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Unshaming Self Care

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

I recently had my hair cut by pre-eminent celebrity stylist Kim Robinson. The funny thing is that while I have been friends with Kim for many years, it was the first time that I went to see him as a client. And while on the surface it may have seemed like a simple and obvious decision to make, it actually represented a new phase of personal growth for me.

Vanity shame

My childhood nickname growing up was xiao xiang or “Little Elephant,” and my family lost no opportunities to remind me that I was too tall and too heavy to be considered pretty. It was easy to believe that I was always going to be big, clumsy, and awkward, compared to the petite Asian girls at school.

My dad would always tell me that I would win no beauty contests, and I think he meant it fondly, as in - “but I love you anyway.” My mom would outright discourage me from considering my appearance, scolding me for being vain. My aunties would tell me that ironically she was the most vain of their four sisters, so I came to see that perhaps she was trying to spare me from being valued only for beauty. My mother had seen how shallow and disappointing life can be for girls who were too focused on their looks as a path to success.

My mom still vanity-shames others regularlry, commenting that my daughter must want beauty over her life by wearing a stylish, rather than properly protective, coat in cool weather. Or she’ll say this older woman on TV has dressed and made herself up like a weird evil spirit, instead of grooming and dressing “appropriately” for her age.

Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

It’s taken me years to recognize my internalized vanity-shaming for what it was. I had been chemically straightening my hair for years, because I was afraid to look different from others around me, to stick out of the crowd. When I came back to Hong Kong, my jewelry got smaller and dressed more and more in black and beige, so that I could blend in with the other doctors.

Playing it safe

I somehow believed that I could only be safe if I played by the narrow set of rules that governed how women should look, dress and behave. There was a constant inner dialogue in my head - monitoring and comparing - was I being too assertive, wearing too much makeup, taking up too much room? It took a lot of energy to try to control what others thought of me.

Until I realized that it was an impossible task. I could never control what someone else was thinking. I could try to influence their impression of me by dressing and behaving in certain ways, but my attempts at camouflage only served to keep me small. I was hiding the truth of who I was. By conforming to convention, I was living a lie. I told myself it was safer to play it safe, but paradoxically I only made myself more anxious by having to be constantly vigilant, to monitor what others were thinking.

Reframing self care as brain care helped to shift my inner dialogue

Most of us carry more anxiety about others’ judgment than is actually warranted, because other people don’t have time to notice us. And those that judge us are either trying to express caring or control in some way, which means it’s more about them than about us. The bottom line is that I decided to begin letting go of always being worried about what other people thought.

It’s a work in progress, but there is such a freedom to only needing my own approval. To see how much I was hiding, and to reclaim some of the energy that it takes to maintain that need to control what others thought of me.

Photo by cottonbro studio:

It didn’t change overnight, but probably started when I had to stop chemically straightening my hair during the pandemic. Because I could no longer go to the salon to get the treatments, I had to learn to accept my naturally curly hair texture, and to take care of it in humid weather. All this happened in a weirdly parallel process with allowing myself to step beyond medicine into coaching.

Letting go of my own expectations of what it means to “fit in” with the prevailing norm has definitely been a gradual but infinitely rewarding process. I’m still learning to tune into what I want for myself and to create safety for me to be me. Turns out I really wanted to have Kim do my hair, but I was afraid to admit it to myself, never mind taking action.

Reframing self care

Vanity is defined as having excessive pride or conceit in oneself or one’s appearance. And yet neglecting one’s appearance is considered sloppy. My mother’s strictures about not being vain were firmly ensconced in my mind, right next to my grandmother’s endlessly judgmental comments about appearance. You were either too fat or too skinny, your shoes were ugly, or dress too flowery. It feels stressful just remembering how it was to navigate these treacherous and conflicting standards.

I can show up as the best version of myself when I’m taking care of my brain health

When I first learned that I could choose to either keep those internalized judgments, or pick my own thoughts, it felt a little scary. I didn’t like not having rules to follow. But I realized that it was also scary to always feel subject to scrutiny and subjective disapproval from others. I had to learn that safety could never be found externally - I had to be the one to unconditionally love and accept myself, which included being forgiving of myself for any wardrobe failures.

We don’t always think of dressing and grooming as being components of self care, but they are. In fact, if I’m being honest, much of what motivates me to exercise, eat and sleep well, is that I want to look good. We are also taking care of ourselves when we brush our teeth, wash, take our medicines/supplements, and any number of activities of daily living.

The term “self care” typically conjures up images of luxurious spa services like pedicures or massages. But actually, these days I have broadened the scope of what I consider to be self care to include any personal growth or pleasurable activities, such as journaling, listening to podcasts or audible books that I love, chilling with my cat, drawing/painting, and so on.

Brain care graphic. © EWIM Ltd HKG 2023

Reframing self care as brain care has helped tremendously to shift my inner dialogue. I used to feel so guilty about taking care of myself in any way beyond the bare minimum. Every waking hour had to be devoted to some more worthy cause. I should be either taking care of patients, family, work or home responsibilities.

My to-do list was endless and overwhelming. Of course I wasn’t allowed to take any time for myself. That would be selfish. By which I meant that I didn’t want others to think that I only cared about myself. I was judging myself against the “perfect” standard of the selfless mother, doctor, daughter, (insert whatever role). And of course I would always find myself lacking and inadequate. Not sacrificing enough, not attentive enough, not thrifty enough, and so on.

Brain care pride

In just a few years of coaching, I've come to see that feelings of shame and guilt about not doing or being “enough” is actually a pretty universal and pervasive human experience. After all, we all learn as children that approval and acceptance in the family/tribe is gained by serving and doing more. Our work as adults is to become aware of our internalized programming, and to decide what we want to keep because it works for us, and what to let go of, when it no longer does.

I learned as a child that it was not okay to have needs, beyond the minimum for survival. As in most Asian families, my value was measured by how much I served and how well I performed academically. My parents never talked about feelings nor even knew to acknowledge emotional needs - they did their best within the cultural context of those times.

The familiarity of self-shaming only masquerades as safety

By reframing self care as brain care, I am learning to acknowledge and notice my needs. I am learning to create the time and space to take care of those needs, rather than always putting the needs of others first. I find that I’m able to let go of any shame or guilt because I know I can show up as a better version of myself when I’m taking care of my brain health. That knowledge informs my own judgment, and I’m leaning to trust that wisdom.

I am learning that there is a difference between setting boundaries to take care of myself and being selfish. For example, taking the time and spending the money to see a world class hairstylist is fun and exciting. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about anyone else, and of course it’s no one else’s business how I spend my time and money. But being willing to prioritize my self care in this way sends a powerful message to my old programming that acknowledges my own worthiness.

Kim Robinson salon. Dr Em’s photo archives

I’m also learning the difference between being self-indulgent, and setting boundaries with myself for my own behaviors, So while my old programming said that I was being self-indulgent when I spent a lot of money on a haircut, I’m seeing now that actually it was self-indulgent to allow myself to be frustrated or hate on my hair. I’m choosing instead to set a boundary for myself by being unconditionally loving to myself, no matter what my hair is like or what the scale says on any given day.

It’s taken a lot of coaching to get to the point where I have permission to spend the time and money to take care of myself. I’ve found that being in a scarcity (or “not enough”) mindset was keeping me stuck. It’s what I’ve been used to for decades, so my inner gremlin Milly’s bullying felt oh-so familiar to me. But the familiarity of self-shaming only masquerades as safety. True safety requires us to embrace compassion by being loving to ourselves by letting go of shaming ourselves for taking care of our brains.


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