Mental health experts tell us time and time again that self-care is essential for happy, healthy living. They tell us that self-care is not selfish and that everyone needs to practice some form of it.
I, like many, had read such articles, thinking they were nice in principle but didn’t really apply to me. I thought that if something in my life was having a negative impact on me, I just needed to toughen up and push through it.
That’s exactly the approach I took to my crippling anxiety. Rather than investigate it or try to relieve it, I thought I needed to hide it, like it was somehow a flaw on my part.
It was not until I started to lose control of my emotions that I finally allowed myself some time to reflect. In doing so, I connected what was happening to me to my experiences with my emotionally abusive biological father.
Years of him telling me, both with words and actions, that he did not actually care about having me around but rather preferred to use me to get revenge on my mother had sort of desensitized me to how inappropriate his behavior was. I knew I never felt good when he put food high up where I couldn’t reach and then slept in until noon without making me breakfast, but there was nothing I could really do to change it. I thought the best solution was to just pretend nothing ever happened. I had grown up with and come to expect his controlling behavior, so my mind excused his abuses. It was my coping mechanism.
Finally, after several violent threats, my father lost custody of me. Although all this happened in my junior high years, I had so far buried the painful memories and feelings that it took awhile for them to resurface. But resurface they did—and with a vengeance.
I would rage at my family for doing little things that most people would consider minor annoyances. I would beat myself up over any little mistake I made. I had terrible anxiety that prevented me from feeling like I was ever truly present in the moment because even when I was happy, I would worry about when the happiness would go away.
Needless to say, I was not caring for myself during this time. I thought journaling was dumb. I either completely neglected exercise or did way too much, leaving myself worn down and exhausted. I had very low self-esteem and did not make many efforts to socialize.
After dealing with quite a few of my meltdowns and becoming increasingly frustrated with attempting to help me manage my anxiety, my mom suggested therapy. I, then 18, very reluctantly agreed.
At our first meeting, my therapist diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder, a common condition affecting soldiers; rape victims; and those who have experienced child abuse, neglect, or other traumas. I had heard of PTSD before in the context of combat victims, so at first I felt like I didn’t deserve to have this condition. I thought that my story was nothing compared to what many experience. It was only when my therapist convinced me that what I experienced was in fact abuse that I began to make progress in therapy.
We began doing eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, a standard treatment for PTSD. During the EMDR sessions, I would consciously reflect on a painful memory while moving my eyes side to side. This stimulates both sides of the brain with the goal of reducing emotional reactivity toward the memories. I would then share the memory with my therapist, who would help me see the memory in a new way, comparing it to the good life that I now had. Slowly the more severe symptoms of PTSD I had experienced started to go away.
But EMDR was just one stage of my healing. A different and equally important treatment I had to start was to take care of myself—something I had always been so bad at. After I reached a better mental state, my therapist and I discussed ways that I could begin to be easier on myself. Along that journey, I learned some new powerful lessons about self-care.
If you don’t handle your emotions, your body will force you to at some point.
As long as I can remember, I have suffered from frequent stomachaches and nausea. Doctors diagnosed me with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America is strongly connected with mental health conditions. Years of repressing my memories and burying my emotions took a major toll on my body, and by way of my physical discomfort, my body was telling me to chill out and start taking care of myself.
Many other people I have talked to live with physical manifestations of stress in a variety of ways, such as headaches, lower back pain, and muscle tension. If I had known earlier that I could ease the symptoms of my condition by taking care of my mental health, I would have been onboard the self-care train a lot sooner. I imagine a lot of others would feel the same way.
You can’t properly take care of yourself if you don’t truly believe that you need to.
This was the hardest part of self-care for me. I could make myself do self-care things, but I really, really struggled (and still do) with accepting myself in my current state instead of trying to force myself into someone I wasn’t meant to be. I believed that needing to take time to consciously work through my emotions was a character flaw. I thought that if I could only just try harder, I could turn my feelings off and everything would be OK.
One way I changed this attitude was imagining what I would tell a friend who confided in me that she was going through a rough patch and needed to start being more gentle on herself.
Would I judge her? No.
Would I think she was weak? Nope, not at all.
Would I encourage her every step of the way? Yes, of course.
If I would treat a friend that way, then why not myself? I realized that it was pride holding me back. I should not expect myself to be able to handle more than someone else because I am not anyone else and that’s good—I’m not supposed to be.
Self-care doesn’t have to include stereotypical relaxing things.
I tried taking a restorative yoga class, and I hated it. We sat on the ground, stretched, and listened to instrumental music. I left not only feeling agitated but also guilty for feeling agitated because, well, restorative yoga should be relaxing. This was a terrible way to approach self-care because I wasn’t reflecting on what felt good for me; I was focusing on how I thought I should feel.
I am still learning to figure out what works for me, but now I focus on what self-care methods make me feel best with very little emphasis on objective criteria. As long as I am caring for my physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental health, I do what works.
Self-care is not the same as self-indulgence.
I think our culture blurs the lines between the two concepts, but they are totally different. For instance, before therapy, I would go through extremes: either repressing my emotions completely or wallowing in self-pity. Indulging every negative thought and emotion is not self-care, and it takes effort to find that happy medium of processing emotions without becoming controlled by them. Another situation in which I observe this difference is when it comes to things like TV. I may feel good temporarily if I indulge the temptation to spend all my free time binge watching Netflix, but if I instead choose to go for a bike ride or do some writing, I know that I will feel better in the long run. My point in saying all this is that self-care requires effort and isn’t an excuse to do whatever you want.
Recovering from abuse has been challenging, but once I admitted that I needed help, the process became a whole lot easier. I do consider myself recovered, not only because I no longer experience the more acute symptoms of PTSD but also because I decided, with the help of my therapist, to begin making changes to improve my life. I started consciously acknowledging my emotions instead of bottling them up inside. If I became frustrated with someone in my family, which began to happen far less often, I would go away and take some deep breaths before reacting. I found hobbies I enjoyed and began to add more social activities into my life.
I still struggle with several effects of abuse. I think learning to trust others and become vulnerable to them will be a long process, but I am a million miles closer now than I was before. I do know that as I continue to work toward optimal mental health, I will continue to practice self-care because if I have learned anything throughout this process, it’s that it’s OK to treat myself with kindness.
Photo Credit: Jess Hunter Photography