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Guest viewpoint: Take care of yourself by aligning your deeds and desires

Appeared in print: Thursday, Aug 27, 2009, page A11

What is self-care? I have been thinking a lot lately about self-care.

It is surprising that some people think of this as selfishness. There is a difference!

My definition of self-care is taking care of your needs above all others — not taking care of everyone else first. Selfishness is defined as caring only about yourself and no one else.

In my years of working with clients and other therapists, I have learned that many of us have been raised to worry about what others think. Whether it is our appearance, possessions, accomplishments or choice of career, we are taught by our parents to scrutinize ourselves through others’ lenses.

All of this training can put us in the position of trying to please others rather than choosing to care for ourselves.

Most of us have experienced giving to the point of resentment, if not exhaustion. How did that feel? That behavior diminishes the quality of our help and deprives us of the good feeling we deserve from trying to help others.

How do you feel when you say “yes” when you don’t want to — resentful, crabby and disappointed in yourself? Now, how do you feel when you say “yes” when you really have the time and willingness and energy to help someone — happy, light and joyful?

OK helpers, here’s the hard one. How does it feel to say “no” when you don’t want to say “yes”? Guilty? Selfish? Ungrateful for our own good lives?

Let’s apply some sensible things we know are true from other areas of life.

If you’ve ever flown, you know the answer to this. If the oxygen mask falls, do you put the mask on a child, companion or other passenger first, or do you put it on yourself first?

Yes — you first! And why? You can’t help others if you aren’t breathing!

Emergency workers know that if they hurt themselves while trying to help someone else, neither they nor the injured person is going to be all right.

Crisis counselors know they can’t help others in crisis if it creates a crisis for them. They must ground themselves first. Otherwise, they can’t step in at all.

If it works for all these smart professionals, it must apply to us also, right?

If we can agree that we are best for ourselves, our families, friends and community if we practice self-care, then how do we get over those negative instincts to please?

I have found the writings of Cheryl Richardson to be very helpful here. She encourages us to look at how we spend our time and see if our lives are in balance. When we see how much time we spend on work, relationships, fun, spirituality, contributions to others and our emotional and physical health, we may want to make some changes. Are we giving the most important aspects of living well a tiny fraction of our time and attention?

To recap: Many of us were raised to care more about what others think than to attend to our own needs, and this isn’t healthy behavior — for ourselves or for anyone else. We have to have a plan to change this pattern and focus more on balance.

So what can you do if this is how you have operated for a long time? The first step is being aware that this behavior is not helping you and that you want to change. Then you can start to ask yourself: “Why am I doing this?” You may be surprised at your answers.

I have learned in my personal and professional life that in practicing self-care, I can be fully available to others without resentment or anger. It is a way of being honest with myself and with others.

My friends and family will know that I am available for them because I want to be.

Sally O’Donnell LCSW is a therapist in private practice, and a pro bono counselor for the Center for Community Counseling. Her Web site is www.sallyodonnell.com. The Center for Community Counseling’s Web site is www.ccceugene.org.

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