A Therapist Explains Why Making Self-Care Your Top Priority Isn’t Selfish

There’s no excuse to put taking care of yourself on the back burner.
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There’s no excuse to put taking care of yourself on the back burner.

It’s no secret that thriving relationships take a lot of work, and we all juggle several at once: being a friend, daughter, sister, girlfriend, spouse, etc. A lesser-known fact, however, is that one of the best ways to ensure that you’re at your best for everyone else is to make the relationship you have with yourself the most important of all.

Taking care of yourself shouldn’t be reserved for those few and far between times when you’ve gone through a breakup, hit a rough patch in life, or had a fight with your best friend. Taking care of yourself should be a daily practice.

When was the last time you really took time for yourself?

If you feel like this is a selfish question, you couldn’t be more wrong. In my work as a therapist, many of my patients who are in love, focused on serving family members, or supporting a friend lack basic self-care skills such as getting enough sleep, eating right, exercising, enforcing boundaries, and taking part in activities that they enjoy. At the end of the day, this personal neglect takes a toll on those they are seeking to love. Often, when I ask them what they have done for themselves lately, they are at a loss. They are missing out on these key strategies that will help them be healthier, both emotionally and physically.

This year, improve your relationship with yourself and others by resolving to make self-care a top priority. Whether you feel like you’ve lost your way or you’re seeking to maintain the balance you have now, here are some ways to make sure that you are investing in your well-being so that you can shine in your personal relationships, too.

01. Give Yourself Permission

The challenge with taking care of ourselves is that we often feel guilty about it. For example, a new mom might feel selfish for taking time for herself to read a book, go to the hair salon, or take a long bath. Is she wrong for not being at her baby’s side at every moment? Of course not. Everyone needs a break. Giving yourself permission to take a half hour or hour to rest and recharge means that you are able to be the best mom possible to your little one.

Sophie experienced this firsthand as described in her recent article for Verily. Sophie shared how she took the time to rediscover her personal style after becoming a first-time mom. She thought of, “...getting dressed as a chore and that spending any time on [her] appearance was precious time wasted.” But, believing that “how we dress is intimately tied up with issues of self-care, body confidence, and our own feelings of self-worth,” she knew she needed to make a change. She was able to figure out a way for her to honor herself without negatively affecting her role as a new mother.

Verily co-founder and editor-in-chief, Kara Eschbach, recently shared how she had been putting her life on hold for the day she finally found Mr. Right. “So I did what I should have done a long time ago,” she says,” I shed the mantle of shabby single life and swapped it for a brand new one that was brimming with life and—if I may say so—style.” Kara gave herself permission to start taking care of herself, and she's a better person for it.

02. Avoid and Reduce Stress

Every relationship takes work. If you aren’t properly caring for yourself, you can quickly become stressed and even experience burnout. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of burnout include emotional exhaustion, irritability, chronic fatigue, and difficulty concentrating—and the road to recovery can be very long. Rachel Charlton shared her own experience with burnout with Verily. She wrote:

After all, I should be able to handle a full-time job, my first year of marriage, housekeeping responsibilities, and the non-profit ministry we are starting in Midtown Sacramento, all the while maintaining a healthy lifestyle of eating well and working out regularly. Instead, this season of my life was beginning to feel like Mission: Impossible 4, without all the special effects and hot actors.”

Rachel, like many of us, was getting pulled in many different directions and feeling stretched too thin. Chronic stress can really take a toll on your emotional and physical health. If you make taking care of yourself a priority, you’ll find that you feel better emotionally and physically, and that you are better able to help your relationships thrive. It’s a win-win situation.

You can avoid stress by acknowledging that you aren’t expected to be superwoman. It’s okay to say no to something you realistically can’t or shouldn’t commit to. Identifying your core values and using them as your guideline when taking on a new project or role can reduce the likelihood of you overcommitting yourself. Other ways to reduce stress include exercising, getting enough sleep, and doing relaxation and creative activities that you enjoy.

03. Set Boundaries

Being mindful of your boundaries is another great way to practice self-care. According to well-known boundaries researchers, Drs. Cloud and Townsend, boundaries “define who we are and who we are not.” And that means they relate to your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. The good news is, it's not as hard as you think to set boundaries with family, your significant other, and at work.

Defining your personal boundaries can be a helpful barometer to let you know when a relationship is off track. For example, you might have a coworker who repeatedly asks you to help them out with projects, but you find that you always seem to wind up doing most of the project even though it’s not in your job description. You’re likely to feel annoyed—stressed at the thought of saying “no," but overwhelmed by the extra work. Clearly, your coworker is crossing your boundaries, and you owe it to yourself to reinforce them. Think of boundaries as guidelines to help direct you rather than limit you. They can be game-changers when it comes to your well-being.

If the end result is a better you to share with your community, why not invest some time and energy into taking care of yourself this year? With some stress management and boundary enforcement, you’ll be well on your way. Once the stress and feelings of being overwhelmed are gone, you’ll likely find that you are able to be a better friend, daughter, mother, and significant other.

Photo Credit: Sara Kiesling