Gender generalizations make me uneasy. But after practicing psychotherapy for many years with women from diverse racial, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds, there’s one that is unfortunately consistent: most women struggle with genuine self-care. Genuine self-care involves building into your life what you need to flourish—from providing an accepting home for your feelings, to pursuing your passions, to creating harmony between your mind and body, to investing in friendships. It is the foundation for fulfilling intimacy, an important component of self-care.
The biggest obstacle to self-care for women is not the demands of balancing family and career, or financial constraints in an increasingly uncertain world, or not having enough personal time—it’s women’s deep-seated tendency to put themselves second and take care of other people, especially children and men, first, even when it isn’t absolutely necessary. This leads to feeling overextended, emotionally deprived, and psychologically resentful.
Why do women tend to have so much trouble with self-care?
Women are trained to be other-centered from an early age. They often learn from their mothers and the relationship between their parents that women are expected to pick up the slack, fill in the gaps, and otherwise “be there” 24/7 for those people closest to them. This is, of course, a wonderful quality when it is balanced, but it usually isn’t.
There is a substantial psychological reward for this me-second behavior: it can make women feel safer in relationships and perhaps superior to their less self-denying loved ones. But it also makes them feel overwhelmed, devalued, and bitter.
The path to healthy self-care has several aspects:
First, you need to begin to notice moments of self-denying behavior. These are often signaled by physical fatigue and feelings of emotional deprivation and resentment. Initially, your awareness may occur after the fact. While tossing and turning in the middle of the night, you realize that you’re sleepless because you are angry that you once again allowed your self-centered friend, relative, or spouse to monopolize your scarce free time that evening, leaving you unable to pick up that book you wanted to start or sink into that bubble bath you were looking forward to. With practice, though, your awareness will sharpen. Therapy, meditation, and conversations with friends cultivate such awareness.
The second step is to see what secret benefit you derive from denying yourself. Does compulsively trying to fulfill other people’s needs boost your self-esteem? Do you think it increases the chances that you will be loved? Does it lessen the fear that you will be rejected or abandoned?
The Rewire Me moment is the recognition that self-care is not selfishness.
Third, women have to substitute healthy self-care—what nourishes your soul—for the superficial versions they use to camouflage emotional deprivation and numb bad feelings, from surfing the net, to watching Law and Order reruns, to buying stuff they don’t need. Such “empty carbs” of the mind provide immediate pleasure, not long-term gratification. And by hiding the problem, such emotional stopgaps make it more difficult to address self-denying tendencies.
The next step is to endure the guilt that will probably arise from focusing on yourself. The Rewire Me moment is the recognition that self-care is not selfishness.
Caring for yourself will greatly improve your emotional and physical health, as well as enrich your relationships with friends and co-workers, lovers and family. And here is an unexpected bonus: it will immeasurably aid your daughters in pursuing their own emotional fulfillment without regret—a wonderful gift to them and to the world.