Most of the time, when I finish interacting with someone, I part ways with a simple phrase: “take care”. These two words carry quite a bit of meaning. When we advise someone to “take care”, we encourage them to focus on their own well-being, despite the unknown difficulties they may face as the day progresses. While there are countless other words we could choose from as we wish others a good day, we have no idea what else they may encounter after we see them. No matter the stressors, difficult relationships, or challenges that they may encounter, this parting phrase urges them to try to take care of themselves and hopefully experience more happiness as a result. Sometimes, we need to turn that mantra for taking care inward, to recognize the importance of prioritizing our own well-being and avoid stress overload.
For some people, giving of themselves and prioritizing others’ needs before their own comes naturally. We all have loved ones who seem to give of themselves endlessly and this might feel pretty wonderful if we are the recipient of all that generosity. I recall a beloved aunt who truly lived every day doing things for other people. She made meals to deliver to neighbors dealing with illnesses, gave advice to friends struggling with challenges, and was ready with a warm hug or reassuring word when family members faced a worrisome situation. She gave so much of herself, people around her grew used to relying on her in so many ways. This may be why, when I was an adolescent visiting her house, I remember so vividly the time she suffered from a debilitating headache and was unable to make food for me or engage in our usual cookie baking and card playing activities. Suddenly, roles were reversed and I tried to think of ways to express my care for her. I remember preparing a very humble tray of food while she rested on the couch. She received this offering with utmost joy, proclaiming the turkey sandwich and cold lemonade “the best she had ever tasted”. When we see others give of themselves so much, the thoughtfulness of a small gesture in return can make all the difference in the world.
Sometimes, we feel guilty if we prioritize taking care of ourselves, equating this with being selfish. In reality, this is nowhere near the truth. Taking care of ourselves is essential to our own well-being, and balancing attention to our own needs with acts of generosity helps us thrive and continue to care for others. Anyone who has ever flown has heard the familiar safety message urging passengers, “if faced with an emergency in flight, place oxygen masks over your own face before assisting young children or anyone else in need”. While my natural inclination would be to help those youngsters first, it is essential that I am functional if I want to effectively help them. This same logic applies to everyday life, as we need to prioritize our own self-care in order to feel well and care for others. Life reminded me of this a few years ago, when our family experienced the stress of a sudden job loss. I put self-care aside as I worked, worried, and went out of my way to take care of family and household until things became more settled. Eventually, I re-discovered that moving in a constant state of stress has some pretty negative impacts on one’s physical and mental health. In order to replenish, I carved out time dedicated to self-care; I read more, walked, took the occasional nap, and talked with supportive people who helped me cope. I focused on the quality of my self-care rather than the quantity; some days contained enough obligations to make time for myself seem impossible, but I still tried to spend at least 15 minutes doing something solely for me. Doing so sent the necessary message to myself that self-care needs to be elevated to the top of the priority list.
The best self-care options are ones that we look forward to, enjoy doing, and have no regret about afterward. I have a dear friend who organizes her house constantly. Although, to me, it seems that everything is in stellar shape already, she truly delights in finding ways to improve things even more. Another friend practices yoga and mindfulness, and shares her gifts with others by teaching classes. Yet another friend plays word games on her devices, losing herself in the efforts to discover the biggest words she can play for the most points. Personally, around the middle of October, I start listening to Christmas music and gather as many uplifting holiday novels as I can find at the local library. I truly appreciate being able to set stress aside and absorb the inspiring messages of these novels, especially given all the negative, divisive information bombarding us in the world today. Self-care includes the word “self” for good reason; we get to pick what most helps us unwind and it does not matter if another person would choose this same thing.
It is not always easy to prioritize self-care. Our schedules are so laden with “to-do” items, we may feel pulled constantly to meet the needs of others or we may question our choices as our family shakes their heads in disbelief at holiday music in October. Despite this, we need to show ourselves and those around us that it is okay to make our health and happiness one of our many priorities. Taking care of ourselves allows us to feel secure in our needs and that is essential, if we want to take care of a world very much in need.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 as an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.