Self Care is Not Selfish

Self-care is not selfish. Growing up I learned a different message. As a child in an immigrant family, I was raised watching parents who worked tirelessly for the good of others, building and supporting our small but growing Sri Lankan community in New Jersey. My parents did not take time for haircuts, manicures, exercise, or even an indulgent moment with a hot cup of tea and a good movie was rare. When I was a young mom and teaching full time, the last thing I spent time and resources on was self-care. I hustled to do my best at my job and take care of my family. I did indulge in the occasional haircut, soaking in every moment of the luxurious hair wash and scalp massage. Although when I returned home, I worked extra hard to cook, clean, and spend time with my kids. I almost felt guilty for getting a haircut, for taking care of myself, and for having time alone. What was the result? I constantly felt burned out. I was always thinking about work when I was home and home when I was at work. I never felt fully present. 

It is only now, 28 years into my career with grown children that I have come to the full realization that self-care is not an act of selfishness but rather an act of self-compassion. Taking care of yourself as a parent, a partner, an educator, a leader, and in all your roles is vital. When we don’t care for ourselves, our bodies, and our minds, we get depleted. We do not bring our best selves into our roles. When we take care of ourselves, exercise, eat well, rest, and create time for joy, we are more available for others, better at our roles, and better human beings. Now as a leadership coach, I hear my clients speak of the challenges before them each day as they lead in schools during this pandemic. It really does seem like self-care would be selfish, especially now. Yet, the opposite is true. Self-care is more important than ever, especially for women and women of color! Women of color experience an emotional tax or psychological burden as a consequence of “exclusionary behaviours, affecting their overall health and well-being as well as making them feel constantly on guard” (Travis). Women of color who are leaders have even more challenges and barriers to contend with so it’s vital that they practice self-care and that institutions support self-care. 

In Psychology Today, Kristin Lee Ed.D., LICSW, tells us that self-care is not selfish or indulgent and in fact, has many protective and preventive factors towards our overall well-being. So if self-care is so important, why do we resist it so much, especially women? Dr. Lee writes, “Most of us are operating with few margins in our lives. Respite, rest, and time off to just seem like luxuries…. It can also feel unachievable in light of the enormous demands around every corner.” 

Even though it may seem there are many obstacles getting in the way of the self-care we need: demanding jobs, young kids, aging parents, financial issues, the pandemic, racial and social justice matters, and more, we need to weigh the cumulative effects of ignoring our physical health and mental well being. 

Here are some things to consider when making time and space for self-care:

  • It does not have to be big. You do not need a day at the spa or weekend away from the kids and family. It may not be possible! Start small. List small things that bring you joy and try to place a few of these moments in each day. I like to have a hot cup of sweet tea. This is a small treat. It does not cost much money or take much time.
  • Who are some people that make you feel good? Self-care is about well being and connection is an important part of mental well-being. In this pandemic, many of us have lost connection with people we enjoy. Technology can be helpful. Text, zoom, or even make an old fashioned phone call to someone who makes you feel good. 
  • Get out in nature or just outside. This has been a recent and tremendous discovery for me. I did not grow up in an ‘outdoorsy’ family. So, I have recently discovered the power of walking alone outside and just looking and listening to everything around me. Walking outside quiets my mind. 
  • Move your body. You do not need an hour set aside to go to an exercise class or engage in a strenuous workout. This was another recent discovery for me. Exercise snacking, a term coined by Robyn Conley Downs author of The Feel Good Effect, talks about exercise reenvisioned as small amounts of movement each day when you can do it. Fifteen minutes for a walk. Ten minutes for some simple yoga. All this movement is sprinkled throughout your day when it works for you!

So, start small and do it. We especially need women and women of color in leadership positions for the long haul as they bring a myriad of benefits to our institutions and to our lives. So, ask yourself: What will I do to care for myself today?