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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.


About The Author

Max Daniels is a research-based life coach whose weekly emails make us laugh with recognition and rethink everything we thought we knew. Her new book is Meals at Mealtimes. What a concept!


  • I recently hear Gloria Steinem say that we have to turn the golden rule around and to”love ourselves as we love others”. It stuck with me.

    • Yes!!!!!! I heard Gloria speak last year and was inspired by her.

  • Strong coffee and some inspiration from Max–a great way to start the day. Lookout world!

  • This is so damn powerful!!! Amen and YASSS and hallelujah! I, too, spent a good chunk of parenthood pissed. My adult kids now say “remember when you were crazy?” The good thing about that is apparently I’m better now. Deserves another Amen.

    • This is beautiful and I love your kids 🙂

  • Gosh did I need to hear this today Max! Knowing the theory, and embracing it on a daily basis seem so amazingly different. Realizing that self care can also be tough love is even harder. Sometimes what I really need is to get off my tuchis and go to yoga or for a run and not sit and knit with tea (and a book or tv). I feel like self-indulgence is not always self care, even though I want it to be!

    • What Sophie said! I always have to keep a beady eye out to distinguish self-indulgence from self-care.

    • ooh that’s really profound, that self indulgence is not always self care!!

  • Reading this was a really and truly excellent way to start my morning (well, this and coffee). Thank you for the inspiration.

  • Wow. Just wow. I’m sitting here with tears in my eyes. Because you know what: I’m that exploding doormat. I have been all my life. I suppose it would be easy to place the blame on others. But at the end of the day, I’ve never seen myself as someone worth anything. Not worth effort. Not worth time. Worthless. Pointeless. Ive believed that I was the cause of the problems around me. Being drilled into your head, over and over again that you are burden, that very least you can do is to take care of others: eventually you believe it. Eventually you stop fighting it. Eventually you stop exploding because exploding is mentally and physically exhausting. Start believing everything bad that is said. You become drained. And the negativity spirals down and down and down. I’m in that hole now. And I don’t know how to get out. Some days I can get myself to care enough to make an effort to pull myself out. But most days, I know that without changing not only my mental environment but my physical environment, why even try. So I’ve become a spunge. I take the mental blows, I do my best to pretend to be non-existant, to not be noticed. To work hard so there is less reason for the negativity to begin. But it’s getting harder and harder to even care about even that small amount of effort. I put in the mininimum amount of effort. I either hardly eat or over eat. I hardly even try to make myself presentable. My personal spaces are cluttered, messy, disorganized chaos. I’m giving up mentally, and I wonder how long before I just stop altoghether. Subconsciously, I know that I have to stop my mind from thinking these things…that I have to take care of myself…that I have to try. But its so stinking hard. Especially when you are in a situation you cannot escape. The only thing that is keeping the last few shreds of my sanity is knitting. It’s the only thing that’s for me. But lately, even making an effort to knit is getting harder and harder….and I find myself staring vacantly for days at a time…doing just what I have to get by. I know I have to get out of this viscious cycle but how….

    Keep writing. I’ll be listening.

    • If you are in a relationship with a person who is continually telling you and showing you that you are worthless, you might need help to get out. I was in such a marriage and I didn’t recognize the abuse that was going on because it was not physical. I felt that i deserved everything that was said about me. I felt like no matter how hard I tried it was never good enough. I was not worthy of the care and attention that otherwise received. When I finally had enough and I looked outside myself for help to friends and to a therapist I was surprised to learn that they didn’t share these opinions of me. Going t through the divorce was difficult and it did not make things perfect but it certainly did help and I am able to lead a much freer and more fulfilling life since then. It has had its impact on my children but I feel that it has also shown them that the way I was treated was not representative of a loving relationship. I still struggle with feelings of self-worth but I have made a lot of progress over the years since my divorce. However I never would have done it had I not reached out to a very good therapist who helped me see what is going on, and to my friends. My life is much happier now.

    • I could have written this, just not as brave. ❤️

    • Dear friend, you ARE worth it, as the world needs your unique gifts. Thank you for struggling. Sending love and support!

