Self-care is stewardship of the gifts (internal and external) we have been given. When I am a good steward of myself, I am less likely to burn-out or experience resentment.
I work with hurting people. A common goal in my counseling practice is to increase self-worth. This is understandable as low self-worth can contribute to depression, anxiety, and a weakened immune system. Our sense of worth is highly influenced by experiences and the way in which we are loved. For the most part, I think we understand that we should love and care for ourselves but we struggle with how. We look to external strategies of self-care while internally we are not sure we deserve the care. We sacrifice ourselves for other, more “important” things.
Some of us fear what we assume is the opposite of self-loathing—Pride. We fear humility and self-worth are incongruent. We convince ourselves that martyrdom is the answer. In order to avoid pride and stay humble, we sacrifice our own care for the care of others. Now, most of us would not dare hold others to this standard so why do we do it to ourselves? To be cliché, we cannot give what we do not have.
Let me be clear that I will fall short of articulating this concept as I only recently began to really wrap my head around this. So your grace is appreciated. I begin with this statement: self-loathing is conceited. Please hear me out as I imagine some of my readers are up in arms about now. Conceit happens when we are focused on our own stuff—whether we hold ourselves in high esteem or not. So I ask you to consider, when you think poorly of yourself, what motivates you? We are designed to value the opinion of others—our safety requires this. So when we dislike ourselves, we are inclined to hustle to improve our sense of worth. This means that most of our energy is spent making sure we are “okay” in the eyes of others. At a primal level this keeps us safe and helps us meet our needs—we don’t want to be excluded by our herd. However, this can take unhealthy forms. For some of us, we shame ourselves and immediately look for external feedback to tell us otherwise. For others, we please, perform, or perfect in hopes to earn our worth. And some of us will isolate and push others away in hopes to avoid rejection altogether. All three responses (and I am sure there are more) are focused on the self. They are egocentric.
I speak from experience here. I am a recovering perfectionist. A big punch to the gut came when I realized that perfectionism has nothing to do with being my best self and everything to do with what others think of me. Perfectionism allowed me to distract me from my own, ugly stuff. I would often pendulate between pride when I “got it right” and self-pity when I would fall short. Poor ole’ perfect me. If I am being honest—and I think those who know my story would agree—I have never been more selfish and egocentric than I was in times when I did not consider myself worthy. Times when I was wrapped up in my own pain. My energy was almost exclusively spent on hustling for my own worth—even when I was doing good deeds for the benefit of others.
Now, please understand that shifting our schema is difficult, sometimes agonizing work. So the last thing I want anyone to hear is “oh great, she thinks I’m conceited. Now I really hate myself”. I think we could all use a good dose of compassion here. Change takes time, practice and intention. Factors like mental illness and trauma may require professional guidance–the decision to increase self worth is not always as simple as making a cognitive choice (please see my blogs Why is healing so hard or Getting unstuck). For now though, I want you to consider what drives you? Loving people or a desperate desire to be okay in the eyes of those you love?
Something beautiful happens when we recognize our own, innate worth. We stop hustling. But to accomplish this we have to acknowledge that worth is not dependent on works or on the opinion of others. As Brene Brown would say, “worthiness is our birthright”. When we are able to believe this and live it as truth, our energy turns outward and we extend this belief to others. Now, I have heard people argue they can find others worthy but reject their own worth. I’m going to call your bluff here. It is incongruent to think my worth is dependent on perfection while others are born with it. I am NOT the exception. If I am not inherently worthy I am incapable of applying this truth to others—meaning I will judge you whether I admit to it or not. To truly have compassion I have to acknowledge we are ALL inherently worthy, myself included. C. S. Lewis describes humility as “not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less”. I believe this means that I am not more or less elevated than others. No hustle. No comparison. When I love me I get to love you without expectation or fear—because my worth is not contingent on your response to me. Self-care, which stems from self worth, is stewardship of the gifts (internal and external) we have been given. When I am a good steward of myself, I am less likely to burn-out or experience resentment. I get to do the work I love joyfully!
This is a hard concept. It is identity work, it is boundary work—and it is often influenced by the messages we have received from the world we live in. Our early experiences have a disproportionately powerful influence on the beliefs we develop. Change happens when intentionally decide to practice telling ourselves a different story, when stay rooted to the source of our truth, and when live like we believe we have worth (both in our external actions and our internal monologue). This is hard stuff. You have worth. Take care of you!