Take Time for Self-Care

Find out why taking breaks throughout your day keeps you healthy.

Many of us are not great at self-care. While it makes sense to us to feed the dog, put gas in the car, and take care of our family, the concept of taking time for our own maintenance can seem selfish or self-indulgent.

The irony is that you are much more likely to act self-indulgently when you don’t take care of yourself. If you routinely put off emotional and physical self-care, you begin to crave self-indulgences that often aren’t good for your health. If you put yourself last all day, no amount of willpower will offset the urge to have as much as you want once you get the chance.

We often treat our fatigue the way tired parents ignore their screaming toddler in the supermarket. The parent stoically pushes the cart forward, ignoring the child’s distress, intent on getting the shopping over with. There’s no eye contact, no interaction, just a will to survive the child’s disintegrating emotions and still somehow wind up with groceries in the car.

After a while the child might give up trying to be heard and instead point to some desirable object and start begging for it. The exhausted parent picks up the item and puts it in the basket, just to bring a moment’s peace. Both child and parent somehow seem better after that. The parent has responded to the child, the child feels briefly satisfied.

But an indulgence has taken the place of what was really needed: a comforting interaction. The child’s emotional need for his or her parent’s engagement has been met indirectly through the third-party intercession of, say, Fruit Loops.

We are like that parent with our tired self. Like the harried mother in the supermarket, we ignore our inner signals of distress and focus instead on getting the job done. We push ahead regardless of our fatigue or brain fog. We have to finish before we can take a breather because we won’t consider resting before the job is complete. We’ll rest because we’re done, not because we’re exhausted.

We’re convinced it will take longer and take more work if we respond to our needs for a respite. So we manage to keep going by instead anticipating that treat we’re finally going to allow ourselves.

By the time we finally allow ourselves to stop, the overwhelmed inner child in us will be emotionally voracious. At that point, we are desperate for an indulgence. This leads to the binge, the shopping, the impulse purchases, the two or three glasses of wine at the end of the day.

It is as if we are saying to ourselves: I can’t give you a day off or even an hour of doing what you want—nor can I let you take a break or daydream—BUT I can indulge you the next chance we get. We’ll feel like we deserve it after ignoring ourselves so long.

But why not stop ignoring ourselves in the first place?

Human beings need leisure. We need it frequently during the day, not just after five o’clock. As the proverb says, a change is as good as a rest. An effective kind of self-care is to take breaks and do something else for a while. It’s no accident that many Silicon Valley companies offer bouncy balls, gyms, ping pong tables, and bringing your dog to work. People are most energetic in waves of work and play.

The best self-care often means doing nothing. Cozy aimlessness—slipping out of high gear in favor of enjoying downtime—puts us back in touch with our sensory, physical nature. Life takes on an easier rhythm. We feel replenished whenever we drop out of overdrive and allow our engines to idle.

Shifting away from goals and into daydreaming supports creativity and good brain health. When we drop our laser-like focus, our minds move in more natural patterns, contemplating and integrating our experiences in a relaxed way. Yin and Yang, rest and work, self-connection and mission completion, we need both sides. Otherwise we may attempt balance in another way: exhaustion followed by indulgence.

Give to yourself along the way. It’s not just about scheduling that yoga class, it’s about asking yourself sincerely how you’re feeling in the moment and reconnecting with your inner state.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s time to take a break. If you’re lonely, maybe it’s time to call someone and tell them just that. If you’re feeling empty, maybe you need a reintroduction to your emotional or spiritual self. Giving kindness to what you are feeling will fill you up.

Don’t keep pushing until the only thing you’re looking forward to is that entire box of Fruit Loops. When indulgences look too good, you’re probably doing too much. Take care of yourself instead.

Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and author of Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents and Who You Were Meant To Be. Visit www.drlindsaygibson.com.

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