selfish self care

In praise of ‘selfish’ self-care: you can’t pour from an empty cup

There are a few bits of mental health advice I like to throw out on a regular basis, such as ‘don’t do drugs if you have crippling anxiety’. But a more widely applicable (I hope) nugget is this: you can’t pour from an empty cup, so prioritise self-care when and where you can.

I don’t know where I read that first phrase, but it’s stuck with me ever since. Even if you don’t have a mental health problem, we should all be reminded that no matter how ‘selfish’ it feels, self-care isn’t optional: it’s an essential act of self-preservation.

Unfortunately, this goes against the grain of modern life. Is it just me, or is there a certain cachet in pushing yourself to the edge nowadays? I regularly feel personally attacked wrong-footed by LinkedIn articles telling me success starts with a 5am wake up call. (Sorry, I know it’s not cool to admit to needing eight hours sleep, but I really do.)

There’s also a certain pride in the ‘I just can’t say no’ mentality. This isn’t a criticism, mind—the people who ‘just can’t say no’ are some of the kindest, most loving and thoughtful people I know. But they’re also usually exhausted and often unhappy, because they don’t put their self-preservation first. In turn, this gets taken out on the people they love, because (it bears repeating): you just can’t pour from an empty cup.

You’d have to be some sort of superhero or saint to have boundless energy for other people’s needs: the big JC turned water into wine, but he couldn’t magic it out of nowhere.

So remember: self-care first, within the realm of being a good human. The world won’t fall apart if you say no. Your friends should support this; if people only love you because you’re at their beck and call, screw them anyway.

So how can you implement self-care?

I’m not here to suggest you go out and buy a £100 candle in the pursuit of self-care. I read a truly excellent article by Amy Jones about the ‘Goopification of self-care’ this week, and saying no is a prime example of self-care that doesn’t involve luxury branded products. Self-care can be as simple as laying down boundaries about what you can deal with. (PS. Read The Pool

For example, I find it exhausting to have intense, emotional conversations over text. This isn’t because I don’t want to help people—in real life, I actually find it quite energising to try and help people with their problems. But I work in an office, staring at screens all day. I can’t get home and have intense WhatsApp sessions. It just makes me feel awful.

So I’ve just started telling people that. ‘I’m sorry if I can’t support you very much over text—I love you and am here for you, so please call me if you need to chat, or we can arrange to meet up.’

self care
Still hanging out on the sofa with a puppet. Not sorry.

Another example is time alone. I’m an introvert who needs this to recharge. But turning down plans always seems ungrateful (especially given my secret anxiety that everyone hates me and only invites me places under sufferance). I’ve learnt the hard way I need at least one weekend a month where I don’t have plans, and whilst people are occasionally offended when I say I can’t see them because I’m busy doing nothing, nobody has unfriended me yet (I think).

I’m currently on my ‘free weekend’ after a few big weeks of socialising and I feel a million times better after a 10am lie-in, several rounds of toast, and pottering in the flat. I will be a better human tomorrow because of this weekend. This is just who I am as a person. I really, really love hanging out on the sofa. I always have done. Please try it for yourself, if you can. Doing nothing is so underrated.

Go one step further, if you’re feeling brave. Actively call people out if they’re infringing on your self-care. My mum pointed out to me last year that I only ever phoned her to moan, which was draining for her at a time when she was personally struggling. I was briefly offended (in the way people tend to be when they’ve been rightly called out) then realised she had a point—so I’ve tried to adjust my behaviour, and I think our relationship is better for it.

Of course, your self-care will be different depending on your personality. Maybe you need to see people less. Maybe you need to turn down extra stuff at work that you don’t have capacity for. Whatever it is, find it, and don’t be afraid to do it—or rather, don’t do it.

Because you can’t pour from an empty cup. And it isn’t worth trying.

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