I did not grow up in a culture of female self-care. I grew up in a culture of female others-care. Making meals, doing laundry, managing the finances, serving at church were women's work. Oh, as were haying, milking cows, planting, harvesting, and selling produce. We farm women did it all.
The one thing we didn't do was take care of ourselves. After picking corn in the morning, the menfolk would lay under the shade of the Norway maples and the women would make coffee break. Everybody would sit down together, but then the men would leave and the women would clean up.
Nobody questioned the natural order of things except my sister, but she always had a women's lib streak so nobody paid attention. For nearly four decades, I lived believing a busy woman was a good, godly woman; a resting woman was a bad, lazy woman.
Then I met my counselors.
They started teaching me strange new concepts such as boundaries and self-care. Those were terrifying, exhilerating days for me.
You mean I can tell someone "no" for no other reason than I don't want to do what they're asking of me? Even if I don't have another pressing obligation? But how do I get out of it without lying? I need an excuse, don't I? I don't? I can make a decision without justifying it to others? But what if they think I'm being selfish? It's okay if they think I'm selfish??
It was a grinding paradigm shift for me. I was accustomed to filtering all my actions through the lenses of others' opinions, or perceived opinions. In my extended family, my marriage, my parenting, my friendships, even my walk with God, external judgments held great sway over me.
When I fell short of what others expected, or what I thought they expected, I made sweeping negative assessments of my behavior, motives, and value. The self-criticism made me less secure in myself, less true to my nature, and, tragically, less able to meet the needs of those around me. It was a vicious, never-ending cycle.
Enter the twin virtues of boundaries and self-care. (For a beautiful how-to on healthy boundaries, read Cloud and Townsend's book by that title listed under Self-Care on the References page.) The nutshell version is that human beings are like a beautiful piece of property surrounded by a fence and a gate. People with unhealthy boundaries either have no fences, allowing others to tread all over the property scattering trash and debris in their wake, or they have medieval fortresses absent the portcullis, effectively keeping the entire world - the good, the bad, and the ugly - outside.
If you have healthy boundaries, however, your "self" is surrounded by a strong, impenetrable wall covered with attractive ivy and punctuated by well-oiled gates that open easily to allow in good friends, joy, and encouragement and close just as easily to keep out unwelcome intruders, disparagement, and spite.
I don't know about you, but that gorgeous old stone wall sounds like an awfully handy thing to have. But how do you build a wall if you don't have one or carve gates into a wall that doesn't have any?
That, my Friend, is where self-care comes in. Before you can have a functioning fence, you have to know where the property lines are. Which activities and people feed your soul? Which ones drain your energy and joie de vivre? Are there people or activities that chronically take more from you than you get in return?
What things do you do out of pure obligation rather than a sense of pleasure or meaningfulness? Are there things you really want to do that you can't because of the time you spend meeting others' desires...even if they might be capable of meeting those desires themselves?
These questions are the beginning steps of identifying who you are and where your property lines are. At first, just admitting what you really want or enjoy may be difficult. If your boundaries have been dysfunctional for a while, you may feel selfish and guilty just for asking the questions.
The more you practice, however, the easier it gets. Then you can begin repairing the boundaries.
As with any construction project, you will need the right tools. This is where self-care comes in. It is one thing to realize you need something; it's another thing altogether to do something about. Self-care gives you the strength and wisdom to implement the changes you need.
Indulge me in a personal illustration.
Before I got married, I managed the agritourism part of my parents' farm. I scheduled tours, led the activities, cared for and drove the team of horses...and I loved it. Once I got married, my husband and I purchased a house 45 minutes from the farm. I was working full-time at another job. I still managed the farm tours.
I was exhausted and riddled by guilt. When I was at the farm, I felt I should be at my other job or with my husband. When I was at home, I felt I should be at the farm. More than one weekend, I had a crying jag on my way to the farm, and my husband gave up his plans to come sit with me on the wagon so we could have time together.
By the time I got pregnant with my son, I realized I had to quit. My emotions, my body, and my marriage couldn't handle another year with that schedule. Telling my parents was one of the hardest things I've ever done. But it was the wisest thing I could have done. Had my boundaries been better-defined, I might have quit even sooner.
Why was it such a hard choice? Simple. I saw exhaustion as failure and laziness, not as the natural consequence of chronic stress and overwork.
A few years of counseling have taught me that taking care of myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually is actually the opposite of selfishness. When I take time to read my Bible in the morning, I become centered. When I spend an hour doing yoga, I feel peaceful and strong. When I take time for coffee with a friend, I get a chance to unload my stress and process my situation.
I can hear you now. Wait a minute. All you're doing is talking about yourself. How is that not selfish?
Ah, my little Doubting Thomasina! Those activities I do "for me" also benefit others. Because of them I have more grace to handle my children's squabbling. Because of them I am energized, providing more and better content for my clients and making more time to actively play with my children. Because of them, my friends get an engaged listener to the struggles they face.
Imagine yourself as a pitcher. (Not in the baseball sense, in the beverage container sense). When you don't maintain your boundaries and you don't choose to do things that bless your spirit, it is as if someone has tipped you over on the grass on a hot summer day. Your thirsty child comes to pour a drink of cold water and . . . big surprise . . . you're empty. You got nuthin'.
As you engage in self-care - getting enough sleep, eating well, reading your favorite book, spending time with friends - you fill yourself with icy cold water. Then when your child comes at you with their needs, you have plenty to offer.
If you, like me, feel a little uncomfortable taking care of your own needs, start out be reminding yourself of this truth: Self-care is others-care. With practice, you will come to see self-care as a good in and of itself and will reap its rewards.