Self-care is one of my favorite topics to research. I get an embarrassing feeling of fulfillment whenever I find “25 Ways to Practice Self-Care” article to pin on Pinterest, or when I feel loved because BuzzFeed told me I should be my own first priority.
To be honest, I like myself. Sure, there’s a lot of things I do that I don’t like: my procrastination habits or my surprisingly swift temper, or the way my cursive handwriting looks like it did in first grade (actually, it was better in first grade). But all-in-all, I see the potential that my genetics, upbringing, and education have set me up for, and I’d like to do the best I can to reach that potential. I like where things are headed, and I think a lot of you do, too.
So, as mental health specialists recommend, we take good care of ourselves. We work out, we keep a gratitude journal, we take breaks when we feel overwhelmed. Our entire lifestyle is modified to make sure we’re preserving ourselves the best we can to live a happy life as we work toward our goals.
This concept of “self-preservation” is a sliding scale.
As a culture, we’ve grown so fond of taking care of ourselves that we’ve made it our first priority. “We have to take care of ourselves before we take care of others, right?”
But isn’t taking care of other people sometimes harmful to us?
Listen, I’m all about supporting my friends when they’re going through stuff. But if one of my friends wants me to go to their orchestra concert…I mean, it’s just a concert, and I want to keep the balance in my schedule. I don’t want to go be bored for an hour, and I scheduled "me time" that evening, anyway.
And I know that person in line at Walmart behind me only has, like, five things while I have a cart, but I’m in a hurry. It would stress me out to let them go first—I gotta’ get home. Anyway, “Don’t feel guilty for doing what’s best for you,” right?
And yeah, technically that person’s Facebook status is ‘hinting’ at suicide, but I don’t know them that well. Saying something would just be weird, and I can’t deal with that emotional stress right now.
In fact, any sort of gesture that wouldn’t benefit me would probably do the opposite.
This is where that Nicholas Sparks quote at the top gets dangerous.
I've come to realize that the only reason we’ve over-emphasized caring for ourselves is because we don’t think other people are doing the job well enough. We don’t feel like our friends would go out of their way for us—half the time they just choose to do whatever benefits them. Do you see the cycle? By encouraging this culture of making 'self' the first priority, we enable each other to not meet the emotional needs of people in our lives. So why should we expect any less?
This is why the “love your neighbor as yourself” philosophy that the Bible frequently promotes is so logical. If we don’t give of ourselves to others, who is going to do it for us? What person is going to support us in our passion for music, or validate our worth during a stressful Walmart run, or talk us through the depths of depression? If selfless love’s ethical appeal isn’t enough, can’t it at least be considered logical?
Let’s take this back to the beginning of the discussion. We practice self-care to help us reach the potential we want to reach, right? What is that potential, that ultimate goal? Each person has the ultimate desire to make a positive impact. An impact in a particular study, or philosophically, emotionally, morally. At the end of the day, each of us wants to somehow positively impact the lives of other people.
But how are we supposed to impact in other people's lives when we put ourselves as a priority over them?
There is a balance to it, of course. There has to be; we can’t take care of others if we don’t take care of ourselves at all. But I think we overestimate just how much that “balance” requires in the self-preservation arena.
“You can’t live your life for other people.” Friends, if you’re not living your life for other people, you're not doing much living at all. As Einstein told us, "Only a life lived for others is worth living."