The idea of self-care sounds, well, selfish. And to be selfish is bad.
At least that’s what we’ve been taught since we were toddlers. We were told to share even when we didn’t want to and to apologize whether or not we felt it. We, as women especially, are told by our parents, caregivers, teachers, and society to hold our tears, lower our voices, and take one for the team. The idea of putting others ahead of ourselves becomes more and more ingrained as we get older. To love someone is to put their needs above your own. We are taught, either directly or indirectly, to sacrifice in all the roles we play: wife, partner, mother, colleague, friend, daughter.
All my life as a Palestinian-American I was taught to put others before myself. It is a good lesson. It is a noble endeavor—and yet it can go too far. There never seems to be a limit. Even when I want to say no, I am embarrassed and feel compelled to say yes. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. There have been so many times over the years that I’ve stayed up all night preparing food for a dinner party, the whole time berating myself. Or the countless times a friend has called to ask me to visit or to go out or to let their kids come over, and I just said yes. Because that’s what I do. It’s what I’ve been taught by my parents. The culture my father and grandparents brought with them from Palestine was very clear: people come first.
I grew up in a house that seemed like it had a revolving door. We always had guests over. Relatives would stop by for coffee and stay for hours. We’d serve a set menu of “courses” that we all knew by heart. From the moment guests entered the house, we all took our positions. Our parents would sit with them in the living room, and me and my sisters would head to kitchen to start making tea. Tea was served with biscuits, followed by fruit, followed by American coffee with an assortment of cakes, followed by mixed nuts and water or more tea. Sometimes visits went into overtime, and we’d find ourselves pacing the kitchen asking, “What else can we serve?” Last thing was always Arabic coffee. When you served Arabic coffee, it meant the visit was over.
Luckily, there were five of us, so there was always someone to help or cover for whoever needed to study or work. But someone had to cover that kitchen. Now that my mother had teenage daughters, she was free to work and socialize, and we took over the household duties. But she never took time for herself. My mother worked full-time. She commuted from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back every day on the subway. But she never came home and locked herself in a room for some quiet time. She never took a Saturday spa day. When we shopped for clothes, she never bought anything for herself. Or if she did, she left herself for last.
It’s a common story. Most women can identify with this. Once I became a mother, I fell into the same pattern. My husband worked, and I stayed home with the kids. I breastfed and we practiced attachment parenting. My five kids are all two years apart. I was stuck in a cycle of breastfeeding, weaning, and potty training. My entire day was filled with children, housework, and cooking. If friends came over, it meant more of the same. It wasn’t that I was unhappy—just unfulfilled.
Again, it’s not a new story. Many women can relate to this. In my case it was babies and cultural obligations. To someone else, it’s a demanding boss or husband, an overwhelming friend or sibling. We all have stresses in our lives. But we don’t know what to do about them. We know we need to take better care of ourselves physically; we diet or go to the gym. But we don’t take time for ourselves emotionally or mentally. We don’t prioritize ourselves.
Self-care is literally defined as anything you do to care for yourself. It can be anything: a walk, a deep breath, a quiet moment of reflection, or a full-on spa day. And yet very few of us take the time. The problem isn’t just the physical, it’s the mental. Whenever I did get a chance to have alone time, I’d spend most of the time watching the clock or thinking about how the kids were doing.
Until recently. Once my youngest started going to school, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I started taking yoga, and it was the first step toward finding my center. After every class, there would be a kind of prayer to remind us to set our intentions for the day, to be mindful and gentle with ourselves. Just those simple reminders resonated with me. I felt lighter. I felt hopeful and empowered to take on the day. But then I’d leave and go back to reality and get bogged down in the routines of the day.
Then I was invited to join a women’s circle by my yoga instructor. It was a workshop of sorts for women to discuss the idea of courage. I am not one to try new things, but I was intrigued. When I entered the room, it felt like the first day of school. Everyone was just looking around at each other, unsure of what to say or do. We sat in a circle and began to introduce ourselves, and as we did, the anxiety began to fall away. It became clear that we were all looking for support in some way. We all wanted to feel like we were not alone. Because the reality is, we all feel like we are. We buy into the lie that we need to do everything. We are afraid and ashamed to ask for help. The more we feel the need to accomplish on our own, the more we tend to neglect our own needs.
