Why Self-Care Isn’t Selfish

The question is inevitable, something used as part of a politeness construct in social situations:

What do you do?

No matter who’s asking the question, most people are uncomfortable with their own answer.

This question could be interpreted so many different ways, but nearly all of us assume it’s specific to the employment situation held in our life. Our answers are usually disappointing (to ourselves) because most of us are doing something we don’t love. We joke about the metaphorical ball-and-chain of a nine-to-five. Punching the clock. Logging our service hours. “Living the dream,” is saved for the days we’re feeling particularly feisty.

Maybe you can’t settle upon one dream job, but cherish a handful of exciting pursuits. Maybe you’re in the very common situation of “Something, and just about anything, is better than what I’m doing now.”

Most people can relate to the mindset of The Temporary Job. (Just six months–I’m already looking for the next one!) Time disappears as it sucks up five, ten, twenty-five years of your life. It was supposed to be a simple 9-5 in exchange for a paycheck, but the paycheck doesn’t make up for the stress, the never-ending meetings, or the fact that some (all?) of your coworkers, on their best behavior, can only be described with an expletive.

Do you remember the moment you realized, with horrifying clarity, that you’d settled? I do, and it’s happened more than once. I kept telling myself, “I don’t have the energy right now. I have a baby and I can’t get enough sleep to keep myself coherent, so I’ll just put the job search on hold.” Then another baby came along and the cycle repeated. Before I knew what had happened, I’d spent years in an industry I could barely tolerate, losing a little piece of my soul with each passing day. More paperwork. More legal jargon. No creativity or encouraging light at the end of the tunnel. Because of that compromise I was tired, under chronic stress, burning the candle at both ends and making myself feel like a failure.

Not many folks are in the position that allows them to walk into HR one day and say “You know what? I’ve had it with this job, with the clients I work with, with my fellow miserable coworkers. You can keep it.”

We all know the daily drudgery steals our time, our focus and our joy. None of us like to admit it, but it’s a matter of awareness. Most of us are simply trying to make it through just one more day, or to the next holiday, to our next vacation. But those moments are so brief and fleeting and we’ve built up so much expectation around them that they cannot possibly fulfill our need for joy and thorough refreshment of the soul.

We’re all familiar with the saying that goes something like: “If you don’t take care of yourself, no one will do it for you.” Think of how true this (likely) is in your life. You’re running in a million directions each day: Care for the pets, feed the kids, do a load of dishes and laundry before everyone’s out the door to school and work. The cycle continues at work: Handle the catastrophe your boss just passed off to you, but while the phone’s jumping off the hook and, crap, weren’t you supposed to be in a meeting five minutes ago?

Long before the end of the day you’re already exhausted. You have no brainpower left to make important decisions, let alone ANY decisions. (Can I just make pizza for dinner, for what is probably the third time this week?) There have been so few truly joyful moments in your day, you have to struggle to remember them. How long, you might find yourself wondering from time to time, can I keep this up?

With the explosion of chronic disease in the developed world, most people are aware of what’s to blame: Uncontrolled stress. Lack of sleep/quality rest. A poor diet. Not nearly enough exercise. But while most people find ways to implement healthier behaviors around those key points, finding joy is often overlooked. You tell yourself you don’t have time to spend with the friends who make you laugh. You haven’t meditated in years. You can’t remember the last time you sat down and read a good book.

Today I encourage you to give yourself ten minutes to daydream. Set your timer if you really can’t afford to spend longer, but give yourself the mental space to spend that time quietly. You’re not there to review what you feel are the failures or where you took the wrong path. You’re taking that time to envision what could be. You’re saying to yourself, “Going forward, I am going to do something that gives my life meaning.” It may not be a complete career revamp, but it should be something that fills you with joy and purpose. What is it that makes you feel unique, accomplished, and noticeably reduces your stress levels?┬áIs it volunteering at a local animal shelter? Painting? Writing? Gardening? Whatever it is (and you can certainly pick more than one thing), give yourself permission to bring it back into your life, even if you can only do it in small increments. Then gift yourself that window of time to do what it is you love, knowing the investment will bring you happiness and calm, making you a more patient, less frazzled, generally happier person. Your soul is a bank from which you make withdrawals, so *make* the time to fill it up!

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