Be Good to Yourself: How to Self-Nurture
Self-Interest vs. Selfishness
It may be true that what we do to nurture ourselves is frivolous in a larger context -- certainly my taking an hour to read would have done nothing to resolve the elder-care problem my husband and I faced. But the effect on us of performing these acts -- even more, the effect of not doing them -- is huge. For me, reading at night was always centering, a way to slow down. And without it I felt dull and exhausted, no matter how much sleep I got.
That's because acts of self-nurture offer a kind of rest for the soul, which brings a sense of renewal. "There's a huge difference between self-interest and selfishness," writes psychologist Dan Baker, PhD, in his new book, What Happy Women Know. Doing things only you can do for yourself matters greatly; all work and no play is a recipe for a stressed, miserable life. But they're absolutely crucial in tough times: They offer a respite from emotional pain, as well as a way to stay focused when "normal" life is upended.
Most of all, at a time when we must draw most heavily on our inner resources, they keep us from being ground down by relentless pressure. I have a friend whose life is in an especially demanding balance. Her husband isn't well, so she's the family's sole breadwinner, as well as her children's designated chauffeur and homework helper. Time is always in short supply. But when her husband landed in the hospital recently, she never even considered giving up the dance classes she loves and has attended twice a week since she was single. "I consciously tell myself I must go," she says. "In fact, it's become clear to me that it's essential. My blood pressure went up, so I've been monitoring it, and I discovered that it's lowest after dance class. Being sick is a luxury I can't afford, because then I won't be able to take care of my family. Dancing is my medicine."Burnout Hurts
In contrast, cutting out what we need in a time of crisis "is like going out in the freezing cold without a proper coat," says Helene G. Brenner, PhD, author of I Know I'm in There Somewhere and a psychologist in Maryland. "You can survive for a while by muscling through, but after some time, you freeze." This doesn't prevent us from coming through for our loved ones. But we start doing so by rote, even with impatience and irritation. "I couldn't even feel good spending time at home with my family because it felt like one more thing I had to do," said a friend whose life last year became a treadmill of dealing with work, the school crisis of a daughter, and multi-hour commutes to visit and care for one, then another, ailing parent. "I was angry at everyone."
Emotional depletion also keeps us from handling crises as well as we could. "When you feel alive you come up with more creative solutions for the problems you face," says Dr. Brenner. "You're also more compassionate toward those you need to help when you're giving out from a flowing well rather than squeezing out the last drop." And burnout can hurt in real, physical ways. Studies have shown reduced immune function in stressed caregivers; one respected nine-year study of the health records of more than a half million married couples found that the onset of certain illnesses in one spouse increased the caregiver's risk of death by 25 percent.