How many of us see self care as being selfish? Especially women? What’s going on that taking care of oneself, if you are female, is somehow considered a bad thing? Almost a dirty word? Maybe it’s work ethic. Mom guilt? Perhaps it’s juggling too many roles at once trying to do it all. Women are still expected to be human doers more than they are expected to be human beings and that definitely factors in.
When women are expected to give all of themselves to everyone and everything, burnout is inevitable. Stress is chronic. Sense of self may go by the wayside. Society still conditions women to “have it all” by doing everything. They are urged to “lean in” even when they are already practically tipping over from the lean. And we feel guilty when we don’t. Selfish.
Philosopher Kate Manne coined the term “human giver syndrome” which comes from the idea that it’s a moral obligation to meet others’ needs, even if at the expense of our own needs. In this “syndrome”, women also feel compelled to keep their negative feelings to themselves. Ask nothing of anyone in return. Be nice. These expectations tend not to apply equally to the genders.
Women are more likely to be asked, overtly or implicitly, to do it all. We offer our time, our talents, our emotion, our energy–everywhere we go. We even give our executive function, the part of our brain that tracks all the details and regulates emotion and working memory, to our family members on a daily basis.
Emily & Amelia Nagoski, authors of Burnout, don’t really like “self care” as a solution to the burnout caused by the human giver syndrome. Others may even see the term as another way to hold women responsible for their own exhaustion. I’m going to suggest it’s at least a starting place. We at least understand what self care is supposed to be even if we aren’t good at doing it.
Let’s start with giving ourselves permission to take care of ourselves. First. At least some of the time. I like to remind women of what I call the oxygen mask rule. Just like the flight attendants tell us on an airplane-you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself FIRST before you can help others. Here’s what can help:
I know it can be hard to say no. Harder for some people than others. Make sure that the level of commitment is actually manageable. This also goes for commitments for your kids. Kids’ activities are a big part of adult stress anymore. Hint: If you can’t have down time, get enough sleep, or spend time with your family while having that commitment, it’s not manageable.
Maybe the limit you have to set is with your own internal “boss”. You know the one. That’s the voice that tells you it’s more important to do more chores than go for a walk outside in the sunshine. It’s the voice that tells you the kids have to have your attention every single time they call and right away too. Hint: It’s good for them to do things for themselves and entertain themselves regularly.
B. Find Ways to Get a Break.
Asking for help can be hard. Another parent might be able to get those cookies to the PTO meeting-how about a dad? Carpooling works well for many busy parents. Delegating responsibilities at work helps. Kids can take on more tasks at home. It’s really ok to tell your family that everybody needs to just go to bed early.
Breaks sometimes need to be scheduled in on purpose. I’ve routinely recommended a mom weekend away. Alone or with friends–both work great. Set a quit time in the evening and hold the boundary. Have one night a week where dinner is easy enough for anyone (else) to make. There’s nothing wrong with breakfast for dinner. Make sure you have a date night regularly if you have a partner. You need to have fun together as part of your self care. If you don’t have a partner, take yourself out on your own.
Give yourself a break. Listen to the voice inside your head that is critical and stop it. Would you talk to your best friend that way? What would you think if someone talked to your child that way? Make sure that your own expectations of “good enough” aren’t so high that you make yourself sick, or crazy. You also can’t please everyone all of the time so stop trying. While it matters what those closest to your inner circle think about how you show up in the world, not everybody is in your inner circle. What some people think about you is not your business. Let it go.
C. The Usual Suspects:
I know everyone already knows the drill. Get enough sleep. Eat healthy foods. Exercise at least a few days each week at a minimum. You may have to create the opportunities for those things to actually happen. Have someone else occasionally manage kid bedtime once in awhile if you can. Make sure you bring healthy snacks with you so you can get something to eat regularly when you are running around. If long bursts of exercise don’t fit into your schedule, park farther away from wherever you are going and walk. Stand up at your desk and march in place to get your blood and your muscles moving.
Turn off the electronics and keep them out of the bedroom. You do NOT need your cell phone in your room. Buy an alarm clock. Turn the volume up on the ring tone if you are worried someone may call with an emergency but keep your phone somewhere else. Don’t reach for your device if you find yourself awake in the middle of the night. Having it somewhere other than your bedroom will make this easier.
Start and end your day with something soothing. Pray. Meditate. Read. Write in a gratitude journal. Having the bookends of your day be pleasant and positive is an important set and re-set in a hectic life. Mindfulness keeps your inner self calmer and more balanced.
D. Finish the Stress Cycle as well.
One of the important contributions the Nagoski sisters highlight in their book, Burnout, is the notion of completing the stress cycle. Exercise, or at least some form of moving your body, is important not only to managing the stress but also to completing the cycle. Be creative. If you want to get two for one, dance in a totally unstructured way. Creative movement is a definite bonus.
Allow yourself a good cry when you feel it. Crying not only completes the stress cycle but it also releases stress hormones and other toxins in the tears themselves. Make sure to have emotional connections. Here’s where John Gottman joins the sisters–each of them recommend the 6 second kiss. If you don’t have someone to kiss for 6 seconds, a 20 second hug can work just as well. Emotionally and psychologically the connection to another human being is important. Physically it’s enough touch to release oxytocin which is a stress reducing, and emotional bonding hormone.
So let’s stop making self care a dirty word phrase for women. Let’s get everyone back to “human BEING” rather than human doer.