Looking after oneself, being accountable to and for one’s own wellbeing first and foremost, is essential, especially when we’re busy. And unfortunately, busyness tends to squeeze out our wellbeing practices. The busier we become, the more we need self-care, but ironically, the less we prioritise it. I’d like to make it clear that when I say wellbeing, I’m talking holistically, our physical, mental and emotional state and stamina.
Although attitudes surrounding this theme are changing, there remains a kind of umbilical attachment to guilt when one considers putting one’s own needs first every so often. It seems too, that some proudly wear the crown of resilience like a badge of honour or even as armour, ‘I’m so resilient. I can do this! I’ve got through worse and survived.’ But surviving, scraping by from week to week shouldn’t be our end goal. Somehow, we need to find a way to carve out little pockets of ‘thriving.’ Moments when we just feel, well, good about ourselves. But for many, this does not happen. We constantly feel under threat, chasing our tails, and as if we might cry if one more thing plops itself on to our plate.
Some are given resilience as a trophy as if they’ve won a prize for not having a breakdown! Resilience is good in small quantities. But in the long term, this is not a permanent characteristic that we want to be continuously reliant upon. The risk, if we do, is burnout. Burnout of us, our relationships, our energy, perspective, joy and general get up and go.
The word resilience has been used so much in the wake of the pandemic that its elasticity is wearing out. It’s flaccid and does not spring back into position as readily as it once did. We’ve all got a maximum threshold, a breaking point. Championing resilience means well and often has good intentions, but after a while the narrative needs to change before it begins to breed toxic positivity. Resilience wears out unless we put something significant back into the pot to top ourselves up and if it’s not balanced by self-care and rest. We can’t continue to run marathon after marathon without a breather or refuelling in between.
Our need to check-in with ourselves has never been greater. ‘How am I doing? Where am I at? Am I ok today? What do I need as a number one basic for myself in order for me to provide for the needs of those around me without me reaching burnout or having a melt-down?’ These words should be part of our vocabulary - an internal conversation that we’ve learnt to prioritise before things get so crappy that we’re feeling nauseous, snapping at our partners, or avoiding our colleagues.
Nurturing and learning to listen to our wise inner voice should also part of our self-care practice. A practice that is all too often pushed away, pushed out, ignored, or one that we run a mile from because maybe we won’t like what we’re hearing, ‘Slow down. You have the right to stop for 10 minutes. You need space to think or just be!’ It might be a voice that causes us to have to act, change or respond to, and we just haven’t got the time or emotional resources to deal with stepping away from the comfort zone of an overly busy routine. Acknowledging we need to slow down, or just take 10 minutes for ourselves, is something else to worry about and clutter up our precious mental space.
Instead, we forge ahead pushing aside our own needs in favour of being busy and getting things done. ‘I don’t have time for me at the moment. Work/family life/life is too busy…I’ll take a break as soon as…When the holidays come, things’ll be much calmer then…’ are phrases I commonly hear. But calm never materialises.
The cycle continues with us optimistically hoping that, at some point, we’ll have a breather, get our heads above water, and start to feel vaguely like ourselves again. ‘I am worthy. I am a valuable human being because I am productive and busy, stressed and resilient. Look at me doing everything all at once.’ Well, ok, that’s not how we’re consciously thinking, but many of us certainly feel that our worth comes from how busy or stressed we are. If we’re not stressed, we not doing enough or we must be lazy…
The truth is, like with most things, unless we make it happen, rest, disconnection and self-care won’t magically materialise in our lives. If we don’t earmark time for ourselves, albeit 20 minutes of space every few days, or an afternoon every couple of weeks in which we recharge our flagging batteries, who the heck is going to do it for us? And if we don’t recharge and recalibrate, then we can get into dangerous burnout territory. Our inner critic drowns out our inner voice of wisdom as it starts to get vocal, all up in our faces, with its scathing commentary wearing us down, ‘I’m a crappy person. I’m not a good enough sister/friend/colleague/wife/mum…Why can’t I be more…’
We sag and get sucked into that dark and gloomy zone. Our relationships begin to suffer. Our kids wonder why we’re snarky and grumpy. And we start blaming others for our own feelings of crappiness and unworthiness. In short, our unhappiness makes the people around us unhappy too!
I know for sure that when I’m neglecting my self-care and start to feel saturated and overwhelmed, I am not able to happily or compassionately help and care for those around me. I don’t have enough in the tank for myself, let alone others. And they’re short changed. They get a reduced, half-hearted, distracted, resentful version of the real me. I hate that! My friends, family and colleagues deserve better. And then the guilt and anxiety kicks in because I know that I’m not living my life aligned to my core values. I’m not behaving in a way that I would like to be and that I feel is right and whole-hearted.
It is hard to be brave enough to acknowledge our own needs and reserve sacred, non-negotiable time for ourselves. But we’re not selfish and we’re not failures to do so. This is healthy and wholesome practice that enhances not only our wellbeing, but the wellbeing of those around us. Loving and taking care of ourselves is an act that commits to ensuring we’ve got enough resources of compassion, patience, strength and perspective for others too. When we are well, so is our family and community. If we, month after month, are not functioning healthily, then of course, those we care about will suffer too. We are all connected.
Recently, as part of a wonderful, birthday package from dear friends, I was gifted a small poster which reads, ‘DREAM BIG – WORK HARD.’ I had been wondering what is was that was bothering me about this seemingly inoffensive, generic slogan. Then my brother articulately hit the nail on the head, ‘Yes,' he said, 'Dream big, but it’s not about how hard we work. It’s about the way we work. It should say, Dream big - work effectively, efficiently, compassionately, and creatively. Be balanced, mindful and boundaried.’ But I guess this wouldn’t make for such a catchy motto and certainly wouldn’t fit on the poster!
Driving ourselves into the ground, celebrating our perpetual resilience shouldn’t be heralded as success and as the ultimate goal. We must make room for self-care and self-compassion through practicing balance and setting boundaries. This way we will be of far more use and benefit to our friends, families, colleagues and communities.
We can’t keep hoping that balance and wellbeing will suddenly materialise in our lives. We must make it happen. To live compassionately and wholeheartedly, we have a responsibility to ourselves and all those who need us. So, let’s replace resilience and the risk of burnout with balance by practicing self-care. Only then can we be present and fully available in our own lives and in the lives of others too.
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