If you’ve been on an airplane anytime during this or the preceding century, you will have heard the instruction “put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you.” Every single time.
(And if you’ve made even the briefest venture into the vast world of “self-help,” you’ve heard a bunch of those helpers whose job it is to help you help yourself use that same analogy. Probably even your teabag is saying it.)
We’ve Been Trained
Why does the airline give you the same information, live in person and also on video and in print, every single time you fly? Well, partly because we’re not listening, but mostly because we don’t believe them. It’s very difficult to consider that seeing to ourselves first is the best way to take care of others. We’ve been trained—hard—that good people put themselves last.
Especially female people.
We all know what happens to the last task, thing or person on the list: it rolls downhill to “later.” Possibly for all time. So what’s in it for us when we put others first? What is society’s reward for being a good person? What fabulous prize do we have coming when we endlessly defer taking care of ourselves? Why, just this: We will not be called “selfish.”
(Well, maybe not. No guarantees, actually.)
But even aiming to avoid being seen as selfish is pretty powerful. Isn’t “selfish” or “self-involved” or, letsbereal, “selfish bitch,” about the most wounding thing you could be called? Doesn’t any accusation of selfishness, even a “joking” accusation, make us instantly defend ourselves? Our job title as women has been Caretaker of Everyone Else for the last several thousand years. (With some variation from culture to culture.) And if getting fired means ejection from the tribe—which it does, to the older parts of our brain—well, we’re not going to risk a bad review.
Sadly, our culture can’t tell the difference between self-care and self-obsession. So sometimes my job as a coach is to give my clients—from 18 to 70—the glad news that it is OK for women to be selfish.
The survival of the species may not depend on it. We have gotten this far on a handful of women who listen first to their own needs and desires and crazy passions. But if we want to live in a kind, just and more beautiful world, the reality is that the species can’t afford any more self-sacrificing women.
A Relief to the World
Consider that no one can neglect herself regularly without sitting on a pile of rage (often, though never entirely, in the form of stored fat). We’ve all seen the woman who appears in the guise of the “exploding doormat,” aka she who can take any amount of neglect or abuse until whoops! She can’t, and won’t, and lets you know.
You don’t need me to tell you not to be nearby when that doormat blows, because angry women raised a lot of us. (I raised my own kids pissed as hell. I was working full time and my “second shift” was truly another full-time job. I know this because I kept track of my time in 15-minute increments long enough to see the pattern fill a spreadsheet: toil, toil, drudgery and more $%@*ing toil.)
Now think about the opposite: a woman who willingly takes the responsibility for her own self-care. She doesn’t put herself last on the list. She doesn’t tell herself every day that she’ll see to herself “tomorrow.” She doesn’t hope some little bit will trickle down. And she’s not going to eat herself alive to avoid getting voted off the island. This woman is a relief to the world.
A self-caring woman sets an example for her children, the girls and the boys. Her self-care gives the girls permission for their own, which at this time they are unlikely to get elsewhere, and it models healthy womanhood for her sons. And it sure beats setting an example of self-neglect.
The Real Self-Indulgence
Of course there are times when others must come first. Babies get hungry on their own schedule. The IRS can get pretty impatient. Etc. Unless we’re on the proverbial airplane and actually going down, we can afford to tend to others—if we’ve got something in the bank.
And that means the real self-indulgence is self-neglect and self-hatred.
Because unless we, as women, take care of ourselves, the world will suffer our saved-up and distorted anger, and it will suffer the absence of our gifts, the absence of ourselves, our true selves. It may even suffer the absence of our simple selves, as it can when we neglect ourselves into early graves.
But between us, the main reason I’m interested in self-care is not that it’s good for the world, but that it’s good for you. And it’s probably your turn.
Next time we will talk about some of my very favorite forms of self-care. In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts, and I welcome your questions.
Photo credit: Echo and Narcissus, John William Waterhouse, 1903, public domain.
Join the conversation about self-care over in The Lounge.