It’s 5:37 am. You’re already wide-awake. The alarm hasn’t gone off yet so you can either go back to sleep for another 23 minutes or you can get out of bed. Too late. Your body’s still in bed but your mind’s already racing with a million thoughts per hour. The kids will be having toast for breakfast this morning. The lunchbox will consist of an apple, a cheese sandwich, and a juice popper. You’re already mentally rehearsing your lunch packing action as you also cross-check it against your to-do list for the rest of the day. You rush the kids to drop-off on time. You rush to get yourself to work on time. You make it to the office lift just in time. Before you pop out of that lift, you have just enough time to run your tongue against your teeth.
Why does your mouth feel a bit gristly? Oh no. In the mad rush of getting everything done this morning, you forgot to brush your teeth.
I think many of us live our own version of this story. We serve because we love. And we serve because we care. Whether we are formally paid for our work or not, many of us are professional caregivers.
So why is it that we spend so much time nurturing and caring for others, but we struggle to give the same tender love and care when it comes to ourselves?
Why do we put our own needs on the backburner?
I argue some of us struggle to love ourselves more because of these well-intentioned but ultimately dangerous myths:
I think many of us are afraid to embrace self-love because to some extent we judge self-love as a selfish act. We value selflessness as an esteemed virtue. This attitude is ingrained in our culture and in our upbringing.
We live in a culture where we’re constantly taught to be kind and considerate, to look after people’s needs. From a young age, some of us are even shamed, punished or reprimanded by our caregivers for being ‘selfish’ and for looking out for ourselves first. Some of us feel guilty when we put our needs ahead of others.
We all love a good hero story, we grew up on them. Classic heroic stories from William Wallace (Braveheart) to modern-day princess Elsa (Frozen) typically entail some element of self-sacrifice for the greater good of everyone in order to save the day.
I hate to break it to you, but this ain’t gonna work. This strategy simply isn’t sustainable in the long-run. If you spent all your time and energy looking after people’s needs without replenishing your own fuel tank, what do you think will happen to your body, energy levels, and over time, the quality of your service?
You don’t need to be a martyr in order to serve the people you love well. In fact, you’ll actually serve them better if you replenish your own fuel tank first.
As you’d often hear the flight attendants say: “Put the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping others”.
Self-care is not selfish. It’s a necessity.
Some of us are hesitant to embrace self-love because we think self-love means narcissism. It is not.
Self-love is not an act of self-indulgence, an attention-seeking act of “look at how awesome I am” or a “me first” mentality to the exclusion of others.
On the other hand, it is not wallowing in self-pity, indulging in self-sympathy or retelling limiting stories we’ve created for ourselves either.
Self-love is not an inflated assessment of portraying yourself to be better than others or better than you actually are. It is a compassionate acceptance that you are enough just as you are.
Yet, others think self-love means making excuses to treat yourself better than you treat others. The proverbial take the lion’s share of the pie before everyone else takes a nibble.
But this simply isn’t true either. Self-love is not treating yourself better than you treat others, it is treating yourself equal to others. It is giving yourself an equal chance, an equal voice.
It is giving yourself permission to gain access to the same loving, nurturing care that you give to others. Not ‘better’ treatment, but to give yourself the same access to the nourishing TLC as you would to the people you care so deeply about.
Self-love is telling yourself that you are enough and worthy of love regardless of what you have, done, or accomplished. It is loving yourself right now, right here, without conditions attached. Not when you’re 5 pounds skinnier, found that ideal job, get that promotion, or when you finally achieved (said goal).
It is treating yourself with kindness and talking to yourself like you would to a good friend.
Self-love is acknowledging that you have needs too. It’s being aware of what those needs are, and then meeting them. Is it hearing you are appreciated by the people you care for? Is it taking a 5-minute tea break in silence? Self-care needs may look different for each person. So this may mean having an open and honest conversation with your immediate support network to get those needs met, and then structuring your day to have those needs scheduled in.
At the core, I believe self-care is about self-acceptance. It is about acknowledging that we are all perfectly imperfect just like each and every one of us, without trying to ‘fix’ it.
Some of us buy into the belief that we’re not worthy of receiving love until we have attained a certain thing or achieved a certain goal. That is, we delay receiving love until a later date because we think we’re inherently not ‘worthy’ of receiving love until we’ve fulfilled some (sometimes impossible) set of conditions. This includes receiving love from ourselves.
But we’re worthy of receiving love now. Today, as soon as we’re open to receiving love.
To accept yourself just as you are is to embrace and love ALL parts of yourself without judging any parts as more ugly, more attractive, more enlightened, more shameful or more impressive than other parts of ourselves.
I think it’s time to love all parts of ourselves. Dirty teeth and all.