Monday, April 2, 2012

Taking Time for Self

BlogHer has let me know that I have been selected to answer their Life Well Lived Getting Happy question. The question is:

How do you put yourself first? How does taking time for yourself help make you happier?


When I first saw this question, I had to laugh at the timing. My husband and I have been discussing this very thing quite a bit recently. And there's a reason why.

When I see discussions like this during low-stress times, I think, "Of course! That's elementary! It only makes sense that when we take time for ourselves, we feel happier and stronger for ourselves and those around us!"

But, I must admit, I saw the question and groaned. Why? Because the email inviting me to answer this question did not come at a time when I'm particularly thriving and doing great at taking time for myself. In fact, it's been quite the opposite . . . and I have felt the difference.

I'm a therapist - I kid you not.

The irony? I'm a mental health therapist. I work with people who are struggling with anxiety and depression. One of the first skills we generally discuss, depending on the situation, is that of taking care of ourselves and doing things that we enjoy -- things that energize us, recharge us, strengthen us. Things like hobbies or good entertainment or a relaxing activity. Not things like addictive activities or harmful substances. We focus on healthy, strengthening stuff.

As a mental health therapist, I try to practice what I preach. I am not always 100% on top of it (who is?), but I try to regularly incorporate in my own life the same things I encourage my clients to do. I often feel so super lucky to be able to work in a job where I am constantly reminding myself of good habits and skills. I get constant reinforcement as I counsel and teach others. How cool is that?

My Lessons as an Intern

When I was an intern in graduate school, I was very fortunate to be able to work with a fantastic therapist whose name is Charlie. To this day, I consider him a great mentor. I learned so many valuable life skills from him. I learned more in one year of interning with him than I did in years and years of classes.

When I would watch Charlie lead a group therapy session, I don't think it's too extreme to say that I was often enraptured and captivated by the process, how he handled challenging clients, what he taught, what he said, how he always remained centered and calm, how he wove the group's energy into something transformative, elevating, empowering. I took copious minutes and made extensive mental notes.

One of the things he often taught was the importance of taking time for ourselves. I'm not much of an eye roller, but I do have a lousy poker face, and something in my expression must have indicated my doubt, skepticism, and resistance. Charlie, being keen to people's reactions, gently asked me what I thought about what he had just said.

"I don't know . . . I don't know if I could do it. I mean, it just seems kind of . . . selfish."



"How so?"

"Well, I have a family. I'm married. I have a baby. I'm in graduate school. Taking time for myself seems selfish. I have others to think about."

"And you think taking care of yourself makes you selfish."

"Yes. I also think I would feel extremely guilty even thinking about it."

Charlie went on to explain the wisdom of taking care of ourselves and how, by doing so, in addition to being good for us, helps us better take care of those around us. He did this by asking me questions and gently guiding me in my own discovery. Charlie wasn't one bit preachy or pushy. In fact, one of his favorite sayings was, "As you wish."

I will publicly admit that I was still skeptical and resistant. I was well-entrenched in my religious, cultural, and familial upbringing that all had a MAJOR focus on service and selflessness and doing for others. I had, to my own detriment as well as the detriment of those around me, interpreted and internalized that to mean "put myself last."

One night, after a 3-hour intensive group therapy session, Charlie visited with me and asked how I was doing. I told him how much stress I was under with school, home, family, finances, a baby, a husband in medical school, an impending cross-country move, etc. He encouraged me to take time, in the midst of all that, for a weekend away with my family. I protested that we had neither the time nor the money to do so.

I shook my head and nervously laughed. "We can't afford it."

"Perhaps you can't afford not to."

I didn't listen to Charlie.

My Personal Battle with Depression

Less than a year later, I found myself in the throes of a deep, dark, debilitating depression. The kind you only read about in magazines.

You know the ones. Stories of women unable to get out of bed for days at a time, no drive or energy to get up, shower, brush their teeth. Stories of women who would lie in a dark room, feeling both alive and dead at the same time. Stories of women who would sleep for hours on end. Stories of women who would practically waste away to nothing because they had no desire to eat, as their appetite was gone, their love of food diminished, their depression so strong that their taste buds would not even function. Stories of women who didn't even have the energy to cry, so they just sat there, staring straight ahead at nothing, eyes unfocused, wondering what on earth has become of them. Women who had become a mere shell of a person.

That was me. And yet, that was so very unlike me.

I am generally a happy, positive, upbeat person with a wicked sense of humor and boundless energy. I love life and I love love. I warm up just thinking about sunshine and I exclaim wonderment at every little thing I see. I sing along to the radio and I dance in my living room. I have simple pleasures and enjoy my family and friends.

I had gotten so sick emotionally, that I had lost all of my vitality. I wasn't even functioning. So, I sought out help.

Yeah, I know. A therapist seeing a therapist. But though I intellectually knew all the things to do, I needed a neutral third party to guide me out of that horrible abyss and help me incorporate what I already knew from my studies.

She gave me the same advice Charlie did. And this time, I took it. I had no other recourse. I was depleted and desperate. It was time. For my family. And for me.

It worked. Slowly, surely, I pulled out of that place. It was so difficult at first. I cried when I realized I didn't know what I wanted, I couldn't even remember what gave me pleasure, what I enjoyed doing. It took time. It took WORK.

