There’s Nothing Selfish About Self-Care

We asked some busy people to explain their self-care essentials.
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self-care

It’s 2020, and there is a lot to be excited about. As we cast our gazes elsewhere, though, our outlook can feel a little bit bleaker. The stress of our work seeps into our lives, the stress of our lives seeps into our work, and the two often blur into one intangible mass that slowly eats away at us. Worst of all, we sometimes never get a real break from it. Or perhaps we do, for a moment, as we take a moment to look away and glance at the news or an alert on our phones. There, we are hit with even more chaos and uncertainty: What kind of planet will our children inherit? Why is there still so much hatred and violence in the world? How did we set up a system where one man can earn in a minute more than three times what the median American worker earns in a year?

If we’re feeling overwhelmed, that’s because it’s overwhelming. We’d love to do something about it—any of it—but we’re too busy. When we ask someone if they take care of themselves, they might be quick to say yes. But when we ask them how they do it, there’s often hesitation. This is how some of the busiest Sacramentans engage in self-care, and most of it doesn’t cost a dime.

Defining Self-Care

What does it mean to assume the role of becoming our own caretakers? Once upon a time, it might have been as obvious as taking care of ourselves the way we would take care of anyone else we loved: cooking a favorite meal or, perhaps, uttering a kind word. Then, advertising entered the conversation, eager to announce that this was, in fact, just another category of our lives with a glaring deficiency. Now, there are many tools on the market to help with such so-called shortcomings: self-care retreats, designer bath bombs, luxury meditation cushions. Do we need them? Maybe some of us do. But many of us are rejecting commercialized wellness, instead finding that the answer is simpler and more in line with the fundamentals. “Self-care to me is doing things that make you feel good,” says Aubrey Aquino, the host of “Your California Life” on ABC10. In other words, intentionally doing things that replenish and refuel you instead of drain you. (We do eventually sometimes have to do the draining things, too, but we won’t be tapping an empty well to do so.)

Are We Being Selfish?

Critics of those who embrace self-care often say it’s selfish and unnecessary. The last thing we need is more navel gazing, as we’re already too focused on ourselves, they might argue. But are we? Kristin Maaskamp, admin and volunteer coordinator of The Yoga Seed, Sacramento’s only nonprofit yoga studio, recalls a phone conversation in which her sister asked their mother what she wanted to do for her birthday. Maaskamp’s mother hesitated, so her sister prodded: “Well, what makes you happy?” Her mother didn’t have an answer. And then Maaskamp realized she, too, didn’t have the slightest idea what made her happy. “I had no idea. I had zero idea what made me happy,” Maaskamp says.

Clearly, if some of us can’t immediately identify what even brings us joy, we’re far from selfish. And if we can’t be there for ourselves, we probably can’t fully be there for anyone else. “Charity begins at home,” says UC Davis Chancellor Gary May. “In order for you to be effective and be a benefit to other people, you have to have a sound foundation yourself—physically, mentally and emotionally.”

“If you can’t be kind to yourself, how are you going to be kind to other people?” asks Arthur Jey, M.D., an emergency room physician at Sutter Medical Center. “Being mindful of self-care is a huge deal.”

So, no. We are not being selfish.

We’re Undeniably Overworked

Historically, human beings are generally good at making tools, running long distances and thinking of the perfect retort anywhere from five minutes to five years too late. We are not good at compartmentalization, or dividing our lives, memories and feelings into tidy filing cabinets in our brains. What happens at home often comes with us to work, and what happens at work often follows us home. We’re also working, a lot: According to the International Labour Organization, “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers and 499 more hours per year than French workers.” The United States is the only industrialized country in the world without legally mandated annual leave (mandatory vacation), and there is no federal law requiring paid sick leave.

While California State Treasurer Fiona Ma is fortunate because she says she loves her job, she is usually found working. “I’m working all the time except when I sleep. It doesn’t matter what day of the week it is,” she says.

Most of us aren’t state treasurers, but most of us can relate to her: It’s not uncommon to feel like we’re always working. And if it’s not at our primary jobs, it’s often work at our second or third jobs, housework or work for our families, leaving us feeling depleted and like we don’t have anything left to give to anyone, let alone ourselves.

When we’re there, sometimes the very first thing we can do for ourselves is nothing. Stop doing everything and get into bed.

When All Else Fails, Just Do Nothing: Go To Sleep

Pop quiz: What is associated with an increased risk of developing chronic health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and frequent mental distress? A lack of sleep, defined as sleeping fewer than seven hours per day. “[Self-care] means that you have to get sufficient rest,” says May.

Seven hours does seem to be the magic number: “I do try to sleep enough,” Jey says. “Lots of people think they can survive on three or four hours, but most people need a solid seven hours of sleep.”

Even with frequent travel (Ma says she’s on the road every day), she aims to replenish come nightfall. “I try to sleep seven or eight hours per night,” she says.

So, while treating yourself to an uninterrupted Netflix marathon can certainly be a form of self-care, make sure you turn off the television in time to get some quality REM.

Get Back to the Basics

Self-care can be as simple as being present in the moment that you are currently in and finding something in that moment to appreciate. “I wake up every day, walk outside, breathe in some air, and I’m like, ‘OK, this is a good start,’” says Kelly McCown. McCown is the executive chef of The Kitchen, the first restaurant in the Sacramento region to be awarded a coveted Michelin star.

