Three myths about self-care and how to overcome them
Self-care isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity.
This is the kind of message about self-care that’s become common to the point of cliché in recent years. And the term itself is so widely used, to mean so many different things, that it can end up not really meaning anything at all.
Yet self-care really is a necessity. Its importance is probably the most significant and hardest-won lesson of my adult life. During a period of my life I now look back on and think of as my ‘superwoman’ phase, I juggled parenting three young children with a full-time job, running a household, and studying part-time for a degree. I spent much of my time sleep deprived, dashing from place to place, and multitasking furiously. I expected unfailingly high standards of myself and took pride in the number of plates I could keep spinning.
My story is not at all unusual. The details of your life may be different to mine, but that ever-busy, always-juggling life is something that resonates for many of us. And no wonder: during my superwoman phase, I felt validated. I was admired for my commitment and ambition, and congratulated on my achievements. Getting by on four hours of sleep a night was considered a strength. Being so busy that I would sometimes forget to eat, or put off going to the toilet for hours on end, was seen as a virtue. Most of us live in a culture where hard work, sacrifice and striving ambition are highly valued behaviours. We also live in a culture facing a widespread mental health crisis, and rising concerns over threats to health such as substance abuse, addiction and eating disorders. If you’re reading this, I imagine you know enough to agree with me that this is no coincidence.
I’m no longer a superwoman. I wouldn’t change any of the experiences I needed to have before I could discard that image of myself to which I was so attached. But if I were able to go back in time and give my superwoman-self just one tip, it would be to make time for self-care.
I imagine how that conversation with my superwoman would go – and I know what her responses would be. They’re the responses so many of us would come up with – and they’re great examples of common myths and misunderstandings about self-care. So here are the top three myths about self-care, according to my superwoman. I hope that my attempt to dismantle them might encourage you to venture, or keep going, on the path of self-care.
Myth #1: Self-care is selfish
The whole idea of taking time to attend to your own needs and care for yourself is problematic if you live in a culture where hard work, sacrifice and striving ambition are highly valued behaviours. For my superwoman, there was a strong sense of guilt associated with taking any time for myself. Others needed me, and time for myself meant time not spent meeting their needs. Of course, if I’d been more honest with myself, I’d have realised that I liked having others depend on me: that it fed my self-image as a strong, capable, independent woman who didn’t need caring for – I was too busy caring for others. My view of self-care as selfish was also a view of self-care as something only needed by people who weren’t strong.
What I didn’t realise was that, by neglecting self-care, I was making myself weaker and less resilient. My ability to juggle all those plates to quite such high a standard, and meet those expectations quite so reliably was being depleted. When I look back now, I can see the warning signs that I chose to ignore at the time: an increasingly short temper, a return of migraines, periods of depression. It took long time for me to join up the dots and link these to a lack of self-care.
I know the saying ‘you can’t fill from an empty cup’ is clichéd, but I find it a really helpful metaphor. Eventually, if you don’t care for yourself, you will become incapable of delivering on your commitments or supporting others. By reframing self-care from an act of selfishness to essential maintenance that enables you to continue juggling those plates and delivering on those commitments can be a game-changer and, for many of us (my superwoman), the first step towards discovering your righ strength and resilience.
Myth #2: I’m just not into spending the day at a spa
There genuinely was a time where my superwoman heard ‘self-care’ and thought ‘spa day’. And I’m pretty sure she’s not the only one to have done this. She might just as easily have misunderstood ‘self-care’ to mean chakra healing, chanting and incense.
Both of these things are examples of self-care – but only if they are things that nourish and recharge you. Self-care is personal. And it’s varied. The great thing is that it can be anything and everything that works for you. It might be five minutes of listening to music or focusing on the breath. Or half an hour of catching up with a good friend or doing a dance workout. Or a whole afternoon at a spa, or in a hammock with a book. It might be a two-week holiday, or a weekly yoga class. If it leaves you with a genuine sense of feeling even a little better in yourself than you did before, then you’ve practiced self-care.
Be warned, though: there are pitfalls along the way to finding your own version of self-care. It was often difficult for my superwoman to tell the difference between things I did that I thought made me feel better but that actually depleted me, and things that genuinely nourished me. That’s a whole other part of my superwoman story to tell another time. But suffice to say that as you build up your own personal self-care toolkit, try and develop a willingness to be increasingly honest with yourself and confront inconvenient truths: our vices, or self-sabotaging behaviours, can be very good at masquerading as self-care. The good news is that, as you start to spend some time on genuine self-care, you’ll get to know yourself a little better. And as you do that, you’ll find yourself more instinctively and readily seeking out acts of self-care that genuinely serve you.
Myth #3: I don’t have time for self-care
For my superwoman, time was an enemy to be battled and mastered. There were never enough hours in the day. Squeezing in time for self-care often felt impossible, especially on days when even going to the toilet without a baby in tow, or having time to drink a cup of tea while it was still hot, were distant dreams.
The irony, of course, is that it’s precisely during our busiest, most stressful times that we most need to practice self-care. And it’s righ – it can be a struggle. Battling road rage to make it to a yoga class. Wrestling with parental guilt to take a child-free weekend away. Dragging yourself out of bed early for a run. But you go through these struggles because you know it’s worth it. Better than that, you know it’s necessary – see Myth #1. Over time, my superwoman started putting her organisational superpowers to use to find time for self-care. I got a weekly yoga class into my schedule – and the rest is my self-care history.
And remember that self-care can be anything and everything that nourishes and sustains you – see Myth #2. So you can start small, with things you could squeeze into the tightest of schedules: Think widely and creatively about what makes you feel good. You can practice self-care by taking yourself off to the bathroom and sitting for three minutes with the breath, or listening to a piece of music, or reading a book. You can take one minute, at your desk or on your break, to give your neck a massage or take a few seated twists and stretches. One carefully taken breath can be an act of self-care.
Be kind to yourself
So here’s my message to my superwoman, and to you, about self-care:
It’s an essential act of self-maintenance. It’s a toolkit you build up over time, of anything and everything that nourishes and strengthens you. It’s something you can do by making just a small amount of time for it – and will probably make more time for the more you do it. Most of all, self-care is an act of kindness to yourself. Start by treating yourself with the same kindness and compassion you would show to others. From that, all else will follow.
There are so many resources out there to help you get started: if you can take 10 minutes for some self-care, try this gentle 10-minute yoga sequence for easing out tight hips:
10 minutes of yoga for tight hips
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For more insights and practical resources on self-care, I highly recommend checking out this introduction to self-care by the brilliant Blurt Foundation.
Do these struggles around self-care resonate for you? What self-care practices have you found that work for you? I’d love to hear from you in the comments…