Caring for others often comes naturally than caring for ourselves, doesn’t it?
Whether it’s putting far more effort into cooking a meal for two than one, or the great joy of wrapping up a generous gift for a loved one – despite the fact you’d feel bad spending that cash on you. How many times have you told an unwell friend to take time off work, when you wouldn’t dream of calling in sick yourself?
PushDoctor.co.uk recently quizzed more than 1,000 parents about what they do when they’re unwell at the same time as their children. Unsurprisingly, half (51%) said they prioritise their kids’ needs over their own, with one in four (23%) admitting they’d sooner try and self-diagnose than make time to see a GP, and a third (31%) confessing they ignore their own health niggles so they have more time to look after their children’s.
Caring for others is something we’re primed – biologically, socially and culturally – to do, and this in itself is no bad thing.
But should we be showing ourselves a little more TLC too?
It’s called self-care
The term self-care is nothing new – but just as mindfulness was around for aeons before becoming THE wellbeing buzzword of the past few years, self-care is something we can probably expect to hear more of in the near future.
It’s long been knocking around in the medical world, where self-care models have traditionally been rooted in practical purposes, like ensuring patients stick to their medication routines or get the right amount of exercise.
The concept is evolving – not just in social media ‘lifestyle guru’ circles, but in the mainstream – as our understanding of the ‘prevention’s better than cure’ and benefits of taking a more holistic approach to health and wellbeing continues to grow.
Suzy Reading, a psychologist, stress management and health and fitness coach – and huge advocate of self-care – explains that it goes far beyond looking after yourself in times of need (though this is important too, of course).
“I think with the advent of positive psychology, which is all about how we can flourish and achieve wellbeing as individuals, you can see how self-care is changing, from not just fixing what’s wrong to really enhancing,” she says. “I see it as the future of preventative medicine.”
Reading recalls the first time she heard the term, while going through a “tough time” when the birth of her first child coincided with her father’s terminal illness. “I don’t know whether it was post-natal depression, grief or exhaustion – whatever it was, it was tough. I was lucky enough to do some work with a post-natal depression counsellor, who asked me the question, ‘What’s your self-care routine like?'”
Despite six years studying psychology, this was the first time Reading had heard the phrase – and the first time she’d really thought about whether she was giving enough thought to looking after herself.
It not only transformed her attitude towards her own wellbeing, but became central to her career as a coach, developing a ‘Vitality Wheel’ self-care framework – which takes in the more obvious elements of exercise, nutrition and sleep, as well as things like our values, positive emotions and coping skills.
“For me, self-care is about all these things being linked into one cohesive whole,” says Reading, who has just written a book on the subject (she’s in the process of securing a publisher).
What self-care looks like for each individual will vary, but Reading says having the framework reminds us it’s ultimately keeping a balance across all areas that’s key – and that we’re in the driver’s seat.
The selfish stigma
She agrees there’s a “shift” taking place, and we’re gradually accepting the “you snooze you lose” culture we’ve created isn’t sustainable. Take sleep: “If you don’t sleep, it’s like a badge of honour,” says Reading. “But in actual fact, there’s research now showing at what cost do we keep putting sleep at the bottom of the priority list.”
While taking an interest in fitness and healthy eating’s become massively trendy, there’s still a bit of a block around actively prioritising our mental wellbeing. And part of our reluctance to ‘put ourselves first’ is because we see it as selfish, and therefore feel guilty about it.
“It’s a social thing, a cultural norm, we’re taught we should put other people first,” says Dr Elle Boag, senior lecturer in Social Psychology at Birmingham City University. “We’re raised with empathic parents and to behave in a way that’s empathic towards others.”
We’re programmed to feel good about caring for others, adds Boag, but it can be “really difficult to get people to feel empathic towards themselves”.
Many of the things we associate with nurturing positive wellbeing – like things we enjoy, pampering or getting a massage – Boag says we tend to see as “indulgent” and “luxurious” too, which further feeds the guilt and tips self-care to the bottom of the priority list.
Putting other people first all the time can be a means of avoiding our own needs too.
“It’s easier to put other people first sometimes,” says Boag. “If you’re feeling a bit anxious or blue, or feeling like the whole world’s against you, often it’s easier to refocus on somebody else, and almost resolve your issues through them. It’s a way of deflecting – for some people, not for all.”
Time for a re-brand
Boag notes we can struggle with our identity when we consider the notion of putting ourselves first more, as we tend to think it might mean changing our values.
But it doesn’t have to be a choice between being “selfish” or “empathic”, she says. “You can find balance. And it’s about reframing it and not seeing it as selfish.”
In fact, you could say it’s the opposite – because self-care doesn’t just benefit ourselves, but means we’re generally more available to be a good friend/parent/colleague/partner in the long-run.
“If you’re depleted, fatigued, low in energy or mood, there’s no way you have a chance to be the best incarnation of yourself,” says Reading.
We all understand that analogy of the oxygen masks dropping down in an aeroplane, she says, which teaches us we’re meant to put on our own masks first before helping others – but that doesn’t mean we’re going to listen. It still flies against many of our instincts.
So where does that leave us?
Reading sums up with another of her favourite adages…
“It’s not me first; it’s me as well,” she says. “It gives you a comfortable way in. It’s like the image of the empty cup: you can’t pour from an empty cup.
“You’ve got to replenish yourself, so you can keep on giving.”