It is something I continue to work on all the time. But now, it is mostly preventative, rather than therapeutic. I'm doing better now, so it's a type of maintenance program rather than an operation of healing. It's like medicine . . . like a daily vitamin. It is something now that I see not as selfish or wrong, but as necessary, healthy, and so so good for me and, therefore, those around me.

A healthy me, a happy wife and mother . . . that is the best gift I can give my family. So, I do try to do those things -- set healthy boundaries, avoid drama and toxic people and situations, practice affirmations, get good sleep, eat well, and take time for myself.

When I work with clients who remind me of my younger self with their own resistance to this principle, I explain it using the moniker I like to call it --"The Theory of the Oxygen Mask."

The Theory of the Oxygen Mask

Anyone who has ever flown knows the drill. The flight attendants come out and pantomime directions to the overhead pre-flight safety instructions, as they sound over the loud speaker. I guess in today's day and age, it's on a video. But either way, the advice is the same.

"Should there be a loss in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the compartment above. Place the mask over your nose and mouth and breathe normally. If you are traveling with others who need your assistance, please put on your own mask before attempting to help others."

It seems counter-intuitive, doesn't it? It would seem like you should help those in your charge before helping yourself. But if you were to do that, you would likely pass out, thereby unable to help anyone, including yourself as well as those around you!

That's how it works with taking time for yourself. It is neither selfish nor should it be guilt-inducing. It's healthy. Sure, like anything else, it can be taken to unhealthy extremes (which would be selfish). But a regular, healthy amount of taking care of one's own emotional health and mental fortitude goes a long way to securing our happiness and outlook.

And besides making you feel great, it is so good for those around you, too. And let's face it, our families and friends are so so worth it. They are worth us being our best selves.

Bonus? It's a great thing to model for our children, so they, too, can see the importance of regular, healthy self-care.


I will admit that this doesn't come naturally for me, though I'm doing much better than before. Apparently, I learned the hard way. Not going to lie -- it sucked. But I am doing better.

That being said, like I mentioned at the beginning, I've been struggling with this for the past several weeks especially. I have several excuses, the main one being we're BUSY. If I thought it was tricky finding time for myself with little kids, man is it trickier with older kids!

We have so much going on all the time with work, school, activities . . . day-to-day life is full and happy and, well, busy! It's mostly good stuff, thankfully, but it can be a lot to juggle. I do know that along with the many, many balls we have in the air (too many to name!), one ball that is especially important to have in the mix is the one that says "self-care."

Just like sessions with my clients help reinforce to me the importance of this skill, writing this post has also helped me process just how much I need to make this a priority. It's been a rough past few weeks, but I'm determined to make time to take care of myself along with all the other bajillion things we are doing.

Because it's just that important. And my family likes it when I'm happy. I like it when I'm happy, too. They help a lot. And I remind myself, too, that it starts with me.

Want more on this topic?

Join the conversation on BlogHer! Visit here and share what you do to take time for yourself!

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Emily Foley said...

I've never had problems with guilt over finding time for myself, my problem is what to do with that time. In UT I would love to go to a bookstore or just walk around the mall but I don't have those options here. I don't really have hobbies. I've recently tried sewing, which I do like, but it takes money and know-how to sew anything of value. I like TV but there's only so much TV you can watch. I love to read but I need a good book to make it worth my know how it goes. I just don't know WHAT to do for myself. But I know I'm happier when I take that time. I was also interested in your comments about service. I never considered that it would make people feel like they had to come last. I love serving others when I can but have never felt like that meant I didn't have time for me. Interesting.

Boquinha said...

Wow, Emily. That's great, but it makes me wonder why/how you're guilt-free about it. For me, when I was growing up, I was often by myself and I LONGED for a sibling or cousin my age -- I was the youngest by far --or to spend more quality time with my parents. I love them, but they were busy with other things and I often felt blown off (plus, back in the day -- kids were to be seen, but not heard). So, I think I'm paranoid because I do NOT want to ever give that impression to my kids, you know?

I'm also curious how you ever have extra time with 3 kids! I think I stink at time management, so if you have any tips, they'd be much appreciated.

Interesting about service. Yeah, I think I have a problem. :P I am prone to drop everything to help someone in need. It takes conscious boundary setting and looking out for myself and my family for me to not do that all the time so instinctually. Or to at least find a balance to do both.

Em said...

Thanks for the reminder! I find that I feel better when I don't just waste time, but do something constuctive. When I just waste time, I am good at this, I feel worse. I am trying to do better. Hope things are good for you guys, life is busy, but good!

April said...

I have told friends that if they won't do it for themselves, do it for their kids because it does indeed help us be better parents.

Boquinha said...

Thanks for commenting, Em and April!

Em, is that Emily Lawson by chance?

April, so true!

terahreu said...

Well written. I have always been a firm believe that happy mom = happy family. Carving 'me' time has always been really important for me to maintain a healthy perspective on life. I know when I reach that brick wall and I need to get out and do something for me. I always come back happier and I seem to have a better perspective on life and I have a better appreciation for my loved ones and my life in general. It is imperative for the right life balance. The point is, one day, most likely, you will be alone. The kids will eventually go and you will have to discover who you are. It is necessary to visit that now so you won't be staring at a stranger in the mirror.

Boquinha said...

Thanks for the comment, Terah! Interesting points. I miss your blogs about your "girlcations" -- that is some serious adventuring in "me" time!!