Do you struggle to practice self-care, and instead put your energy into taking care of others? Read below for a metaphor I share with clients about the importance of prioritizing self-care, especially if you want to be able to care for others!
Early on in my career I started using a metaphor with my clients to help explain the importance of self-care. I often find that my clients, especially women in some sort of caregiving role or helping profession (nurses, teachers, mental health professionals, mothers, etc.), tend to hold a similar belief around self-care:
Taking care of other’s needs is more important than taking care of my own.
How does this belief develop? When does the admirable desire to help others and leave the world a better place become a mission that leaves no space for caring for oneself? I’ve seen firsthand how so many of my own colleagues, friends and clients burn themselves out putting the needs of others before their own. A big part of my dissertation was focused on how parents with a child with an eating disorder or substance use disorder hurt their own mental and physical health trying to “care” for their loved one.
But the truth is that in attempting to be selfless, we often end up unable to help anyone. In fact, I often pose the question to my patients:
Could not taking care of yourself actually be selfish?
I then share with them the following metaphor:
Imagine that I have a glass of water and the level of water in the glass is the amount of energy (emotional, physical, spiritual, etc.) that I have to give to others. If I’m only taking care of other people, the water is going to constantly be draining from my glass. If I don’t practice self-care (i.e. fill up my glass), I’m going to run out of water and not have anything to give to others.
Not only that, but if I’m not filling my own glass then I’m going to unconsciously be asking others to fill it for me. I’ll need my students or patients to give me positive praise. I’ll need my partner to avoid saying anything that might hurt me. Without realizing it, I’ll be asking for constant care from others because I won’t be giving it to myself.
The good news is that once I discuss this metaphor with clients, they usually start to accept that if they continue to leave self-care on the back burner, they aren’t going to be able to move forward with what they wanted to work on in coaching (for example, feel less stressed, enjoy time with their kids, be more successful with their own business, fight less with their partner, etc.) They start to see that not practicing self-care actually sets them up to be less equipped to do the work that they feel so passionate about, or have the relationships they strive for.
The more complicated news is that these clients then usually want a quick fix for changing things and that’s when I have to break the news to them that beginning to make themselves a priority is not like flipping a light switch. They’ve probably had years of practice putting others first so it’s going to take some time to start doing things differently.
Since I don’t want them to feel unmotivated, I compare learning to practice self-care with another skill they’ve mastered. For many of my clients who live global lifestyles, this could be learning a language. For others, it might be tying your shoes, playing an instrument or learning to cook. Learning a new skill takes time and we have to break it into baby steps. Here’s what that often looks like with my clients:
Brainstorming ways they already know to practice self-care. Usually they can at least list sleeping or eating a favorite food. While these self-care strategies can turn problematic if they’re the only ones they have, resting and savoring food are both great gifts to give yourself.
Adding to their list of self-care strategies. I often give them a list of self-care activities so they can identify new ones they might be interested in trying. I might give them an experiment to try one new thing between sessions.
Making time for self-care in their day. If it’s hard to make time for self-care, then they can make a date with themselves that they schedule on their calendar. Or if they don’t have big chunks of time, setting a reminder on their phone once a day to do a small act of self-care (take deep breaths, do a mini meditation, watch a funny puppy video), is another great strategy.
Identifying and overcoming other obstacles to self-care. Usually people find that there are other obstacles getting in the way of practicing self-care, such as other misconceptions about self-care, a strong inner critic, or a tendency to let their actions be dictated by what they “should” do. For this, we have to dig a little deeper and start to try and “catch” some of the unhelpful thoughts that pop up during the day and explore where this critical inner dialogue might have come from.
While practicing compassion, kindness and empathy towards others are all important, it’s also essential that we direct this same love towards ourselves. If you want to learn more about mindful self-compassion practice as an avenue to practice self-care, check out this post on the self-compassion break.
“It’s not selfish to love yourself, take care of yourself, and to make your happiness a priority. It’s necessary. “ – Mandy Hale
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