Have you ever felt that you needed to prioritize others and put your own needs on the back burner? For most people, this is fairly common. Among people who have mental illnesses, it becomes even more commonplace. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told to “Just get over it” or “It’s not that big of a deal” or even “You’re too needy”. Over time, it becomes easy to believe that making yourself a priority is selfish. The truth is, self-care and selfishness are two very different things. Selfishness means putting yourself above others, while self-care means including yourself in those you care for.
According to Mission Harbor Behavioral Health, self-care is the act of “providing adequate attention to your own psychological and emotional wellbeing”. Self-care is just taking the time to take care of yourself.
Now imagine you get food poisoning. You have two options, keep going about life like normal or take a few days to give yourself time to rest. If you keep going about life like normal, you will take much longer to recover, or in some cases, get progressively worse until you can’t continue to complete normal, every day tasks any longer. Even while going through day-to-day activities, things will likely take you longer to do, take more energy, or feel more overwhelming than normal. On the other hand, if you take the time to give yourself the care you need, your body will heal at a much faster rate and you can return to daily life faster.
Likewise, mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, and others require care to improve, and until you give them that care, they will continue to largely impact everyday life. So what do you do to care for yourself and improve your mental health? While self-care is different for everybody, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Taking time for yourself doesn’t have to meet any certain criteria except that it is something that is important and enjoyable to you. It can be as simple as taking a bath or as complicated as orchestrating a dinner party. Extroverts may prefer to go on a night out with friends to relax, while introverts may choose to stay home and redecorate the house. Whatever it is, set aside time every so often to go do “your thing”.
Remember how it meant so much to you know that time when somebody dropped a meal off on your doorstep when you were feeling sick? Or that time your boss paid for your meal? Chances are, you probably thought a little higher of them for going out of their way to do something for you. While it may sound counter intuitive, a form of self-care is to do something for others, which retrains your brain to see you as someone valuable because you have something to give. You can take your niece a present, brush your cat, or volunteer at your local food pantry. Pick something that sounds valuable and enjoyable to you.
If your grandmother was having a hard time bringing the laundry up and down the stairs, you’d probably want her to ask for help. Similarly, the people who love you want to know if you are having a hard time so they can be there for you. Asking for help when you are struggling with your mental health is a way to show yourself love and reclaim value in your own mind. If you don’t feel comfortable asking your family, there are many additional resources comprised of people who care about you, including therapists, counselors, psychiatrists, and support hotline staff. It can feel difficult to admit you need help, but you are worth it.
If you’re like me, it will likely be difficult to make yourself a priority at first. As someone who has lived with mental illness a long time, I can honestly say it can be very hard to tell my brain and my body that I have value and deserve to be a priority. But by following the tips above, I’ve successfully taught my mind that even though I have a chronic mental illness, I still matter and I still have value. The hardest part is getting started.
If you have other self-care tips, or stories about your experience with self-care, let us know in the comments below.