Most articles about self-care try to convince you to do something: buy a product, exercise more, eat less, or otherwise add something to your agenda. Meanwhile, most of us who work or live with children already feel like we’re reaching the point of total exhaustion.
Beyond the struggles of our own lives, a flood of statistics threatens to overwhelm us: COVID deaths, child mental health crises, family homelessness and food insecurity are all on the rise while the longstanding public health crisis of racism grinds forward unabated. If you’re like me, you might be asking yourself where, exactly, am I supposed to even fit “self-care” in?
One of my favorite meditation teachers, Sharon Salzberg, told a story at a workshop I attended. She recalled the horrified response of one of her students when she shared the old metaphor of putting on your oxygen mask before trying to help those around you. A woman exclaimed, “I could never do that!”
We all laughed – and for me it was a laugh of recognition. If oxygen masks were literally dropping from the ceiling I would do as I was told; but when people try to use this metaphor to convince me to adopt a new healthy habit, I often think, I can’t possibly do that. How can I take care of myself when I’m so busy holding up the world?
The work of educating and caring for children and youth is not well supported in our society. Especially during COVID, it can feel like each of us is alone at a time when children still need us to stay connected and stay well. To have the energy to maintain a network of support for young people, parents, educators and care-givers we need to remember to nurture our relationships with one another and also with ourselves.
If your instinct is to ignore your own oxygen mask, it may help to reframe your understanding of self-care from an activity you need to do to a way of relating to yourself with greater compassion. For instance:
1) Eliminate “shoulds” from your vocabulary
As a consultant and mentor, one of the most common and distressing thoughts I hear from people is, “I know I should____.” Should is a fake idea — an imagined expectation we assume the world must have of us. Approach your needs with the same patience and curiosity you might offer to a friend in need. Instead of critically telling yourself, “I should,” try asking, “what do I need right now?”
2) Combat overwhelm with three questions: Does it have to be done? Does it have to be done now? Does it have to be done by me?
I heard learned advice in a women’s group I attend and have found these questions liberating. Often, the answer to at least one of these questions is no. The thing that feels so urgent can be done later, by someone else, or perhaps doesn’t need to be done at all. (If you’re not certain, see “No more shoulds,” above.)
3) Nurture connection with something greater than yourself
Connecting with the community outside our door might be difficult right now, but it has become easier than ever to connect with others online based on shared needs or interests. And we can connect with a deeper sense of purpose through small interactions with art, nature, culture and meaning. Saying a prayer, lighting a real or virtual candle or reading a poem a day can connect you with a deeper source of hope – and none of these actions takes much time.
If deep self care is not an activity, then the good news is we don’t need to find a specific time to do it. Through gentleness and genuine care for self, we build our strength to engage with the world and one another.