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Is Self Care Selfish?

Shuangyu. Watercolor, Bellevue 2006

I used to think that I didn’t have time for self care. I would see these advertisements for candles or bath salts, that would encourage me to “treat myself”. And I would roll my eyes and think to myself enviously, “What mom is selfish enough to take time for herself?”

Playing the martyr

I carried my busy-ness like a badge of honor, because it was noble to always be doing, doing, doing for others. I was busy at work taking care of patients and teaching and business, and I was busy at home taking care of the kids and family.

I constantly felt like there weren’t enough hours in the day. And even though I could never do “enough” or “get caught up,” I still felt this urgency to keep pushing myself to do more.

Self care is about acknowledging our truths and being courageous enough to assert them

Every time I finished a task, I’d get this little hit of dopamine that would last for less than a second before I was on to the next thing. I believed that I could only feel better when I had accomplished everything and pleased everyone, but the reality was that my inner critic Milly kept moving the goalpost on what was considered “enough.”

Milly the gremlin/madwoman. Adobe Draw, Discovery Bay 2021.

It’s not even that I didn’t have time for myself. I didn’t allow myself to consider my own needs because the only way I could be worthy was by doing more. And then of course I got to play the martyr and feel sorry for myself for sacrificing my own needs. And I then further judged and shamed myself for not being noble or self-sacrificing enough to not feel like a victim.

Redefining Self Care

Ironically, it wasn’t until my husband decided to leave our family to pursue his dream of becoming an architect that I began to take care of myself. At first I was devastated. And furious. It seemed like the most selfish act ever, and so uncharacteristic, because he was (and is) one of the most giving people you will ever meet. Virtually overnight, I had become a single mom working to support my kids, and apparently also my husband’s midlife crisis. Really?

Photo by Maddi Bazzocco on Unsplash

In those first months as I was scrambling to make sense of it all, my therapist helped me to see that I also had secret desires that I had been denying myself. And this is when I came back to my art. She suggested that I create a space for myself, and insisted that I carve out time to spend in my studio, away from the kids, phone, email.

She helped me to see that self care isn’t so much about candles and bubble baths, but more about acknowledging our truths and being courageous enough to assert them.

Redefining selfish

Fast forward to the 2020s, when it’s now actually trendy to talk about taking a mental health day or “me time.” We have meditation apps on our phones and wearable tracking devices to track our heart rate variability. And while we are coming to accept that it’s okay to engage in self care, most of us still don’t know how to deal with the sense that somehow we are behaving selfishly when we do so.

By always going along to get along, I was perpetuating a lie about who I really was

It took years for me to see that actually it’s not uncommon for people who are always givers to reach a breaking point. I learned that actually my husband’s “selfish” act was actually a gift. Because when he finally had the courage to assert his needs, I also became more willing to admit that I had unmet needs, too.

Being brave

I learned that when I was always putting the needs of others before my own, I was actually going along to get along, seeking approval while ignoring my truth. And I learned to face up to the hard reality that by living that way, I was perpetuating a lie about who I really was. I was denying my artist self and my creative inner child who was always curious and wanting more.

Photo by Zyanya BMO on Unsplash

I was so afraid of other people disapproving of me or being disappointed in me, that I became smaller and smaller. Curled up tightly, safe in my cage of others’ expectations, afraid to step a toe out of line. I couldn’t see it at the time, but I now realize that I was being selfish and inauthentic by pretending to be someone else,

Because the opposite of being selfish isn’t blind selflessness. We can sometimes ignore our own needs for a while, but to do so long term leads to resentment, exhaustion and burnout. I still struggle to assert my needs, and I’m learning that being courageous enough to do so keeps me authentic and sustainably generous, which is so much better than being selfless.


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