are well rested, well fed, and well equipped to handle everyday stressors. Imagine a world in which you are financially secure, in a loving relationship, and surrounded by a supportive community. Imagine that this world prioritizes and encourages health and safety and happiness and wellbeing. Imagine that this world demands self-care. For all intents and purposes, you are healthy and happy and have a lifetime ahead of you. What would you choose to do with your time and energy?
Perhaps you’d go on a never-ending vacation. And what when you get bored? Perhaps you’d write a book, or paint, or contribute creatively. Perhaps you’d volunteer with the elderly, or start a foundation for turtle conservation, or start a school. Or perhaps you'd run for office, seek to legislate gender equality, equal pay, and access to affordable healthcare.
But our first goal is not to take care of the government, it's to take care of ourselves so that we can do the important work the world needs from a place of health, wealth, and wellness.
Our souls yearn to contribute. It is up to us to be brave and normalize the everyday acts of self-care that will allow us to be who we are meant to be and do what we are meant to do, and allow us to do good and do well in equal measure.