I read a meme the other day that said “Make yourself a priority once in a while. It’s not selfish, it’s necessary.”
It seemed innocuous enough, but good golly did it get under my skin. Let me tell you what frustrated me about it.
First, we should always make ourselves a priority. Not once in a while. Not when we are on the brink of a nervous breakdown. As a way of life, we should be making it a point to meet our own needs. I am talking about self-care. You could call it “radical self-care,” but that is simply an illustration of the way so many of us think we have to be some sort of revolutionary extremist to love ourselves.
Many of us (especially, but not exclusively women) put a kind of grotesque value on diminishing ourselves for the benefit of others. And for the most part, society praises us for this. I do not. I do not honor or cherish this. You will not get a high five from me for neglecting yourself for someone else.
If our own health, happiness, wellbeing, and life are our real priority, as the rule and not the exception, then we will be exponentially better equipped to handle a situation where we have to help someone in real need. And we will be better able to deduce when it is time make someone else a priority, and what exactly it is that we can sacrifice that will help our loved ones without harming ourselves.
Second, self-care is not ever selfish. For some reason, the way this meme is worded, it feels more like it reinforces the idea that to care about one’s self is actually selfish (unless you only do it “once in a while”, then it’s necessary. *blech*) When I say self-care, I am not talking about getting everything you want. But I don’t think this meme was made for people who choose to live out a perpetually drunken party life rather than spend quality time with their children. It is almost certainly for the people who can’t manage to eat a balanced meal, or make time to work out, or give themselves 20 minutes a day to meditate, or pray, or walk outside, or just pause, because their schedule is full of everyone else’s errands, needs and appointments.
I would like you to consider that all of the time that we spend making someone else a priority is time that the other person is not exercising their ability to be, or experiencing themselves as being, capable and self-sufficient. And regarding children, they do not learn by hearing what we say, they learn by watching what we do. So when we make everyone else a priority at the expense of our own health and wellbeing, we are teaching our children to do the same.
No matter what is going on in my life, I eat within my boundaries. It is my primary act of self-care. It keeps me nourished, grounded, clear-headed, and peaceful. Nobody’s wants, needs, feelings, or agendas come before that. I don’t allow anyone to get in the way of it. And it goes beyond that. I am constantly gauging what I can give and what I can’t, in every area of my life. I am always looking out for myself first. Not only, but first. And what the people in my life get in return is a healthy, confident, happy woman who is available for them. I am able to help, guide, nurture, and love, because I take care of myself. And my ability to make myself a priority, and even say “no,” means that when you get me, you get me 100%. You get me present, capable, efficient, and useful.
Third, on the surface, these acts might seem like acts of love and sacrifice, but I have played this game, and for me, and I think for many, they were, and are a scam. When I have made everybody else’s life a priority, I was actually making myself a priority. But not in the obvious way. Not in the way I was selling it. I was making my drama the priority. I was saying “I put your life first, constantly put your needs in front of my own, and sometimes even at the expense of my own needs. And now you owe me.” Maybe I want martyrdom, a holy place where I am lauded for having done the most, but in return have gotten nothing but pain and suffering (and maybe even a nervous breakdown.) Or maybe you owe me everything done exactly my way. Or maybe you owe me your feelings of guilt, shame and misery. Or maybe you owe me staying forever and never being able to leave, even if the relationship is terrible for both of us. Or maybe you just owe me “the right” to be mean and cruel, a free pass to crap all over you when I feel like it. Like when I’m on the verge of a breakdown. But make no mistake. You owe me, and I plan on collecting.
When I put myself first, you don’t owe me anything. Why not? Because I am already taken care of! So if I make myself a priority, and I help you, it’s because I have something to give, and I get to enjoy being generous. And I am able to be generous because I am giving from my surplus.
And finally, I really hate the phrase “once in a while.” It is so non-specific. I know it’s a meme, but it’s still wishy-washy. “Every once in a while” is a limp handshake (along with it’s cousins “more” and “more often,” as in I’m going to drink “more” water, and exercise “more often.”) And the vapidity of it means one gets to feel like one has done something, without ever having to actually change. When I hear “once in a while,” what I think is “Not today.” Phew! Dodged that bullet! (*wipes sweat from brow*) And then I forget about it. I am not out in my daily life looking for that “once in a while” moment. I am business as usual.
If you want to take care of yourself, for realsies, then figure out what you can do to nurture yourself, every day, or every week, as a practice. Perhaps it’s making time to cook every day so you eat less fast food, or carving out 20 minutes for yourself to journal so that you can get your thoughts out of the echo chamber that is your own mind. Find one thing that makes your life happier and more fulfilled, or more peaceful and less stressed, and don’t let anyone or anything get in the way of it.
So what is my contribution? What would my meme be?
If you want to live in a world of love, love yourself first. Self-care keeps us whole and healthy. And a world of whole, healthy people must necessarily be world of love.
So, fine, it’s not catchy. But it makes my point in 3 sentences with a pretty picture.