I started digging into the concept of self-care from a very depleted place. I have a lot of little kids. My marriage was not healthy. It was winter in the midwest, which if you’ve lived through winter in the midwest you understand why that contributes to a depleted feeling. I was too busy parenting and working on my marriage and just trying to keep my head above water to be involved in my church community the way I had been at other seasons of my life. There wasn’t much I was doing that was intentionally rejuvenating for me. (I am not AT ALL saying my kids or marriage are just a drain, I’m saying what every mom knows to be true– parenting can be wonderful and exhausting all at once.)
So from that place of exhaustion it’s kind of funny that I began to read about the concept of self-care with a very skeptical attitude. “Self-care. That’s for wimps. It’s selfish and weak and who even has time for that?” I was pretty sure I didn’t need it. I could be sympathetic that OTHER people should be doing a better job at taking care of themselves, but I just didn’t need it. I could continue to give and give because I am mostly a mom-shaped robot and I’m FINE. Pay no attention to the woman hiding in the closet with a bag of Chewy Sprees. And no, I’m not starting to resent these little people who CAN’T EVEN PUT ON THEIR OWN SOCKS– why would you even say that? And I probably always cried when my husband put a dish on the counter instead of in the dishwasher. . . that’s totally normal, right?
Not paying attention to your self-care needs has a price.
Photo by Rebecca Tredway Photography– “It requires some planning and sacrifice (mostly by my husband!) to attend a weekend with girlfriends every year, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. These women have seen me at my best and my worst and they still love me. They encourage me to be a better person in every way as we walk through life together.”
But for some of us who are not used to thinking about the concept of self-care, it can just feel like selfishness. Self-care and selfishness can even look the same from the outside. I can’t tell you what is self-care for you and what is selfishness. It’s a huge matter of discretion and some of us black and white thinkers have a tough time with those gray areas. If it could be perceived by someone else as selfish, then I’ll just avoid it entirely because I’d rather you see me as a selfless martyr (exhausted, cranky, plastic smile) than as someone who seems to be prioritizing my own needs at the expense of others.
Since there isn’t an easy answer way to categorize what’s self-care and what’s selfishness, I’ve learned to think through a few key issues when I’m trying to evaluate it in my own life.
Wants vs. Needs: I have a tendency to dismiss self-care as some babying of ourselves by just indulging in our wants. In reality, I am on a daily basis not prioritizing my own basic NEEDS. Am I sleeping enough? Am I eating food that nourishes my body? Do I have time for adult interactions? Have I spent time in prayer? Am I drinking enough water? This isn’t just about saying, “What makes me happy today?” it’s about being sure we are acknowledging our own needs as people. Healthy self-care can also involve a joyful meeting of your “wants” for non-essentials, but some of us feel guilty way before even getting to that point.
Commodification of people: Selfishness uses people for your own gain. Selfishness says my needs matter more than yours and you are a means to an end. Self-care shouldn’t do that. If I am selfishly prioritizing myself, I am going to do things that hurt you.
Can it be selfish to put your kids in the YMCA childcare so you can workout for two hours? Yes.
This is where you have to evaluate your own motives, how you’re treating your children, what you’re doing with the rest of your time with them, and what messages you’re giving them about their worth.
Can it be selfish to not serve in the church nursery and expect others to watch your kids? Yes. Can it be good self-care to spend that time sitting in the service, listening to the word of God and allowing others to pour into your children? Yes.
You’ve got to be prayerful and introspective to know the difference.
Not appropriately prioritizing your needs can also be selfish: It’s important to recognize the selfishness of needing to be seen and recognized as The Town Martyr. If your identity is in how much you do for others, how you never need help, how you’ve got it all together. . . you may want to rethink that. It requires a degree of humility to admit you are a human with needs.
Not taking care of yourself, not asking for help, not acknowledging that you even HAVE needs can have a detrimental impact on not just yourself, but on your family and community. Taking good care of yourself can be a way you become part of a healthy, interdependent community.
Self-care has always existed: Before there was Netflix and nachos there were women spending the evening reading by candlelight. Women have grown not just functional vegetable gardens, but beautiful flowerbeds. Women have sent kids out to play while they baked something in the quiet of their kitchen. Women have sewed and knitted and crocheted. Women have been creators of great art through painting, photography, poetry. Self-care is not some new phenomenon made for wimpy housewives looking for something to complain about or another reason for a shopping spree. Self-care is something we have always done, but in previous generations I think it may have come more naturally without the frantic pace of our current life. I met with a friend recently who works with women in Tajikistan. She teaches them Zumba. I am not kidding you. This is what I’m talking about– women in Tajikistan are practicing self-care through Zumba. This is not just some selfish act of spoiled upperclass white ladies. This should be accessible and important to everybody.
Not practicing self-care leads to selfishness: I have found that when I’m not taking good care of myself, I notice my selfish tendencies increase. If I’m not working at getting my needs met, I want other people to meet them. Maybe I’m serving “selflessly” in fifteen other areas, but then I feel angry, resentful and entitled. I don’t stop having needs just because I stop acknowledging them.
Ultimately, I can’t tell you if the ways you’re practicing self-care are selfish. That’s a discussion you need to have with God as you seek to be a good steward of this one life you’re given.