Self-care, often associated with selfishness, gets a bad reputation. Many people think it implies weakness if they opt out of something or take a break. However, it can be extremely detrimental to overlook the importance of this, and can take a toll on a person’s energy level, patience, aptitude in social interactions, and productivity at work. Following are four reasons to prioritize self-care:
1. The Oxygen Mask Theory
When you’re on an airplane, the flight attendant always tells you that in the case of a change in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop from above you. Then they tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs.
I used to think this was terrible. If I have a 4-year-old child and the oxygen masks drop from above me, you bet I’m putting their mask on first! I’m an adult, and they’re just a child… I can take it! But then I thought about it. Actually, if I go to put their mask on first, and they’re squirmy because everyone is panicking and they’re scared, and I run out of oxygen and pass out, not only have I sacrificed myself, but there’s now also no one to make sure that child gets a mask.
I love this as a metaphor for the rest of life. A lot of people are great at giving and less skilled at receiving. Your boss piles something onto your already full plate? Sure, of course. Your partner asks you to come to dinner with a colleague and their spouse? Definitely, I’d love to. Your brother wants you to babysit his children so he can have a date night? Yes, I’d do anything for my brother. Your best friend wants you to take her wedding dress shopping? Obviously – how many times is she going to get married? But people only have so much time and so much energy, and if you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re going to run out of gas. You’ll be less present everywhere, and the people you’re bending over backwards for will notice.
2. Maslow says you should.
In 1943, a psychologist named Abraham Maslow developed a theory called the Hierarchy of Needs. He conceptualized this as a pyramid, the premise being that you have to have the bottom criteria feel stable and fulfilled before you can build the next layer. Here’s the infographic on this:
So basically, you first need to take care of your physiological needs, such as food, water, sleep, and shelter. I always thought of this as something that those who are socioeconomically privileged don’t really have to worry about, but maybe that isn’t true. Have you ever been so busy that you’ve forgotten to eat? Or that a handful of M&M’s from your coworker’s desk is what you had for lunch? Ever deprived yourself of sleep to finish a project or meet a deadline? On days like that, your physiological needs aren’t met.
This theory, which I love, merits enough attention for its own blog post, but if you look at the pyramid, you can see how self-care plays an important role in each of these layers. If you have a job where you’re always worried your boss is going to yell at you, or if you’re going home every night to an emotionally abusive partner, you don’t feel safe and aren’t really able to focus on the higher functions. And so on.
In a workplace, you do your best work when self-actualization is what you’re focused on. If your other needs are met, and you’re doing a job that is fulfilling to you, that’s when you’ll work the hardest. So really, self-care makes people better employees, as well as better family members, friends, and every other role.
3. Work/Life Balance is a Myth.
A Qi Gong instructor once told me, “life isn’t about maintaining balance; it’s about finding and losing balance, and then finding it again.” Think about walking on a balance beam – you wobble and then adjust your weight to make corrections. You might fall off entirely, but if you’re tenacious and not too badly hurt, you hop up, get back on the balance beam, and go back to the delicate act of staying centered long enough to make your way across.
Balance isn’t something you magically find, like a treasure or keepsake, nor is it something that other people have and get to keep forever, but you lack and will never have. It’s something you continually work at. You find yourself entrenched in work, realize you’re neglecting your family, and try to dial back a little bit. That feels good for a while, but then you realize you aren’t taking any “me time.” So you adjust the pieces a bit more. You go on vacation, get back, and there’s a huge pile of work on your desk, so you have to snap right back from vacation mode while wistfully dreaming of beaches and golf courses left behind. You may have moments of “yes, this is balance, this is it.” But life means something will eventually make that wobble, and then you move the pieces around and make minor adjustments to try to find that sweet spot again.
This may sounds like bad news, but it’s also good news. It means that stress and overload can be transient things. Self-care is a huge contributor to this. It’s the thing that allows you to check in with yourself and say, “yep, it’s time to take a deep breath and make sure my needs are met.”
4. Burnout Feels Terrible
Your alarm goes off and you can barely drag yourself out of bed. You arrive at the office and sluggishly plop yourself at your desk. The phone rings. It’s your boss asking you to follow up on something. You roll your eyes and try to muster the motivation to give the project any effort. You think wistfully about what it would be like to curl up on the couch in your pajamas with a cup of tea and binge-watch Netflix. You marvel at the futility of the task at hand and wonder if it’s too late to tell your boss you’re sick.
This is what burnout feels like. When you’re burned out, everything you’re asked to do feels like a burden. You turn down social invitations because you don’t have the energy to go. When you think about things you usually love to do, it’s hard to find motivation even for that. (This is called anhedonia, from the same word root as hedonism.) That spark that you have when you feel fulfilled, motivated, and relaxed seems to have gone on hiatus.
Burnout is a strong indicator that your balance needs to be revisited. Self-care is the key to this.
More information about self-care to come
Now that we have explored the importance of taking care of yourself, you’re probably wondering how to go about doing so. Next week, I will post part 2 of this, and will discuss what self-care is and is not, and ways in which you can engage in this, even if you’re very busy.