What Stops Us From Taking Care of Ourselves? (And What Happens When We Don’t?)

Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: pexels.com

The last few months I’ve written posts here and there indicating that I was having a rough time. All of the weight of these past months, since the end of May up until now, somehow piled itself together last Sunday. All of a sudden, I found myself in a dark pit and I couldn’t remember the last time I saw light. Everything that had shaken me or weighed on me during the Summer became clear, and I realised that I just felt completely drained. I had been taking care of my children, my partner, my students and others around me, and forgotten to take care of myself.

The signal that it was time to make a change came pretty much right away: I started feeling panicky about going out, going to work and being around people other than my immediate family. Sounds bother me more than before, I feel exhausted much of the time and I have trouble concentrating. I had a session with my therapist on Tuesday in which she offerend this helpful structure:

In a healthy situation, we care for others while we also care for ourselves. There’s balance between the two, so that there is a healthy base from which to give and generous giving that compensates self-interest. At some point in our lives, we might, however, tilt too far over to one side.

If we end up too far on the side of giving, or caring for others, we start sacrificing. We might sacrifice time or money at first, and then start sacrificing ourselves. We stop taking care of ourselves because it conflicts – seemingly or in reality – with the care we want to give others (or feel we owe others). When this stage of self-sacrifice is allowed to carry on for too long, we start feeling like victims in our own lives. At that point, it becomes kind of impossible to genuinely care for another. Instead, we start feeling sorry for ourselves and might even end up resenting those whose needs we were so eager to meet before. Leaning too far to the self-care side would lead you to egoism: only caring about your own well-being.

I probably don’t need to explain that neither of these extremes can bring you happiness. They both lead to a disconnect, either from yourself or from others. They can, however, be needed to find the balance again when you’ve ended up in the other extreme. As my therapist explained: ‘After a time of self-sacrifice and victimhood, it might be necessary to be selfish for a while and to prioritise your own well-being above that of others, just because you’ve got so much to make up for.’

But how do we end up in this extreme state of self-sacrifice? Why do we find it hard to really look after ourselves properly?

Well, in my case (and very possibly in yours as well), the idea of putting myself first brings up a lot of guilt and shame. The guilt tries to tell me that I’m letting people down who are counting on me. I don’t want to disappoint my family and friends, my co-workers, clients and students. I could feel that I’m being selfish if I put my own needs first. I should give of myself freely for as long as I can. The only excuse not to, is that I’ve just become physically unable to do so, like if I’m unable to get out of bed due to a migraine or depression.

The shame is related to the idea that ‘needing something’ has to do with weakness. I know, it sounds ridiculous if you just say it like that, but when you have to look in the mirror and say to yourself ‘this crazy combo of work, kids and social life that everyone is somehow managing doesn’t work for me anymore’ it makes you wonder if there’s not just something wrong with you. Never mind the fact that many people are struggling with the pace we’ve set in our society, or that burnout numbers are on the rise in most Western countries (and maybe outside of the Western world, too? I don’t actually know.), the fact remains that some people still seem to manage it all, and it’s those people we inadvertently compare ourselves to. I still fall into this trap every single day.

The thing is, I called this one a few months ago already. As my partner was struggling with the same issues, I recognized the symptoms he described in my own feelings and behavior. But instead of doing something about it, I decided that I couldn’t and pushed it away. The idea of actually saying ‘no’ to people was somehow scarier than ending up exhausted, unable to get up off the couch. Pushing it away became harder, as I noticed by the way I started acting. I picked up old habits again and somehow never could make the time for healthy eating, exercise or meditation. I filled my spare time with Netlix and Youtube, eating junkfood, staying up late so that I wouldn’t have to be alone with my thoughts. In essence, I just stopped listening to myself because I was so afraid of that nagging little voice in my head that kept trying to tell me ‘You’re not happy’. I had every reason to be happy. Not being happy just meant I was being way too greedy (there’s that shame again.)

So where does that leave me now? I’m now at the stage where I have to start getting really honest with myself. And man, it’s hard. It’s so f*ing hard. There’s a constant loop in my head doubting whether I’m not just making this whole thing up. Shaking on the bike? Maybe I was just cold. Panick attack? I’m probably just creating it in my own mind. Feeling tired? Don’t be a wuss and just get on with it. You used to do it all before, what’s changed now? As long as you’re not fainting, you can keep going. And part of me wants to believe this, because at least if my body decides for me, I don’t have to make the decision myself and be responsible for it.

As I’m fighting this rather unhelpful self-talk, I look for ways to be gentle with and kind to myself. I make allowances for the fact that my blogposts are about my own issues and might not be directly relevant to you. My house doesn’t get cleaned as much and there’s a freezer pizza on the table from time to time. I’ve talked to people in my immediate surroundings about how I feel, so they can help hold me accountable for the decisions I make. I try to rest, take baths and do the self-care habits I’ve promoted on this blog more than once (in this post in particular). But it’s still hard, and I know it will take time, time I’d much rather spend not feeling all those horrible emotions.

I’m very grateful to this blog for helping me do that. As I’m writing, I am confronted with my own voice, with my own words. I’m constantly challenged in being truthful and brutally honest with you, and by extension with myself. There’s no real knowing which direction I’m heading toward, but I at least know I’ve learned to take myself along for the ride (even if that ‘I’ keeps raging on about how self-oriented this post is.)

Thank you for reading and sharing your time!
Wishing you a happy Autumn!

3 thoughts on “What Stops Us From Taking Care of Ourselves? (And What Happens When We Don’t?)

  1. You are not alone. I hit these peaks and valleys too. I continually shake my head saying life is trip trying to figure out how to navigate. All the best to you my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

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