This is a guest post from the Ketchikan Wellness Coalition and Chelsea Goucher.
Over the last year or so, I have come to make self-care a priority. The better I come to know myself, the more I understand that self-care is not a luxury or an indulgence, but a responsibility. When my cup is full, I can give freely and when I have cared for myself, I can love better. When I am rested and strong, I can work harder, think more clearly and accomplish more. I firmly believe that this is true for all of us and I have come to recognize, as truth, that the world is a better place when we each love, nurture, and take time for ourselves.
What does self-care look like?
There is no easy answer to that question–self-care is always personal. In my own experience, self-care isn’t something definitive; it can be activity or rest, socialization or time spent alone, material or spiritual, costly or completely free. The constant is that how I choose to engage in self-care is always shaped by my tuning in to my body, mind, and spirit and listening to what my unfiltered inner voice is trying to tell me. Then, it is responding positively to what I hear and taking real action to fulfill that need or desire. What I need varies greatly from day to day. I have to listen carefully, always.
Learning to tune-in to and honor this inner voice has been a painful journey for me. We live and move in a world that does not prioritize self-care—at least not in any real sense. Our society does a wonderful job of teaching us that from work springs reward, but a not so stellar job of teaching us that without jealously guarding our time and ability to enjoy that reward, we will never experience it.
The fact is, I had it backwards for a long time. I believed that if I worked faster, better, harder, and was extra careful to make sure I made everyone along the way happy, I’d cross some invisible finish line and get to reap the fruits of my labor sooner. I had to learn the hard way—and am still learning—that this isn’t quite how things work. The truth is that the finish line moves farther and farther away for as long as we allow ourselves to equate success with our ability to fulfill the needs and desires of the people around us.
Recognizing this truth transformed my life, but the getting there wasn’t easy. It took me dropping out of college, blowing a full ride scholarship, succumbing to and then overcoming drug addiction, taking the fall for someone else’s criminal behavior, disrespecting myself and my loved ones, cheating on a partner, and surviving a verbally and physically abusive relationship to recognize that maybe I had it wrong. I’ve put myself through an incredible amount of pain and suffering trying to please people, and I wasted a lot of time being angry, resentful, and disappointed that my efforts weren’t rewarded in equal measure. Unfortunately, life is not an equation to be balanced. A lot isn’t fair, and the great expectations we too often attach to martyrdom are a surefire recipe for disillusionment.
Self-care is imperative because what it really amounts to is our taking the time to pause and enjoy the fruits of our labor now—in the present moment. It is recognizing that our chores will never be done, the emails never all answered, and that we will always probably be letting someone down or neglecting a friendship. Then, it is learning to be okay with that. It is accepting that there is no finish line when running on a treadmill, but appreciating that a stop button exists and that we are the ones that get to decide when and how often we push it. Self-care is truly our only hedge against disease, burnout, and bitterness, and it is absolutely a responsibility; the irony is that when we show up as our best selves—happy, healthy, and fulfilled—we are better workers, better lovers, better parents, and better friends.
It’s taken me a long time, but I am finally learning not to feel guilty for setting boundaries. I am beginning to accept that it’s not irresponsible to buy nice things for myself, schedule a pedicure, or eat out after a long day at the office.
I’m starting to understand that I don’t need to be embarrassed about the fact that finding meaning and joy in my life today is a lot more important to me than fulfilling others’ fantasies about how they think my life should play out. Finally, I am listening to and respecting my small, inner voice. Do I wish I had learned all this sooner? Of course. But forgive and move on. Self-love.
Healthy Minds is a monthly column coordinated by Ketchikan Wellness Coalition as a way to share positive stories from people living with mental illness, offer information from local mental health professionals about maintaining mental health in your life, and provide details on tangible activities or actions you can take to strengthen your mental wellness. If you would like to contribute to the column, please contact Romanda Simpson at firstname.lastname@example.org