Self-Care is Essential to Health
Melanie McCulley, MS, BCC, HHP
Support Services Program Manager
September is Self-Care Awareness Month and a good time to commit to self-care practices or assess those you have and see if your needs have changed and it’s time for new or additional ones. Self-care is now a familiar term, but still not consistently practiced by many women. We are superheroes when it comes to taking care of others, but often struggle to do the same for ourselves. The reasons for this range from not having enough time in the day to it feeling indulgent, frivolous and even selfish. We would never refer to the care we give to others in this way, but women are frequently more comfortable giving than receiving even when it comes to something as fundamental as care. It’s not a badge of honor to deny or neglect one’s needs, however, and it perpetuates the misplaced guilt around self-care.
It’s not uncommon for women to talk about the mental, physical and emotional impact of breast cancer, apologetically, as though they are complaining, not thinking positively enough, are a burden, or letting down family, friends, and employers if they aren’t able to do and give as much as before. In contrast, when these same women are asked how they view, and would respond to, the identical circumstances if they were happening to a beloved friend or family member, they express instant compassion and say they would listen and offer support and validation, ask how they can help, make meals and run errands for her, encourage her to take care of herself, eat well, rest, make herself a priority and advocate for herself personally and with her treatment team. There is a disconnect when we see the same situation so differently when it’s happening to someone else.
Women aren’t often encouraged to treat ourselves as we would treat a beloved friend or family member, but this is an essential aspect of overall health, self-esteem, and quality of life. Self-care is crucial to healing during and after breast cancer surgery and treatment, and is also necessary to our ability to take care of others. No one can give from an empty tank and yet women try. This is when we go into depletion taking from our own mental, physical and spiritual minimums. We aren’t only empty, we’ve gone into the “red” borrowing from present and future critical energy sources our body needs for our own very basic functioning. This serves no one and is not a sign of strength or being a good person. You’re already strong and a good person. Consider speaking to a professional if you feel excessively guilty about, or unworthy of, placing yourself on your own priority list. We are each the steward of our precious mind and body. Self-worth and self-care are inside jobs. They begin with us.
Self-care is not one-size-fits-all, so take the time to determine your needs and what practices most resonate with you. Write them down, if you want, and display your list where it can serve as a reminder. You may choose to discuss self-care with your partner or other family members so they are a part of your support team in this endeavor. You do not, however, need the permission or understanding of others to take good care of yourself. There may be an adjustment period for both you and your family, friends and colleagues if you have a history of putting yourself toward the bottom of the priority list. People get comfortable with this, because you can always be counted on no matter what else is on your plate. They may not like it when you begin to set boundaries, say no, and take time for yourself. That’s okay. This initial discomfort is part of any change and growth. You will get used to it and so will they. It’s good role modeling and you will be an even better version of yourself when functioning from a place of abundance rather than depletion.
As you consider self-care, there will be daily practices such as drinking enough water, eating nutritiously, getting enough sleep, moderate exercise, and perhaps mindful meditation. You may wish to add weekly items such as an exercise class, massage or acupuncture, seeing a counselor, staying connected with friends, and taking breaks from technology. Perhaps self-care for you, includes: a special annual vacation or girlfriends’ retreat; creative pursuits; decluttering; letting go of habits that no longer serve you; releasing old hurts, loss and resentments; holding space for sadness and grief; setting boundaries; self-compassion; and forgiveness. Also pay attention to your thoughts about yourself. Are they genuinely supportive and helpful to you? If you notice unrealistic expectations of yourself or self-critical, judging, disrespectful thoughts that you would never say to someone else nor want loved ones subjected to, explore what those thoughts are about and reframe or eliminate them. Be kinder to yourself and more patient, and consider working with a professional if you find this difficult to do on your own.
Whatever nourishes and restores your mind, body and spirit is self-care and essential to health and wellbeing. Commit to adding meaningful and consistent self-care practices to your day. You are deserving and worthy of it.