I have a lot of patients with chronic neck and shoulder tension. One woman who came to see me for irritability and depression described her nearly constant pain, headaches and restless sleep. I asked her what helps with the pain, and she said regular massage had totally resolved it in the past. Of course my next question was why aren’t you getting massages now? What followed was a long list of reasons, which boiled down to the fact that self-care was near the bottom of her list of priorities. Work and family always beat out her own needs, even when she was clearly suffering.
Many of us believe that an hour out of our week for a massage, or exercise, or a yoga class, is an hour that should be spent doing something more important. Like finishing that report at work, taking the kids to another activity or scrubbing the bathroom. Time spent addressing our own needs is time wasted. This type of thinking often obscures a deeper belief: that I’m a bad or selfish person if I take time for myself, or that I’m not worth as much as everyone else. But I’m here to tell you that not only are you worth it, your self-care is essential to the success of everyone else you’re supporting. There is a reason the airline video tells you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. If you are not operating at full capacity, you can’t possibly care for anyone else. Think of my patient. She is irritable and depressed because she is in pain. She isn’t sleeping because of the pain which makes her more irritable and depressed. In this frame of mind, she is more likely to lose focus and make a mistake at work, or snap at her kids when they ask for help with homework. The very things she finds most important are suffering because of her pain and stress.
I am going to suggest another radical idea: be a little more self-centered. Focus on your own needs first, so you will have the energy and strength to devote to your other priorities. Being self-centered means resting when you’re tired and getting enough sleep every night. It means eating healthy foods, exercising your body, and doing something to relieve stress like meditation or yoga. It also means going to the doctor when you’re due for a regular physical. You may be reading this list and thinking well, duh! But how many of these things get pushed aside on a regular basis, because they just don’t seem as important as the other items on your to-do list? Being self-centered will help ease stress and fatigue, and improve a sense of well-being. Practice addressing the needs of your body and soul, and see the difference it makes in the rest of your life. I know what I need to do for myself each day, but sometimes I need to remind myself that I am worth that effort, because a lot of people are counting on me, just like people count on you.