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When Self-Care Feels Selfish

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A few months ago, my psychiatrist gave me a list of Basic Personal Rights. He insisted I read it and accept I have the right to be seen, be heard, and to take care of myself. My homework for that week was to read the list and spend some time learning about and practicing self-care. He said this list wasn’t something someone should expect if they are a “good person” or have “earned them.” These are basic rights anyone who lives and breathes should have the right to do and feel. I’ll share them here…

Basic Personal Rights:

  • I have the right to ask for what I want.
  • I have the right to say “No.”
  • I have the right to feel and express my feelings, both positive and negative.
  • I have the right to make mistakes.
  • I have the right to have my own opinions and convictions.
  • I have the right to be treated with dignity and respect.
  • I have the right to change my mind or decide on a different course of action.
  • I have the right to protest unfair treatment or criticism.
  • I have the right to expect honesty from others.
  • I have the right to my own values and standards.
  • I have the right to be angry at someone I love.
  • I have the right to say, “I don’t know.”
  • I have the right to negotiate for change.
  • I have the right to be in a non-abusive environment.
  • I have the right to ask for help or emotional support.
  • I have the right to my own needs for personal space and time, even if others would prefer my company.
  • I have the right not to have to justify myself to others.
  • I have the right not to take responsibility for someone else’s behavior, feelings, or problems.
  • I have the right not to have to anticipate others’ needs and wishes.
  • I have the right not to always worry about the goodwill of others.
  • I have the right to choose not to respond to a situation.

These are fundamental building blocks of self-care, but the thing I struggled with then and still struggle with now is a deep feeling of shame. Self-care feels selfish to me, for me. I am always advocating to others that taking care of themselves first is essential, telling them “you can’t pour from an empty cup,” but for me, putting myself first stuck in my throat and threatened to choke me. It seemed so self-absorbed, so selfish, and hedonistic. Taking care of others is a granted. We should take care of others. It is the decent and humane thing to do. Above all we must be kind, show love and care. But to care for myself?

As I read through the above list, I cried. There was very little I felt entitled to in it. I was uncomfortable with it. In fact, the thought that I was going to have to try and work on feeling the right to expect these things from myself and from others sent me into a bit of a downward spiral, which was quite hard to pull myself out of.

As the months have gone by I am slowly accepting that it is incredibly hypocritical of me to always be advising others to care for themselves, when I have placed so little weight on doing the same for myself. The thing that stuck the most in my mind was when a friend told me I needed to take care of myself for my husband and children’s sake. She pointed out that if I gave myself time to rest when I was exhausted and didn’t push myself to breaking, I was doing something special for them… I was taking care of my children’s mother so she could then be more present and take care of them.

Self-care is an essential part of many people’s daily routines, like brushing their hair or teeth. It doesn’t need to take all day, but five minutes here and there to breathe and focus on being settled is so important. These people, I notice, are content with themselves and their lives. They feel confident and entitled to respect from others. They are happier within themselves.

It has taken a long time to see that I deserve to care for myself and for time where I actually make myself a priority, whether it is just to lay in bed and breathe (the housework will wait) or to staying home from church if it feels too hard to socialize that day (but phoning in to listen to the program), to acknowledging I’m not a terrible mother when the kids get Weet-Bix for dinner because I feel too tired to cook (they got fed, and while it isn’t meat and three veggies, it is fairly nutritious). Because by doing kind things sometimes for myself, I enable myself to do more, more often, at a better quality, for others. I can nurture them because I nurtured myself. I also can set a good example to my children: that it is OK to be kind to yourself. It would be sad to see them grow up to be unbalanced and always allow themselves to be put down or put themselves last.

Self-care. It is something I still struggle with, but slowly I am coming to learn there is a balance, like everything in our lives. It does not need to be black and white. There is a whole scale of shades of grey in between.

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Originally published: March 8, 2017
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