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Self-care is selfish. But wait, why is that bad thing?

Message 23, January, 2021

Dear Guest,

Why has this saying become a metaphor for all life that happens outside of airplanes: “You have to put on your oxygen mask first, before you can help anybody else.”

I mean, if you’re on an airplane, please take this guidance about how to behave on airplanes seriously.

Otherwise, there’s a foundational message in it that I find deeply troubling. To me, it implies shamefully that you should take care of yourself, but ONLY if you fully intend to take care of somebody else, too. In other words, you are only supposed to “selfishly” consume time, money and energy on yourself if your ultimate goal is to spend your refreshed and renewed self caring for another person.

This is so frustrating because, quite frequently, it’s a sentiment that’s used like a weapon to force caregivers to accept the often-exhausting nature of their responsibilities, without question. To perpetuate the message that they “should” put others first, at all times and no matter the personal cost. (I’m a caregiver too, remember? I’m not sitting on my high horse lobbing advice at you from a distance.) 

So, if you’re already nervous about what I’m saying here, you might want to sit down or find something to hold onto before I throw down my next statement. Because I have to say:

What if self-care really is a truly selfish act? Just for your own sake. And what if that’s totally OK?

I know this seems like a radical idea. But this series is all about seeing possibilities and being encouraged and hopeful, even when you are a caregiver. And sometimes that means saying controversial things and challenging a belief someone holds near and dear. 

And, by telling you it's OK to be selfish (even for caregivers), I'm actually challenging two different absolute beliefs. One: caregivers must personally sacrifice everything (sleep, eating, exercise, employment) for the sake of the care receiver. And two: it's evil to want any care for yourself, especially if you call yourself a caregiver.

What if both of these extreme beliefs are wrong for you? What if both of these beliefs came about because it’s inconvenient for the rest of the world when a person needs long-term care - and it’s far more convenient to convince one individual that it’s somehow their sole responsibility to bear the burden alone, in silence and without expressing their dissatisfaction with the situation?

What if selfishness isn't evil at all? Couldn't it be that a healthy dose of selfishness is just a human need? For every single person.

What if it's ok to believe that other people can help the care receiver too? Or even that the care receiver might be capable of doing more for themselves?

I realize that these could be massive leaps based on what you believe right now. But even if it's out of reach right now, can you see yourself believing it? Do you want to? If not, why not?

If you think I'm wrong or being too harsh and heartless, I challenge you to dig a little deeper and ask yourself why.* Maybe you think you shouldn't believe in self-care as it applies to you. If you are offended when I suggest selfishness is OK, maybe your reaction and resistance just means that's a starting point for you. You're not wrong to think and feel whatever is coming up for you now. Maybe I'm not wrong, either. Let’s be curious about each other, and not fall into the trap of judging.

Maybe it will be a lot of work to believe it's ok to be selfish and care for yourself, if that’s what you want to do. It could involve asking for help, accepting help, giving up trying to control something or someone, learning how to set boundaries and say no to some things. What if all of that is ok too?

And here's an idea that could rock your world. What if, by learning how to be selfish, you could actually learn how to love and accept yourself. Maybe you will decide you can be yourself without apologizing for who you are, give yourself credit for how awesome you are, and recognize your own opinions and desires.

What if self-care is selfish, and that's ok? Even if you are a caregiver. 

Please let me know if you can relate to this, or if you have any thoughts or  questions, by leaving a comment here.

Kay Coughlin

*If you are feeling upset or maybe even a little outraged by the idea that self-care is selfish and that it's OK, that's a great opportunity to get curious and dig in to see what's going on in your mind. Grab my free "Thought Download Cheat Sheet" and use this idea as a thought prompt. And let me know how it goes for you. I'd love to hear from you!


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