“Self-care is getting back to who you are,” says Jey. For him, that means spending time with his children and Great Danes. Ma agrees, quickly citing the joy she gets from spending time with her chihuahua-terrier pup: “My husband and I love our dog, Nika. She loves getting dressed up and celebrating holidays.” In fact, a study published last year that analyzed 10 studies and data from more than 10 million participants found that dog owners were more likely to live longer than those without dogs, with a 24 percent risk reduction for death from any cause. While it’s unclear whether the biggest benefit is in the longer and more frequent walks dog owners take, the companionship and purpose a pet gifts us, or something else, caring for a dog certainly pays dividends directly into our well-being.

Movement as Medicine

Maaskamp was in graduate school when she had to stop the program due to frequent autoimmune attacks. At the suggestion of her doctor, she began practicing yoga to restore her physical balance: The autoimmune disease affected her inner ear. Five months later, her sister underwent a bone marrow transplant that was unsuccessful, and a month later, she filed for divorce. “I was just trying to survive,” she explains. “But having a [self-care practice] that included yoga helped me from hitting even more of a rock bottom.” After exhausting various “30 days for $30” yoga specials around the city and trying some free yoga options that were ultimately inaccessible due to physical limitations from her autoimmune disease, she found a sanctuary at The Yoga Seed, which brings accessible trauma-informed yoga, mindfulness and holistic health programming to diverse communities. The organization provides a sliding scale of memberships based on ability to pay (with an option as low as $0). “I felt like I was granted a golden ticket. I feel like it’s totally counterintuitive [to use yoga as a stress-management tool] only to be made more stressed and anxious at the thought of not being able to afford groceries for your family,” says Maaskamp, who now teaches yoga.

A calming yoga practice isn’t the only path to wellness. Pushing yourself to your physical limits among like-minded athletes can also be immensely therapeutic and serve as a bonding experience. “When you’re feeling good about yourself physically, it’s easier to go about your day,” Jey says. An avid Crossfitter, he says he loves working out, and his box (Crossfit gyms are called boxes) companions have become his extended family.

Sticking to a simple routine before the day hits can also provide tremendous results for your mental and physical health. May has a daily workout regimen, alternating between 3-mile runs and weight training at 6 a.m. to help his mindset for what lies ahead. “I get ready for whatever’s coming [that day],” he explains.

Reaching Out

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. “Sometimes, you just have to get it out. I like to talk to my sisters and have them hear me—to have a safe space to talk about my thoughts and what’s going on with me,” says Aquino.

May agrees. “Mentally, [self-care] means not holding things in, and having people you can vent to occasionally, or talk about situations and problems with. It means not being ashamed or withdrawn.” He mentions the “traditional” upbringing that many men experience where they’re taught not to display emotions. “My dad always said ‘boys don’t cry,’” he recalls. “Not that I cry or want to cry often, but the message is, don’t tell people you’re being affected by situations. Over time, I’ve learned to let that go a little bit, and to not be ashamed of feeling things that bothered me. People also end up talking to me a lot about their issues and problems.”

For Maaskamp, placing a phone call or meeting in person (as opposed to texting) has been a conscious form of self-care. “As a single parent to three kids, when I’m in the throes of motherhood’s challenges, I often struggle with feeling like I don’t have enough support and end up feeling lonely because of it,” she says, noting that her instinct is to retreat inward and ride out the struggle on her own. “I realize that when I do [that], I’m not doing anything proactive to change my feelings of lack of support. I’m actually just further perpetuating the feeling.” When she chooses to reach out instead of shut down, she says, “I feel a sense of connection again, and don’t feel as lonely or overwhelmed. Of course, the circumstances in my life haven’t changed all that much, but my perspective and attitude have shifted.”

Quiet Reflection 

While looking outside of yourself is sometimes the answer, intentional quiet time can often be a welcome respite from the hustle of modern life. For McCown, an avid bicyclist and motorcycle enthusiast, self-care comes in the form of getting on two wheels. “[Riding my bike] allows me to blow off steam. It’s two or three hours a day where it’s just quiet and I don’t have to talk to anyone,” he explains. “I don’t ride with headphones and it allows me to think.” As for his motorcycle? “Setting up the next corner, the brake and the clutch, something about the combination is a very calming, meditative process,” McCown says. “But some people might find it terrifying.”

Setting Boundaries

Jey describes himself as an empathic person: “Anyone who knows me knows that I care with my whole heart,” he says, recounting painful memories of ill patients and struggling colleagues. He has had to work on not absorbing their problems too deeply, and striking a balance between being present for those who need him without shouldering their struggles as his own. “When you take on that burden, it can chew you up,” he explains. “And then you’re not going to be any good for the next person who needs you.”

“Setting boundaries is one of the most courageous acts we can do for ourselves,” Maaskamp says. “I’m naturally a people pleaser, and some of my biggest learnings have come from setting boundaries because it takes a tremendous amount of inner trust in myself to place my needs over someone else’s happiness.”

Giving Something Back

It sounds counterintuitive. After all, we all know the safety spiel we get before airplane takeoff about putting your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone else. But when we’re in the position to be able to, once we fill up our own cups, intentionally giving back in some way can be just as rewarding as receiving something, provide us with a sense of purpose and help foster a sense of community.

The idea of trying to give back to the entire world can seem impossible, but if we give what we can to those around us, we might soon find ourselves part of a group that helps to refill the communal cup. “Part of my self-care is nurturing other people to go into medicine,” says Jey, mentioning that he has been lucky to have had incredible mentors himself. “It makes me feel like I’m paying it forward . . . . It’s about the greater good.”

“I don’t have enough money to be a philanthropist, but I’m in a position where [I can impact] 60 people a night, my team and my immediate family. If I’m able to bring a little happiness, support, comfort or joy to that group of people every day, then I feel like I’ve done something good,” McCown says.

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