It’s crazy to me that we live in a world that is so easily able to convince us of something. Even admitting that, my immediate response is, “the world can’t convince me of anything—I know what I believe and what I think and I stick to it.”
It took me a little too long to realize that my own pride was what made me such an easy target.
I always thought I was strong, and that I couldn’t be one of those people who fall into the trap of believing what society and culture tell me I should believe. The hardest part is just realizing I’ve gone off track.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about self-care. Or self-improvement, self-help, mental management—call it what you will. Quite honestly, I think it’s a big load of crap.
I spent the better part of last year seeing words like these every place my eyes wandered:
“Self-care comes first.”
“Focus on yourself.”
“Drop toxic people.”
“Put yourself at the top of your to-do list every single day and the rest will fall into place.”
“You deserve a break.”
And believing them.
And the reason I believed them is because they sound so good. They promise something—an easier life, a better state of mind, a more peaceful place, a sense of contentment and beauty.
So I bought it—in every sense of the word. I had confidence in it and I carved out the time, and I spent the money it took to do my nails, take myself out for coffee, get the calming adult coloring book, and buy that new outfit I wanted.
It didn’t seem to be working. I wasn’t happy. I didn’t look like the girls on Instagram all smiley and carefree. I was exhausted, and poor.
Maybe I was doing it wrong.
I took to Pinterest and found some more ideas that didn’t come with such a cost: take a bath, read a book, write 10 things you love about yourself, do your laundry and fold it and put it away (I know right? I can’t believe it actually said that).
I spent a lot of time in the following months trying to “journal” or write mantras or just take time for myself. I tried all the things on all the lists, but at the end of everything I just felt a little hopeless.
Self-care didn’t make me feel like I was taking care of myself—and that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
I began to really evaluate what I was doing in my life that did make me feel like I was taking care of myself. I cut back on a lot of the stereotypical ideals of self-care and made some room for other thoughts and tasks. Then it occurred to me: I was investing so much in a person I didn’t even like. I was selfish with my time and resources, and unorganized in my endeavors. I was putting myself first all the time, just like those internet gurus told me to do, and it made me empty and self-centered.
Look back at those images. “Focus on yourself.” “Obsess over your best qualities.” “Self care comes first.” “You deserve a break.” “Plant your own garden.” “You are your own home.”
Wow, I come first? It’s all about me? Am I really that much more important than everyone else?
What did I do to deserve that break? Am I just entitled to it?
I thought my home was with the people I loved?
Isn’t growing a garden really hard work? I’m not sure I can do it on my own…
Plants don’t water themselves, dogs and cats don’t put food in their bowls, and I shouldn’t be the one and only person I rely on to fulfill my needs.
But I bought into the world’s idea that I could be that person, and I didn’t even realize it was a mistake.
Of course, I’m not saying never take care of yourself or doing any of the things for yourself that bring you joy—but too much of a good thing is a bad thing and devoting your all into trying to make your own self happy is most likely going to end in disappointment.
After deciding that I was no longer going to buy into the crazy industry that modern self-care has become, I had some more time, money, and space on my hands. So I decided to use it in the exact opposite way that I had been—on others.
Putting others before myself actually turned out to be much more effective than any self-care list. I am not meaning you need to throw yourself into waiting on everyone around you hand and foot, just engaging and doing a small task every once and a while to help them out is enough to let them know they are loved and deserving of support, and to let you know that you are capable of handling more than just yourself. Even just the simple act of being kind to those around you can change an entire day. It can be someone you know, or a complete stranger, but lending a hand made me feel good, and I could tell it made others feel good too.
In being kind and putting myself on the back-burner occasionally, I found something a lot better than self-care: I found self-love.
I actually loved the person I was when I decided to spend a little less time on myself.
I thought a lot about why exactly that was, and then on my way to work this morning, as I was looking out into the snow-covered and fog-filled fields seeing nothing but white, I was reminded of the polar bear.
Polar bears, while appearing white in color, actually have black skin and transparent fur. They appear white in their environment because the white of the snow and ice reflects on their thick coat. That means they change colors depending on their surroundings; polar bears have been recorded to come in orange, yellow, and even green varieties.
I think I’m a lot like a polar bear; who I am around, defines what I am. If I am around kind, grateful, joyful people, then I feel a lot of those things too. And the more I devote my time to things other than “self-care” the more I realize what crap it is that I thought I deserved so much in the first place.
I deserve enough to ensure that I can still go out and be the best possible version of myself. For me, that looks like waking up an hour earlier than I usually do to pray, meditate, journal, read, and work on learning a new skill—all of which I do from the comfort of my own bed (because there is nothing better than just laying around in bed for an hour before you get to the rush that is daily life).
I have to make an effort to carve out that time for myself, ensuring that I get what I need, without taking any time away from others throughout my day– because the right kind of self-care isn’t selfish.
I’ve come to realize that one of the many reasons my original attempt at self-care didn’t work, was because there was no one around to see me try. A wise friend once told me to never underestimate the power of being seen, because it’s exhausting to keep working against yourself when someone truly sees you and loves you.
You can’t please yourself by yourself—at least I can’t. And I know way too many people who stress themselves out believing they can. Doing things for others establishes a support system and builds self-esteem better than any amount of clichéd self-care.
The other day I read a story about a woman who was in the first crucial years of her marriage, while simultaneously being in a very stressful period of her life. She was complaining to her therapist about all the issues in her life and said that she didn’t know if this marriage was going to work out.
Her therapist responded with: “It may not. He likes you way more than you like you.”
You don’t have to devote hours to completing the list of items on Pinterest. You don’t have to work out every day of the week and always keep yourself looking polished. You don’t have to take a bath or read a book or make a list about yourself if you don’t want to. You don’t have to listen to what the world says you need to do to be taken care of.
If you want to love yourself and have the ability to allow others to see and love you too, strive to be a kind, caring, and thoughtful person who devotes their time and resources to the things that really matter to them.