Be Good to Yourself: How to Self-Nurture
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Be Good to Yourself: How to Self-Nurture

Why you should care for yourself before you care for others.

How Caring for Others Can Harm Yourself

Closeup of woman looking tired or depressed

Last year, when my mother-in-law was diagnosed with what proved to be terminal cancer, the tragedy was hers, but the stress of the situation was mine, too. Throughout the fall my husband, an only child, repeatedly traveled from California to Texas to be with her, visits that dragged out for weeks as she grew sicker. Each day he and I spoke for hours by phone, trying to craft a plan for her care, and for that of my father-in-law, who was physically healthy but suffering early-stage dementia. My professional workload was as demanding as ever, and without a spouse to help, domestic chores were endless -- hours of driving our daughter to soccer practice and distant weekend tournaments, walking the dog, collecting the garbage, shopping, cleaning, cooking, paying bills. Adding to the pressure was that I needed to visit my own elderly mother, who lives 100 miles away, and take a long-delayed trip to the East Coast to visit an aunt who was childless, recently widowed, and unwell.

To accomplish it all, I needed extra time, and the logical way to make it was to cut out the "fat" in my schedule -- that is, the few things I usually did just for myself. First to go was my morning workout, an hour of cardio and weight lifting; soon thereafter came my nightly reading once my daughter went to bed; if a friend called with a dinner invitation or just to chat, the response was always "I'm too busy." The choice felt both right and necessary, but the irony was that despite the hours I gained, I accomplished less and less. Work assignments dragged on while I stared dully at the computer screen. Dinners were late because I'd forget to buy necessary ingredients, then would have to dash out at the last minute. Even bill paying took forever because I constantly misplaced papers. Meanwhile, my temper grew shorter -- I snapped at my daughter, resented the dog, and responded impatiently to my husband's (well deserved) need for emotional support.

The truth is, I was fried -- and as such, not so different from most women I know. We all live with our heads just above water, pulled in a dozen directions each day by the clamorous, competing demands of family, home, and job. We manage to make it work, but a time always comes when some crisis destroys the delicate balance -- an aging parent deteriorates or dies, a child or spouse falls ill, a layoff notice arrives...for the truly unlucky, several happen at once. Quickly, almost automatically, we step in to take charge, squeezing out time for our new responsibilities by giving up the small indulgences we normally grant ourselves. That's what responsible grown-ups do, we reason. But we invariably discover, as I did, that the strategy backfires, and for a simple reason: When you constantly give but don't receive, you eventually find yourself empty. The central contradiction of crises is that the more we're stressed and the less time we have to nurture ourselves, the more essential it is that we do so.

Caring for a Stressed-Out Body

To nurture is to nourish and give; to self-nurture is to do the things that offer physical, emotional, and spiritual nourishment to yourself. The specifics can be as different as individual women -- self-nurture can be simple or elaborate, lengthy or brief, communal or solo. For one of my close friends it means going to a weekly yoga class, which she says leaves her calm and at home in her body. For another it's designing and redesigning her garden, reading about plants, drawing them, "going into a trance," she says, where the everyday world falls away and she revels in the sensual and creative delight of imagining combinations of color and texture. Self-nurture can focus on the body, spirit, or intellect, or all three; it can mean getting a massage or shutting the door on the kids to work a crossword puzzle; it can be training for a marathon, meditating, knitting, or writing poetry. In essence, though, all acts of self-nurture have one thing in common: They're only for us -- they're not practical and they have no purpose but to give us pleasure.

That, unfortunately, is why when trouble hits we're so quick to give them up. "Women are genetically and socially programmed to take care of others," says Alice Domar, PhD, author of Self-Nurture and director of the Domar Center for Complementary Healthcare, in Waltham, Massachusetts. "We're always at the bottom of our own to-do lists." That's especially true in times of crisis, she adds, when "you're overwhelmed and operating on sheer instinct." When an elderly parent is dying and there are kids to comfort, relatives and friends to notify, a house to clean and funeral to plan, the urge to take an hour to do something like exercise feels embarrassingly frivolous, or worse, profoundly selfish. And besides, we worry, if we don't take care of business, who will?

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.

Say Yes to Offers of Help

Finding a way to self-nurture in the midst of crisis isn't easy, say Drs. Brenner and Domar, but it is possible. One option: carving out a bit of time for yourself by doing the unthinkable and actively asking those around you for help. "One of the biggest problems women have is that we don't ask for help or accept it even when it's offered," says Dr. Domar. "In times of trouble, say yes to every offer of help that's reasonable." That includes the kids -- their pitching in or sacrificing some extracurricular activity that has you running in circles can help them feel more in control in tough times, because they are doing something to contribute.

If taking even a few hours off is out of the question, it may be a matter of compromise, opting for small, restorative moments that can be squeezed into the schedule. Dr. Domar recommends spending 10 minutes at night with a journal, "figuring out what will help you get through this time better, what your needs are, and what you can do for yourself the next day. Even something short and very simple, like sitting down with a cup of tea in the afternoon, can help you regroup."

"Give yourself some compassion instead of pretending to be strong all the time," says Dr. Brenner, "then think about what's worked in the past to make you feel better -- a walk, a soak in the tub, calling a friend. What brings out your strength? Give yourself that something, and really enjoy it." (That means actively choosing to take a walk, not guiltily sneaking away.)

Guilt-Free Determination

The catch is that to find that time, and then take it, we need to believe we deserve it -- and the bottom line, it seems to me, is that we must. Individual crises end, but new ones always arise, especially in aging America, where more and more of us must care for not only immediate but extended families. (According to the National Women's Health Information Center, this year up to 39 million U.S. households may be involved in caring for an elderly relative, with the vast majority of individual caregivers being women who have their own husbands and children and jobs.) Within weeks after my mother-in-law died, my mother fainted in an art museum and my aunt was hospitalized with pneumonia, and the pressure was on again. Postponing self-care until "life calms down" can mean a very long wait.

In the end, it's not selfish to do what allows us to continue giving to others. It's not selfish to treat ourselves with the same thoughtfulness we show those we love. Selfish is the last word I'd use for one woman I know who gives almost constantly -- she's a mother of five, a loving wife, a teacher and mentor. She's also someone who's passionate about distance running, and no crisis, not the death of both parents or the illness of a coworker (which doubled her workload), has prevented her from getting in her miles. "My mother never took a vacation in her life, then she had a heart attack when I was in college," she says. "It made me realize that life is short. When I'm running every cell of my being is fully alive. Nothing could make me give it up."

That kind of guilt-free determination is a good guide. After all, says Dr. Domar, the point of caring "isn't to care only for others. It's to care for everyone -- and that includes ourselves."


Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2007.