Imagine you had to rank the people in your life in the order in which you care for them. Your list might start with your children, spouse, or parents, and radiate out through your various relationships. Perhaps you might order your list depending on how well you know the person or much time you spend with them. Now think about where on that list you would place your name. Chances are you’ll squeeze yourself in toward the bottom — or even in the last spot.
Caring for and about others is not a character flaw. However, when you don’t make an effort to tend to your own needs, you have fewer resources to care for the people around you. Giving too much of yourself can be exhausting and could lead to burnout, sadness, depression, and physical and mental exhaustion. Often, caregivers who emotionally empathize with their patients break down from compassion fatigue. When your emotional health suffers, inevitably, so do the people around you.
You deserve self-care
You may think self-care is a selfish act or that you don’t deserve the luxury. Low self-esteem and the tendency to always compare ourselves to others, which is easy to do with today’s social media, can make us feel this way. Luckily, recent research and increased visibility on the concept of self-care, or self-compassion, is helping to dispel such myths.
Self-care isn’t a new idea, however. For more than 2500 years, followers of Buddhism have been taught to “hold yourself as a mother holds her beloved child” and to “be gentle first with yourself if you wish to be gentle with others.” It’s no wonder that these cultural beliefs are being revived today to help us cope amid growing pressures to perform and skyrocketing stress levels.
A February 2019 study by the UK Universities of Exeter and Oxford found that “taking part in self-compassion exercises calms the heart rate, switching off the body’s threat response.” Scientists have previously determined that this threat response can damage the immune system, so turning it off may lower the risk of disease. This study validates the idea that being kind to yourself can directly impact —and truly improve — your physical health.
Mental and emotional benefits
Once you get past the misguided idea that taking care of yourself is self-indulgent ego-inflation, you can see that it is, as poet Audre Lorde wrote, “self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” You can’t help others unless you’ve helped yourself first. The Buddhists, researchers, and self-compassion experts have all recognized that self-kindness and self-care behaviors are crucial to maintaining a high quality of life.
Fortunately, implementing your self-care plan doesn’t have to be complicated or overly time-consuming. The UK study, referenced above, used simple exercises to measure the effects of mental and emotional self-care on 135 healthy students divided into five groups. Each group listened to 11-minute audio instructions, which either encouraged them to be kind to themselves or induced a critical inner voice. The bodily responses of those in the self-kindness group were consistent with feelings of relaxation and safety, while the others showed feelings of threat and distress.
Taking a moment every morning or evening to write down what you appreciate about yourself, even the little things, can approximate the encouragement given to the first group of UK students. Planning a trip, scheduling a massage, or making a lunch date with a friend is a great way to improve your outlook for the future positively.
When your inner critic (or even external stressors like a jealous coworker or nagging family members) threatens to bring you down, question the validity of the thought or comment in the present moment. Are you doing a lousy job? Was it indeed your fault? Although it might feel awkward at first, counteracting negative self-talk with positive affirmation does work.
Treating yourself with kindness leads to less stress, improved emotional resiliency, and better overall wellness. It may take time to get in the habit of providing yourself with emotional self-care, but your mental health is just too important to ignore.
Being kind to yourself encompasses more than just thinking positive and encouraging thoughts, though. As the UK study shows, there are some physical benefits to emotional self-care. On the flip-side, creating your physical self-care plan can improve your mental and emotional state, as well. Every aspect of self-compassion, from mental health to spiritual self-care, is intertwined, and addressing each area contributes to your overall health.
How do you feel after a brisk walk, a healthy meal, or eight hours of sleep? You feel invigorated, restored, and rested. It’s more difficult to criticize yourself after you’ve done something that positively impacts your health. Adding physical activity, adequate sleep, and a healthy diet plan to your self-care activities and behaviors will inevitably improve your self-esteem, decrease fatigue, and give you the physical resiliency to do more. Plus, think of the benefits you’ll reap from a health care perspective! Health care providers can help you to determine your ideal activity and nutrition goals to support your self-care plan.
It’s worth it
There is little doubt that being kind to yourself is vital to a healthy mental, emotional, and physical lifestyle. Your self-care matters, and it has to be prioritized. Your self-care plan shouldn’t be something you put off or dread because it’s too much work. Instead, it can be as straightforward as making a list of potential self-care ideas, like checking out a beginner’s yoga class, downloading a meditation app, or even drinking eight glasses of water every day. Committing your ideas and goals to paper is often the best way to motivate yourself to put your plan into action.
If you feel you don’t have enough time to take care of your own needs and self-care activities, find ways to make time. Replace a negative in your life with its positive counterpart, whether it’s a habit, thought, hobby, or even a friend. Be sure the people with whom you surround yourself aren’t negatively impacting your self-care plan. After all, a positive social support system will encourage you and not undermine your efforts.
Self-kindness and having compassion for yourself entails treating yourself with the kindness, caring, and understanding you show others. Implementing self-care activities and behaviors and taking care of your own needs reaps the same benefits for you like the effect your help and kindness offer others.
Is your self-care plan stuck?
Some people become so mired in negative thoughts about themselves that they lack the motivation to embark upon a self-care plan. Low self-esteem or prior failed attempts at changing to more positive behaviors can discourage even the best of intentions. Or maybe your world is just so full of distractions and duties that there’s not enough time for self-care.
If this sounds like you, consider seeking the help of a mental health professional. A good therapist or licensed counselor will help you build the self-efficacy to follow through with your self-care plan. Professional care therapies can help you overcome potential barriers to showing yourself the kindness and gratitude you deserve.