Every time we get onto a flight, the attendants give us the same instructions, ‘In case of lack of oxygen in the cabin the oxygen masks will fall. Please fasten your masks on first before helping others around you.’ This is to imply, if you do not have enough oxygen you will not be able to help anyone including yourself. Yet in life we tend to use a different approach. We end up putting others needs before us. This could possibly be the outcome of childhood conditioning. While growing up we are taught to ‘not be selfish’, ‘take care of others’, or ‘no one will want to play with you if you don’t share’. Hence, now even the thought of wanting to look after ourselves comes with a certain amount of guilt.
When I ask my clients what they do for self care, they usually draw a blank or give me ideas that they have thought about but have not been able to execute. Some of them even respond by asking, “Wont it mean that I’m being selfish?” Self care does not mean taking away from someone and providing for yourself, it means ensuring that you have enough to give others. It means having a healthy relationship with your inner self - acknowledging your feelings and needs, being forgiving of your mistakes and accepting of your imperfections. This in the long run helps to foster rewarding relationships with others.
A client in his 4th session tells me that he has been exhausted for the last 10 days. He works hard for a job that he hates; it’s more of a liability than a feeling of joy. He finds himself feeling responsible for all his family members- grandparents, parents, sister and cat. His grandmother was ailing so he had to look after her, his mother has some health issues which need constant monitoring, his cat needed his attention and in addition the festivities required him to be in charge of making sure everyone had a good time. He has had absolutely no respite and was surviving on 3-4 hours of sleep. After taking care of all the above he left for a work trip where he fell sick for the whole duration and was functioning on antibiotics.
You would probably relate to the above example as it was your own or sympathise with the poor guy asking him to take it easy. But what do you think he could have done differently? Which role could he have taken a little casually? It’s hard to decide. It’s this confusion and difficulty in categorisation that leads to feeling of being overwhelmed or submerged in duties. Self-care in the short term would mean going on a vacation to take a break or buying a great pair of shoes, but these are temporary and the effects do not last long. The self care that I am talking about is making lifestyle changes.
A young woman comes to me saying she doesn’t feel happy about her life currently because that’s not how she had envisioned it. Her day revolves around the household demands of a joint family setup and taking care of a primary school going kid. She is qualified enough to find a job to her liking but has not been able to because she wants to be available for her child the whole time. However, she has made sure that he is independent in most tasks and shares a very good relationship with his grandparents. The guilt of not making him the centre of her world stops her from focusing on self.
These fears of being accused of not perfectly fulfilling a role push us towards wanting to excel in it, though at what cost? When does the giving end? Will you be able to look back upon this moments later in life without regret or disappointment? Or would you rather teach your family the importance of creating boundaries with self and others?
The term boundary does not need to imply a negative connotation of being separate from the other. Instead it could be seen as connecting points for navigating through healthy relationships. They help us take care of our physical and emotional spaces; without them we would lose ourselves to what others think and feel. Hence they become an integral aspect of the self care process. Here are a few tips on how to set healthy boundaries.
i. Be Assertive- This is an effective mode of communication that is non-threatening, non- negotiable and firm. Use I statements to be assertive for e.g. ‘I feel overwhelmed when I constantly have to think of doing my best for our son. What I need is some inputs from you which shows that you are equally concerned.’
ii. Learn to say NO without giving explanations. This is difficult especially in close and loving relationships. However ‘no’ is a complete sentence. It is the end of your tolerance of uncomfortable situations. For example, when a co-worker asks you to cover their shift at the last minute, you can choose to say no without spending your energy into justifying it.
iii. Create Safe Spaces- Feeling stressed or overwhelmed could sometimes lead to unwanted conflicts that put relationships under strain, in times like these communicating to your loved ones about a non negotiable time for self is looking after your emotional and physical well-being. This could well mean taking out a few guilt-free minutes every day to indulge in activities that you enjoy. Yes, GUILT-FREE because the rest of the day you are available for others so creating safe spaces is not being selfish!
iv. Technology too creates additional stress for us. At home, it could create disturbances in intimate relationships. Keeping your devices password protected is asserting your importance for privacy. Any notification on our devices and we feel compelled to respond right away. Email notification can be turned off during weekends to maintain some distance from work. Turn off WiFi at home during the night.
v. Delegate your resources. Of course the first step here would be honesty with self in acknowledging the need for help. It’s alright to ask for assistance or to express your inability at accomplishing a task. Assigning work reduces stress and increases self care.
The idea of self care may seem daunting. Mostly because a) it might be uncomfortable to make changes or b) changes may lead to conflicts. True. However taking baby steps could slowly give you the confidence to make a lifestyle change. An article written by Robert. E for Healthy Place magazine says that self-care actually makes you more effective and energetic. It produces positive feelings, which improves confidence and self-esteem too.
A study conducted by Ayala. E, Winseman. J, Johnson. R and Mason.H among medical students in 2018 suggested that self-reported engagement in self-care activities was associated with a decrease in the strength of the relationship between perceived stress and quality of life. Students who disclose utilizing a multitude of self-care practices throughout their training also sustained greater resiliency and lower risk for higher levels of distress during medical education.
Each of us will have a unique approach to self care. The above mentioned steps might not work for all but you can use your intuition to figure out what you actually need, and then consciously making efforts to work on it. But remember to not underestimate the impact of doing even small things. Taking out even half an hour in the day, and making small changes can make a huge difference. So don’t be overwhelmed, you don’t really have to make any big shifts overnight. Start small, and you will soon see the difference it makes. :)