    • I sympathize completely with what you have written, I almost feel I could have written it myself. I am trying to carve out small parts of my own life from being subsumed by others, getting those moments of victory to complete something that doesn’t dissolve into chaos within a few days is one way I feel I’ve accomplished something. Knitting is a great source of creating something that can stay complete.Spinning too. Kay (I think it was Kay) was a great inspiration with the throw 50 things a day out for a month (January 2015?). I am re-embracing that to start to deal with the clutter that I feel I am drowning in after 26 years in the same one-bedroom apartment. I did throw out a lot then, but the paper demons (i.e. junk mail) have returned. If you can, schedule time off for yourself and try to address small areas in your living spaces and make them work for you. Perhaps knowing others are in the same boat as you will make you feel less isolated and alone? You are definitely not alone in feeling how you do.

    • I’m listening and sending warmth your way. I hear you about being undone by the chaos around you. Can you bring yourself to take a walk? Even just around the outside of the house to start, just to get out into the light and air. I wish I could come, take your hand, and let you know that you’re worthwhile.

    • I’m so glad that you wrote today. That you have a place to write this, and that you trusted us all to witness. (Hand on heart here.)

      One thing that stands out for me in what you write is that you are witnessing yourself, as well. You describe how others’ thoughts are drilled into you, and you begin believing them, and yes, this does happen (to us all).

      But the fact that you can see it to describe it shows that there’s part of you that doesn’t buy in. Doesn’t believe it. That to me is a very healthy skepticism.

      I hope you keep writing here. Thank you, and sending love <3 <3 <3

    • Sending love to you.

    • I’m listening to you, too, and I’m sure others are. Hoping so hard that Max’s words (and knitting of course), help you find the way. Thank you for this comment. It means a lot to us that you are willing to share such honesty here.

      • I totally understand. This article was a gift and a wake up call. Max could be describing me also. This is like a Christmas gift. Bless you and your journey to self discovery.

    • I wish I could give you a hug. You are worth it. I know it’s hard. *hug*

  • Great post! Thanks.

  • “Exploding doormat” < – < 3

    • I believe Martha Beck may have coined that phrase, as she has so many other good ones 🙂

  • A friend of mine sent me the link to your blog– and I am so grateful! What a great post! It is both highly informative and had me nodding in recognition and agreement– as well as laughing aloud more than once. I am a life coach– and will share “you” and your work to others. Thanks again, and many kudos…

    • Thank you!

  • What I’ve learned is that when I leave my family so I can do self-care (such as go to the gym) I need to lower my expectations of how things get done around the house. Lowering my standards also helped when my two boys became old enough to do dishes and laundry. While it is important to teach them to do a good job, it is not important that they be able to achieve the same standard of work as I do.

    Letting go frees up my time so I can do things for me, but it also frees my mind from worry and stress.

    • You put this perfectly, Laurie! I had my godson here for 6 months, and while he didn’t always meet the white-glove standard, he was so helpful in saving me little chores. I realized that with him, I was not critical, as I am with my own kids. I was just appreciative of the helping hand and of his contribution. Trying to process that into a life lesson!

  • Oh, love to us all, really …

  • Thank you so much for this…xoA

  • Yes! Yes! And Yesssss! I am on a personal mission to remove the stigma associated with self-care–especially for women. We are nurturers, encouragers, and we are passionate about caring for others. But neglecting ourselves only interferes with our ability to do those things. Thanks for putting this brilliant article out into the world, Max!

  • Amen! For me, it’s been helpful to ask myself what legacy I want to leave my children. Selfish is necessary and healing. Self-centered, not so much. Thank you for such a thoughtful post.

  • This is exactly what I needed today. We just moved, there are boxes everywhere, my husband had emergency surgery on Friday and I’m trying to comfort everyone because we can’t travel for Christmas. The truth is we are the ones having trauma, and I’m the one who hasn’t slept in three days. They can get over it and that will be the conversation I’ll be having with family later today. I get to take care of me. Me, me, me because really soon I’ll be a heap on the floor if I don’t.

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