I can be very goal-driven and often find myself ignoring my own self-care to pursue whatever my current project is. Whether that be skipping yoga, quiet mornings, or naps, I have noticed that at times I don’t build in downtime, if it comes at the expense of an assigned task, whether it’s self-imposed or something I feel obligated to complete. However, when the last paper is submitted or business development project is complete, the satisfaction I expected to feel is often mixed with frustration. Did I ignore my personal needs in order to meet others’ expectations?
As a psychotherapist, I notice that many of my clients feel conflicted with the same topic: how do I take care of myself when I feel I should be taking care of other people or other obligations? It is hard to focus on taking care of yourself when it feels at odds with propelling yourself further professionally and personally.
I know this is a topic that young professionals, married couples and especially young mothers struggle with, as I often find clients grappling with similar themes. Do I stay home from work when sick? How do I make it to a big meeting when I was up all night with my feverish child? Should I stick to dinner plans when all I want to do is eat take out and lay on the couch? How do I continue to achieve when I really feel that I am running ‘on empty’?
Often people focus on the specifics of the event in front of them — a costume needed for a child’s recital, a work trip, a commitment that was agreed to months before — without focusing on the larger pattern: taking care of myself often is the last priority on my list. However, if I could take care of myself, I would actually be much better at helping everyone else.
We are reminded every time we fly: put on our own oxygen mask before those around us. Many argue that this feels counterintuitive, but it’s not. Taking care of yourself allows you to have mental and physical energy to take care of others. The next time you find yourself faced with this conflict, here are some points to consider:
- Count the “shoulds.” Try to count how often your sentences or thoughts start with “I should do” something. Many people are shocked by how often they actually are not doing what they want to be doing, but, instead, what they feel obligated to do. All of the “shoulds” take mental energy and don’t allow us to focus on ourselves or what we need.
- Follow the thought through. If you “should” do something, take that thought a step further. What would happen if you didn’t? Often people say, “Well, I cannot miss that meeting.” Ask yourself, “What would really happen if I wasn’t there?” Is there a negative consequence to the “should” activity? More often than we realize, the answer is probably not. Yes, there might be some phone calls to return or meetings to reschedule. However, most of the time, there are not dire consequences to slowing down. In fact, removing the “should” might allow us to accomplish more when we return.
- Model the behavior you want your children to follow. When children enter the school-age years they watch their parents every move. When they assess your actions and values, they begin to set their own. If children see parents over-worked and over-stressed, they will internalize those messages and can begin to operate in similar ways. Children learn themes from their parents such as focusing on others’ needs instead of their own. As our children get older, we want them to learn to listen to their gut and not override messages of stress or fatigue because others expect them to accomplish or achieve.
A good way to build this skill is to model good boundaries related to self-care. If you are stressed and then spend the weekend fulfilling obligations for others, children can take in that message. Instead, say to your children, “This was a hard week at work. I am excited to spend the weekend recharging with you at the park. As you spend downtime together, your children will see the importance of it and how it positively benefits you (and them!).