The purpose of this women’s circle was to learn to be our most authentic selves—to break out of living by habit, the tendency to just go through the motions, and truly listen to our needs. Emotional distress tends to settle in our bodies in various ways; we feel anxiety in the pits of our stomachs or our necks and shoulders ache from the burden. But what if we could let go of our emotions instead of holding on to them? Emotions are just emotions, not good or bad, and they only need ninety secondsto course through the body. Ninety seconds! Allow yourself to feel it, and then poof! It’s gone. This idea changed my life. Before, I would get angry with my kids for something which would lead to me ranting about how they don’t appreciate me or how they never listen. But after learning this ninety-second gem, I began to give myself a moment to breathe and then tackle the problem. I taught it to my older kids, too. It’s a work in progress, but it was a tangible tool I could remind myself to use.
I was not living my best life. The most helpful part of being in the women’s circle was realizing that I was preventing myself from feeling fulfilled. I have always wanted to be a writer, but I was afraid of rejection. There were so many stories I wanted to tell about our travels through the Middle East or raising children, but I wouldn’t write anything down. Forget submitting, I wouldn’t even put pen to paper! But in the circle, I realized so much of that fear didn’t come from anything real. I had never had anyone read my writing and say, “This is crap! Never do this again!’ It was all in my head, as so many fears tend to be. My wonderful coach asked me to go back to my earliest memory when I felt my voice was silenced, and I realized that while I was never told not to write, I was also never encouraged to. Culturally, while I was growing up, girls weren’t told to follow their dreams. We were told to get married, start a family, and then follow your dreams if your husband was okay with it. I internalized those messages. My writing became a dream just out of reach. I encourage you, dear readers, to sit in a quiet place and really think about what’s holding you back. What’s keeping you from following your dreams? Or simply taking an hour for yourself?
When an opportunity for an open call for writers came up, I decided to do it. Whether or not it was accepted, I was determined to get over the fear. Thankfully, instead of all the voices in my head telling me I couldn’t, I finally felt like I could. So I did. And I was successful! My writing was accepted and liked. What a feeling to hear someone has read your stuff and liked it. With that newfound confidence and validation, I started going after new opportunities.
Not everyone will be able to join a women’s circle or have a coach, but we can all help ourselves. We can all take time from our days to take a deep breath. We are worth the time. This may be our biggest challenge as women yet. But healing ourselves will heal those around us. My kids have seen me realize my dreams, and it has inspired them to do the same. Holding ourselves back does not help anyone. Forcing ourselves to do for others when it is draining us only creates bitterness. It is not selfish to take care of ourselves mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or physically. It is imperative.
I don’t know how far back memories can go to infancy, but I think that most of us can at least imagine a time before we became aware of time.
When we’re infants the world is a crib, our parents, and the people we rely on to keep us alive. We have no concept of time; we’re not even conscious of the fact that our bodies need food and sleep. As we grow, the world becomes a playground, an endless canvas for our imaginations to explore. Before long, we become aware of the physical limits imposed on us by the outside world through pain, or the guidance of the people who raised us. By then we’re aware of time, although that time is still largely our own. When we play, we get caught up in the joy of it and keeping track of time is the furthest thing from our minds. An afternoon of playing with friends can feel like minutes until you notice the sun is setting and you’re being called home.
When we move into our teens and adulthood, time seems to pull us in different directions. Our lives become a maze of work schedules, class times, romantic and family relationships. Responsibilities impose demands on our time, and before long we end up running at someone else’s speed, usually chasing someone else’s dream.
Whether shaped by culture or life experiences, we all have a rhythm. One person’s rhythm may lead them away from following schedules, toward following their dreams without regard to forethought or safety. Another’s may lead to them working eighteen-hour days and becoming the president of a company. Sometimes those dreams are dissimilar, but either lifestyle can burn a person out. The speed of the modern world puts us into roles we may not have known the consequences of when we began to play them. How many brilliant artists never use their gift because the rhythm of their traditions told them they could only be a complete person by becoming a mother? How many entrepreneurs with amazing ideas are trapped in jobs they hate because the larger rhythm of their cultural background says they need to be the breadwinner of a family at all times and anything else is a pipe dream?
