It’s no secret to the people who know me best that I have a terrible track record with self-care.
As I’ve written before, at sixteen I started struggling with an eating disorder. In a little more than a year my weight loss efforts bloomed into a full-blown, life-threatening problem.
It was my misguided attempt at trying to take care of myself and protect my heart from the problems that were actually bothering me.
I didn’t know how to take care of myself. And it didn’t just affect me, it affected everyone who loved me. Because I was constantly abusing myself physically, I was always on edge. I would lash out at loved ones and make my family and friends feel like they had to walk on eggshells around me. I was getting in constant arguments with my mom, and I was defensive if anyone tried to challenge my disordered habits.
Disordered thoughts filled my mind constantly, distracting me from everything and everyone else. I beat myself down for how “fat” I looked. If I ate something I thought I shouldn’t have, I would dwell on it incessantly, trying to figure out a way to compensate for my mistake.
I was basically mentally and physically abusing myself every day. It was only through a lot of counseling and endless support from the people who love me that I started to see that I was deserving of love and worthy of being taken care of.
My counselor helped me understand the importance of self-care. Self-care is evaluating where you are at any given moment—emotionally, physically, and spiritually—then accepting where you’re at and taking healthy steps to address your needs accordingly. Self-care means that I have permission to take care of me. That I don’t have to earn love by being a certain size or looking a certain way.
So I started learning how to truly take care of myself.
First, obviously, I had to learn to feed my body properly. Over the course of many months I learned to answer my body’s need for food when I was hungry. Instead of obsessing over everything I put into my mouth, I started trying to have a more balanced approach to food. Some days self-care looks like a perfectly planned out, healthy diet. And other days it’s getting the biggest Frappuccino at Starbucks and not caring how many calories are in it.
Not freaking out about food all the time has freed up mental energy for me to focus on the things in my life that actually matter. It’s allowed me to love others better and to be more present when I’m spending time with people I care about. Now if I get lunch with a friend, I focus on the conversation and what they are saying, instead of only half-listening because I’m adding up my meal’s calories in my head. Eating again also put a halt to many of the arguments I had been having with my family. I found it much easier to be kind and loving toward them when I wasn’t irritable and angry from exhaustion and starvation.
Another way I’ve implemented self-care is learning how to say no. In the past, if I wasn’t worrying about food, chances are I was focused on my to-do-list or trying to juggle all my friendships and spend time with everyone. These things aren’t bad; I just wasn’t carving out any time to slow down, take care of myself, and recharge.
So instead of saying yes to any plans that came my way, I’ve started seriously asking whether or not I really wanted to go—whether I am inclined to say yes out of obligation or because I genuinely wanted to. If I feel obligated, I kindly decline. Because sometimes my soul just needs an evening of scrap booking, Lifetime movies, and a glass of wine. And I’ve learned that the world doesn’t end when I say no. My friends don’t hate me and gladly take me back the following day when I feel like being around people again.
When I take the time to nourish my soul and body, I’m recharged and better able to love myself and others. I don’t mentally beat myself down every day when I’m making conscious decisions to prioritize all aspects of my health. And I have the mental capacity to focus on other’s needs and to actively listen and physically be there for them if they need me.
Learning self-care ultimately wasn’t just about me. I had to learn to love myself before I could really love my family and friends. Make the effort to truly take care of yourself—it’s not just about you, it’s about everyone in your life.