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Do You Know the Difference Between Being Selfish and Practicing Self-Care?

by
author image Elizabeth Ricanati, M.D.
Beth Ricanati, M.D., worked at Columbia Presbyterian's Center for Women's Health and then at the Women's Health Center at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the founding medical director of Lifestyle180, a groundbreaking lifestyle-modification program to treat chronic diseases with nutrition, exercise and stress management at the Cleveland Clinic's Wellness Institute. Now based in Southern California, she's written wellness content for YouBeauty.com and is a consultant for medical projects and start-ups.
Do You Know the Difference Between Being Selfish and Practicing Self-Care?
Self-care allows us to honor ourselves and recognize the importance of our own mental, physical and emotional health. Photo Credit Eugencio Marongiu/Adobe Stock

Just before an airplane takes off, after the flight attendant closes the main cabin door and everyone has fastened their seatbelts, passengers tune in for the safety announcement.

Chief among the announcements: “In the event of the loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop in front of you. Secure a mask on yourself before helping those in need, such as small children, with their masks.”

Read it again. Pause. Absorb the message: You’ve got to take care of yourself first. This is not selfish; it’s self-care.

Self-care is about honoring ourselves, and in doing so we say to ourselves and to everyone else: I matter.

What Is the Difference Between Being Selfish and Practicing Self-Care?

Selfish choices are about indulging our own needs. Period. I want this, or I want that. Whereas self-care behavior is intentional and helps the self, selfish behavior can harm others. A surefire way to know when you are being selfish or not is to ask yourself this one question: “Will my behavior hurt someone else?” If the answer is no, let the guilt go. But if the answer is yes, perhaps reassess and make a change that works for both parties.

Self-care is about honoring ourselves and our potential. Women are even more prone to struggle with this notion because they have historically been encouraged to put the needs of others before their own.

We do things for our kids before doing things for us. (How many exercise classes have I missed because they conflicted with a child’s needs?) If time doesn’t permit both self-care and care of the family, we tend to put family first. (How many nights have I stayed up cleaning up, doing one extra load of laundry or, worse yet, baking for tomorrow’s school event instead of going to bed on time?) And when it comes to work, we say yes to more assignments even though we don’t have time for them.

This is risky behavior. We are left feeling drained, and ultimately we have nothing left for either ourselves or anyone else. Not practicing self-care has a price.

To embrace self-care is, in reality, quite difficult. We live in a world that never stops (or even slows down), and taking time for ourselves actually requires courage and forethought. And for many of us — especially women — practicing self-care can feel selfish. However, as a physician, I am prescribing that you do just that starting today. Starting right now!

Taking time to pamper yourself -- whether you take a short reading break, stop for coffee or get your nails done -- is an easy way to stop and practice self-care.
Taking time to pamper yourself -- whether you take a short reading break, stop for coffee or get your nails done -- is an easy way to stop and practice self-care. Photo Credit tomer turjeman/Adobe Stock

Here’s Your Prescription. Start Now!

On a daily basis, practice taking care of yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually. Why? Because validating ourselves — all of ourselves — keeps us healthy in body, mind and spirit. And, perhaps counterintuitively, it strengthens our relationships with everyone around us. When we are fulfilled, then we have more to give. It’s just that simple.

Remember, as with all things in life, this is learned behavior, not something we are born knowing how to do. It’s perfectly acceptable to start slow and to try out different options to see what feels comfortable. Chances are that if you stick with what feels authentic, there’s more likelihood that you’ll keep it up.

When is a good time to start? Now. Think of it like a head start on your New Year’s resolutions. It’s common for us to put self-care at the bottom of the to-do list, but we never actually reach the bottom of the to-do list, do we?

Prioritizing self-care can help to strengthen your relationships with others.
Prioritizing self-care can help to strengthen your relationships with others. Photo Credit Yeko Photo Studio/Adobe Stock

5 Ways to Practice Self-Care

  1. Eat real food. I simply define real food as those containing with ingredient lists you can recognize and comprehend. This means staying away from processed foods with 20 ingredients that sound like they belong in an advanced chemistry course. Eat three meals a day, starting with a good breakfast.
  2. Make time for sleep. National guidelines recommend six to eight hours per night, and I would shoot for this every night. Remember, it’s impossible to “catch up” on sleep”.
  3. Make time for exercise. The goal is 10,000 steps a day. That’s hard to do all at once. I know because I am constantly trying to get them! Thirty minutes a day is a great place to start, and it doesn’t matter how you get it: 10 minutes here or there count. It all counts.
  4. Make time for meditation. It only takes a few minutes a day to meditate. There are many helpful apps you can use to get started. If you can, start each day this way. It doesn’t need to be a big deal or intimidating. Just sit somewhere quiet and take a few breaths. If you want to go deeper, check out an app or even a class. But the great thing about meditating is that we always have our breath. And it’s free!
  5. Pamper yourself. How you define this is up to you, but just do it! Could be reading a book or maybe enjoying a cup of coffee. Could be a manicure. It doesn’t matter what the activity is; we all define “pampering ourselves” differently. Why does this matter? When you feel replenished it’s easier to give of yourself.
  6. Forget FOMO (fear of missing out): It’s more than OK to say no, to not go to one more party or movie or fitness class. It’s OK to recharge your batteries. In fact, it’s essential to taking care of yourself. You are not missing out if you are too tired to be present in the first place!
Take a few minutes to meditate every day.
Take a few minutes to meditate every day. Photo Credit bst2012/Adobe Stock

What Do YOU Think?

Do you practice self-care? Tell us about a situation you've been in where you've sacrificed your own needs for the needs of others. Or, on the opposite end, tell us about a time when you decided you needed to take care of yourself before trying to help someone else. What's your favorite self-care activity? Let us know in the comments section!

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