The Perils of Putting Everyone Else First
My typical client is a woman who is a master juggler: work, kids, pets, friends, partner, shopping, cooking, cleaning, planning, caring for aging parents, and now more than ever, adult children. It’s a wonder she can keep all the balls in the air. She doesn’t get enough rest, is bone-tired, and yet she can’t sleep at night.
She has trouble saying NO — who’s going to make everything happen? It also happens that this woman has an autoimmune condition or two, typically Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, IBS, RA, lupus, and/or MS. By the time she comes to me, some balls have started to drop and she is sick and tired of being sick and tired. She is finally ready to do something about her health but where to start?
Tough Love Needed
So what’s the problem? Is it her diet? Toxin overload? Hidden infections? Too much stress? The answer is likely “All of the above”. Each issue must be addressed, but often this client first needs me to give her permission to take care of herself before taking care of other responsibilities.
She says she’s desperate for a good night’s sleep, but she can’t wear earplugs — what if someone calls in the middle of the night? — And she doesn’t think it’s possible to keep the dog off the bed (that’s where Fluffy sleeps!).
That’s when I use the metaphor of putting her own oxygen mask on first, as flight attendants always advise, so she can in fact be better able to help others. She gets it intellectually. But then she’ll say something like, “But they depend on me to [help with homework, take them to doctor appointments, manage the team, do the shopping, cooking, etc.], and I just don’t have time or energy left to do things for myself.”
So I offer some tough love: Of course everyone depends on you — you have shown everyone that you will take care of everything. But look at what this is costing you in stress, sleeplessness, and your health!
I Can Relate
I know a bit about this profile. I’m married, used to run a sales team, sat on boards, founded a non-profit, and at one point had both parents in hospital beds an hour’s plane flight away. Did I mention that I had MS, and stress often exacerbated or lead to new symptoms?
I knew I had to deal with my stress or suffer the consequences of MS flare-ups, so I pursued simple stress reduction solutions. I found a life-changing course called, “Love Yourself: For Everyone Else’s Sake.” I remember sitting in a circle with about 8 women and ‘fessing up that my first sentence (as the precocious daughter of a fighter pilot) was, “I can do it.” I had lived into that declaration my whole life, and I remember feeling understood as every head nodded in recognition.
Fill Yourself Up First
We were guided by Mark Abramson, DDS, founder of Stanford’s Mindfulness Meditation Stress Reduction program. Mark knows the costs of the do-it-all-yourself personality type, and sees the effects daily in his practice. He specializes in addressing TMJ – the clenched jaw disorder — and sleep apnea.
Mark drew graphic pictures of what happened to our bodies during the stress response. We learned that chronic and unrelenting stress leads to systemic inflammation and disease. We imagined what might happen to us if we continued down this path. And if something happened to us, who would care for us and everyone else?
Mark showed us how to practice mindfulness to counter our habitual stress responses. He led us through guided meditations, breathing practices and movement exercises. He gave us permission to fill our minds, bodies and souls up before attending to others.
Self-Care is Not Selfish
Women often resist taking care of ourselves first because we think it’s “selfish”. But prioritizing our wellbeing actually gives us more energy for our caregiver roles and other activities. Caring for others and ourselves are not mutually exclusive.
Since the end of the course, I’ve been wearing earplugs, an eye mask, and mouth tape every night, and I’ll tell you that the greatly increased quality and quantity of my sleep has had a big impact on my ability to function better in all of my roles. And, not surprisingly, I’m much happier and well-rested than when I feel depleted, stressed out, and resentful.
How Will You Fill Yourself Up?
It depends on what brings you joy. Everyone is different. For me, getting out on a hiking trail, soaking in a hot bath, losing myself in a good book, or connecting with friends even by phone all nourish me. Imagine what you would do if you had an hour or an afternoon to yourself.
Write a list of things that fill you up and decide to do one thing a day. It’s not decadent; it’s essential to your sanity and your health.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Seven Self-Care Strategies Backed By Science
We are wired for connection and when feel isolated we suffer. Who can you reach out to today? And if you’re feeling isolated, check out MeetUp groups based on common interests. Research shows that investing in shared experiences rather than material items makes us just as happy as taking a vacation, which sounds wonderful right about now. 1http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1057740814000631
Just getting out in nature is an amazing stress-reducer. Research shows that spending time in nature has a long list of health benefits including decreased feelings of depression, anxiety, aggression, procrastination, and increased feelings of self-esteem, compassion, and competence. For greater benefits, take off your shoes and get grounded to soak up Earth’s beneficial negative ions, and get some sun without sunscreen to generate vitamin D naturally.2http://www.naturalnews.com/037693_nature_deficiency_mental_health_benefits.html
Do A Little Yoga
Just 20 minutes of yoga can improve focus and increase mental clarity. Find numerous online yoga classes that match your interest, energy, and skill level. 3(“The Acute Effects of Yoga on Executive Function” by Gothe N, Pontefex MB, Hillman C, McAuley E, Journal of Physical Activity & Health https://news.illinois.edu/blog/view/6367/204796
Read a Good Book
There are loads of studies on the health benefits of reading regularly. One study suggests that reading a good book for just 6 minutes reduces stress even better than even taking a walk.4http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/5070874/Reading-can-help-reduce-stress.html Another study reports that adults who read regularly are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.5http://www.neurology.org/content/81/4/314
Sit a Little Every Day
The studies on meditation are piling up. A few of the most recent confirm that meditation helps relieve anxiety and depression, and improves attention, concentration, and overall psychological wellbeing. You don’t need a lot of time — start with 5 minutes of sitting quietly and paying attention to your breathing.6http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/02/09/7-ways-meditation-can-actually-change-the-brain/
Take A Bath
Research reveals that soaking in a warm bath each day for 8 weeks was more effective at soothing anxiety than a prescription drug. Taking a warm bath before going to bed is a smart move: The bath temporarily raises your body temperature; afterward your body temperature gradually lowers in the cooler air, producing melatonin that cues your body that it’s time to sleep. A bath-time bonus: relaxation releases pain-killing endorphins in the brain.7http://www.prevention.com/health/science-backed-reasons-take-bath
Do a Self-Massage
The most popular massage in the Indian Ayurvedic system of medicine is abhyanga, a warmed oil head-to-toe massage. Find and use organic oil like coconut or sesame oil that is stored in glass. Gently warm and apply in circular motions from your scalp to your soles. Either shower or towel off before sleep (protect your bedding too). Research shows numerous stress-reducing benefits of regular abhyanga massage: reduced blood pressure, improved heart rate variability, improved lymph flow, and better sleep.8http://www.prevention.com/health/science-backed-reasons-take-bath
Once we understand the perils of not putting our own oxygen mask on first, we can embrace opportunities to love ourselves more, which has a profound ripple effect.
What’s your experience? Are you giving yourself permission to put your own oxygen mask on first? If not, what are you waiting for? You might want to consider what waiting is costing you.
P.S. Want more clarity, confidence, and an action plan for a healthy 2023? Hop on a 30-minute discovery call with me. Renee N. just did and sent me this email: “I’m so grateful for your expert assessment of my complicated health situation. I’ve tried so many things but no one has helped me feel more confident about healing priorities. My family now wants to get healthy with me too. What a gift!”
photo by Jackson David