Most of us have someone in the family who is constantly self-sacrificing and never taking time for themselves. They’re always the first to start on the housework and the last to switch off and relax and the end of the day. They’re the one who feels guilty if they’re not doing something “productive” or focusing on others. We often see this person trying to shoulder all of the world’s burdens themselves, and we often see them getting more and more worn out over the years, getting health problems, feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed. Maybe this person is you.
Sometimes people use all sorts of justifications not to take time for themselves. These can be ideas such as “I haven’t earned the right to yet”, or “I don’t deserve it”, or “If I spend an hour on myself, that’s an hour I can’t spend on my kids and that’s selfish”, and hundreds of other rationalizations. It’s like giving something to themselves is taking away from somebody else. They feel that if they’re a temporary winner, it means somebody else had to be a loser, and they don’t want that.
It goes without saying that this pattern of thought and behaviour is not healthy or sustainable. But the motivation behind it is pure and positive, so is there a way adjust it slightly to accommodate both looking after yourself and looking after others? What if we can set up a new way of thinking where self-care, enjoyment and time out can be had without anybody losing?
Let’s look at the orange tree analogy. This is a simple analogy that might help us break free from “if you give to yourself, you have to take away from others.” Imagine we are an orange tree and we want to provide big, juicy oranges for everybody in our life: our family, our colleagues, our work, our friends and our community. What happens if we don’t look after that orange tree- if it’s sitting in the shade, receiving no water, no sunlight, no fertilizer, no pesticides (natural and environmentally-friendly, of course)? Well, as time goes by, the number of oranges the tree produces naturally decreases, as well as the size and quality of the fruit. Thus, providing deep care for this orange tree helps it continue to produce big, juicy oranges for everybody, year after year.
Well, it’s the same with you. If you don’t look after yourself, take time out to do things that are purely enjoyable and exercise proper self care then you fall into neglect. What happens to the oranges you produce, that help nourish family, friends and colleagues? They get fewer in number, smaller, poorer quality, and, occasionally, might develop defects that end up harming the people we give them to rather than helping them. If we don’t nourish ourselves with rest, relaxation and recreation, our capacity to nourish others will suffer.
So how can you transition from wanting to be everything to everyone to still looking out for your loved ones while making time for yourself? A starting point might be identifying untrue things you are telling yourself that hold you back from enjoying life. Thoughts like “I’ll relax when all the work is done” are unhelpful because for so many people their work is never truly done- there’s always something else you could be doing around the house, or for your job. So stop putting off “me-time” until everything else is finished because that moment is probably never going to arrive. Besides, relaxation needs to be part of your daily routine, not a tacked-on afterthought.
The best way to tackle the lie that giving to yourself takes from others is to try it and see what happens. Next time you feel you could be spending time with your kids or finishing off the dishes, sit down and watch TV or read a book instead. Notice how your house doesn’t immediately fall down when you put your feet up? See how your kids don’t instantly come to blows the moment you take your eye off them? By learning to just let things be once in a while you’ll naturally learn that you don’t always have to be switched on in order for your world to stay together. And more importantly, you’ll be able to recharge and refresh yourself so that you have more “oranges” to give when your family and friends really need them.
One final thought to consider when looking at why you feel guilty about relaxing is this: where does your self-worth come from? Do you only feel like you are worth something when you are sacrificing your own needs to help others? Are you constantly striving to support others because you feel empty and useless the rest of the time? Or are you afraid that your family or loved ones will stop needing you? If you define yourself by your accomplishments and your ability to help others then your self esteem and your picture of yourself will always be fragile and easily broken. Your orange tree will have shallow roots and will be at risk of drying up and toppling when difficult seasons arrive. Maybe you would be better off rooting yourself in who you are, not what you do. Learning to accept yourself as you are and having unconditional positive regard for yourself no matter your actions is a vital part of staying healthy. A tree isn’t defined by the fruit it produces in a single season, but in its ability to keep on growing and producing fruit through any circumstances, year after year. The stronger and more firmly rooted the tree, the more people will be able to take shelter under its branches.