A lot of my own life has been about dancing to someone else’s rhythm. The pattern was set early, from getting up every Sunday morning to accompany my grandfather, a popular Baptist preacher, to church. Because I was a preacher’s kid, there were a lot of expectations on me to be successful, although I had no idea what that meant in general, and definitely not for myself. Regardless, I took the idea of being successful into my working life and my personal life. Looking back, I can recall relationships that I wasn’t really a part of because I was so focused on my next move that I refused to enjoy the moment I was in. I sabotaged a lot of potential relationships and friendships that way, and it’s something I still wrestle with.
We live in a time when admitting you want to find yourself is seen as selfish. Even if you don’t have anyone depending on you, people will still judge you by the images and projections they attach to you. But it’s not fair to move from one phase of your life to another without taking stock of where you’re going. Obligations happen soon enough, and it’s better to enter into them when you’re sure that they’re a responsibility you can handle. I don’t have kids, but everyone I know who does tells me that any selfishness in your character has to be let go of once you’re in control of the well-being of another life.
The same is true for romantic relationships. Whether it’s an emotional connection, dancing, or sex, it’s amazing when two people create a rhythm that builds on itself until you reach a place that satisfies you both. A relationship, a true relationship, is compromise. Anytime you attempt to merge separate personalities and life experiences in the same physical or psychological space, there will be compromise. But before you can compromise, you need to be a complete person, aware of the things you want and stand for. To do that, you need time for self-reflection, however long that takes. Otherwise, you have a situation where one partner feeds off the energy and time of the other partner, until there’s nothing else to give.
A few years ago, I fell in love with an Italian women who was living in the U.S. At times, she would get depressed and tell me she missed the culture she grew up in. She had spent several years in America. We decided it was fair that I experience her way of life, so we moved to Italy. The day after we arrived, I left our apartment to go to the corner store up the street. It was closed, along with most of the other businesses. People were out on the streets talking with friends and family, enjoying the day. A friend of my girlfriend, a lawyer I’d met the previous night, came up to me. He was riding a bicycle, wearing a pinstriped suit with the legs neatly folded above his ankles, showing his socks and expensive-looking shoes. He said in English that he’d just left court and was going to ride to the beach and take a break for a little while.
It was my first experience with the riposo, the Italian version of the siesta, when work stops and people suspend their schedules to rest and center themselves before heading back to finish out the workday. I didn’t understand at first. Later, I realized what an amazing thing it is. I didn’t know anything about the concept of work-life balance, but I was in the middle of a culture built on that. People actually took the time to enjoy the things they worked for. I didn’t know how much I had internalized the American attitude of living to work. When the relationship ended and I returned home, my rhythm had synchronized to the Italian pace of life. I tried to keep a little of that close, but America is a hard place to make that happen if you’re not independently wealthy.
This society isn’t set up for reflection. From our art to the people we idolize, everything about America reinforces the idea of pushing yourself to be the best, to do more, to have it all, whatever “it” is. There’s twenty-four hours in a day, and they all need to be filled with some sort of activity that will get you to the “next level.” If you have a job, you gotta hustle to work. When you get there, you gotta be sure your superiors see you being active. Being productive is beside the point. It’s like American society runs on the fear of falling behind everyone else. Instead of doing something for the pleasure of the thing itself and for your own benefit, everything becomes a race where the only goal is to not be overtaken by your competition.
That’s a dangerous way to live. When you’ve lost yourself in somebody else’s world, you look for ways to reassert yourself, regardless of whether the outlets you choose are positive or negative. You search for external things to get your groove back. Material things. Physical things. Chemical things. That mentality destroys relationships and individuals.
We need to give ourselves room to breathe. That’s easy to say, but not so easy to do if you’re responsible for your own livelihood and the security of a family. But if we don’t do something as a culture to relieve some of the pressure we’re under, a physical or psychological collapse will happen eventually.
The elders in my family had a saying: children can’t wait to grow up, and when they do, they wish they could go back. I didn’t understand it when I was younger, but I do now. Once you’re in, you’re in. But there has to be a way reclaim our rhythm before it’s gone forever.
I’m still trying to reclaim my own. You can’t discover your own pace if you’re following someone else. We need to learn how to make time to live for ourselves before we can give anything to the people we love and care for.