I know my message of “self-care, people!” is nothing new. Activist communities have caught on, and we often remind one another to take R&R. However, I do think it’s important to confront a common barrier that stops us from actually following this advice. Simply put, we form an identity around not taking good care of ourselves. It’s like there’s a subconscious upper limit to how healthy we will allow ourselves to be.
Once when I was in college, a group of my theatre peers was talking about how little sleep we were all getting. What with our coursework, rehearsals, part-time jobs at coffee shops, and keeping up with the devastation on the news, our reported hours of sleep per night ranged from 5, 4, 3…
This was when I realized something was wrong. Here we were, kids of privilege attending university in the world’s 5th richest nation, and even we were somehow unable to attain the luxury of a decent night’s rest. Why should it be seen as badass for me to survive off insufficient sleep, feeling like a zombie when I don’t have to?
It is okay to be high-maintenance
Sometimes I blame cartoons for making me think my back should never break, even if I get knocked around over and over in an epic earth-bending battle (Legend of Korra reference).
Humans are needy. Let’s accept it. To feel our best, we need sooooo many conditions to be within an optimal range—from the complexities of nutrition and social dynamics, to temperature and having a secure place to live. Climate change has made us more aware than ever of our shared vulnerability. Yet, somehow we still convince ourselves we ought to be exceptional superheroes.
This unrealistic ideal gets especially dicey when you have a preexisting condition. Pandemic times have given me space to recognize the ADHD and autism symptoms I have always had, but never wanted to accept I was stuck with. Being neurodivergent, my brain needs all the help it can get. So I’ve decided 7–9 hours of sleep is non-negotiable for me, as is daily cardio and a carefully balanced diet.
But whatever unique kryptonite you or your loved ones may be dealing with, our special challenges deserve empathy, care, and patience. It is okay to spend extra time on our self-help, or even to be “high-maintenance.” I am learning to be proud, instead of ashamed, of being a needy human. Because when I focus on doing what’s good for my own well-being first, I have more energy, clarity, and enthusiasm with which to be an effective ally and contributor to society.
I had heard of survivor’s guilt, but no one ever told me to watch out for “thriver’s guilt”
Awareness of inequality—which is of course a very excellent thing—can be misconstrued as yet another reason to not really take our health seriously. Different from survivor’s guilt, some of us possess a “thriver’s guilt” that makes us self-sabotage our attempts to be well. Camille Preston writes for Psychology Today about how to turn this guilt into gratitude as we continue to move past COVID.
As an antidote to thriver’s guilt, try this perspective: The fact others suffer is all the more reason to treat yourself to premium health and wellness. Don’t let this opportunity for there to be one more happy human go to waste! With superior health, you can do a better job at making a difference.
There may be a grain of truth to our guilt, but we are misdirecting it. We end up feeling ashamed of rest, laughter, love, and our basic human needs—even though depriving ourselves does nothing to help those who are fending off a climate-induced wildfire or famine. Instead, we could take a second look at the more expensive ways we self-care that often aren’t as effective. For instance, if we’ve been spending a fortune on fancy things, we could potentially donate that same money to relief efforts. If our food and travel is very carbon-intensive and harming animals, we can aspire to a more plant-based and local lifestyle. We can also seek to question anything we are doing that is self-destructive, and replace it with genuine self-care.
One of my habits that had turned self-defeating was Neopets, an online game I competed at for over ten years. Gaming can be beneficial in moderation, but for me, it became an addictive “self-care disguise” that prevented me from thriving and from serving my community. Giving up Neopets was hard, but now that I have done it, I feel that the time I spend shamelessly sleeping in, doing yoga and math problems to keep my body and mind strong, and giving myself relaxing scalp massage is all much more worth the investment!
Let’s bust one last myth, that self-care is always hard
One last narrative I want to question here is the idea that self-care must be hard. Wouldn’t we rather affirm to ourselves that self-care can be as natural as breathing? I am walking a fine line with this advice, because of course there are circumstances that make self-care exceedingly difficult. Yet, I have noticed in my own life of privilege that I absorb messages about self-care’s hardness, messages that don’t really apply to me.
For example, our political and corporate leaders have often conveyed sympathy for how tough COVID-19 has been on all of us. Alas, it turned out I was one of the exceptions. My life became better and easier since COVID—mainly due to unemployment, less “fluff” socializing, and being forced to reevaluate my priorities. While never wavering on my commitment to be compassionate toward others, I found it helpful to pay attention to how my brain was internalizing it all. I must be struggling right now, because the TV news says I am. It would be rude if everyone else was in distress and I wasn’t!
Stop to consider whether you, like I, ever formed an identity around your struggle to take care of yourself. There may be times life simply gets you down, and we can only make the best of that. I just don’t want for anything in your mind to hold you back. You are truly worthy of amazing self-care and the highest possible health. When you manifest this for yourself, you may feel like you’re standing atop a mountain. From this position, you breathe in the crisp air, and you see everything more clearly. You can throw ropes so as to help your fellow climbers find their way to safety.
Maybe someday, college students sleeping 7–9 hours every night won’t seem like such a radical concept. In a world that’s battling a pandemic and reckoning with climate change, a good night’s sleep is a great place to start.
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Photo: Leohoho via Unsplash