During a session in one of the wellness groups I run, I spoke to the group about the importance of self-care. One woman raised her hand and said that she feels guilty when doing any kind of self-care. A number of women, most of whom are mothers, echoed her sentiments. They said that they have so many obligations to others that taking care of their own needs feels unusual and sometimes wrong.
I think many women out there, especially mothers, feel the same.
I hear you.
Let’s get to the bottom of this.
Is self-care wrong? Consider this:
1 – Your body was designed for self-care. It didn’t come with a limited store of energy; it requires sleep, food and motion to constantly restore energy and grow. In other words, it demands self-care, or it’ll die.
2 – If you want to continue helping others, you must help yourself first. You may be able to help others endlessly in the short term, but you’ll eventually burn out.
3 – Self-care is an Islamic principle. The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, taught us about the function of self-care. Here is a translated conversation between him and his Companion: Muhammad said, “(Is it true) that you fast all day and stand in prayer all night?” The companion replied that the report was indeed true. The Prophet then said: “Do not do that! Observe the fast sometimes and also leave (it) at other times. Stand up for prayer at night and also sleep at night. Your body has a right over you, your eyes have a right over you and your wife has a right over you.” – Sahih Al-Bukhari
The Prophet Muhammad wanted us to be considerate of our needs and attend to them. To him, this was an ethical matter: the bodies that God gave us (as well as relationships – a topic for another time) have a right to be cared for.
The Prophet and his Companions demonstrated this principle in the following ways:
- They practiced regular physical exercise (through walking, training, sports and games).
- They ate moderately and healthily (what we like to call “local” and “organic” food).
- They were encouraged (as above) to sleep reasonable hours.
- They fasted regularly.
- They stayed physically fit
- They practiced retreat, meditation, and prayer
- They engaged in ritual prayers involving movements, concentration and discipline that were very healthy for them.
- They abstained from smoking, drinking and drugs.
So, when we know all this, why the guilt?
There are several possible reasons. Here are a few to consider. I’ve started with the more rudimentary reasons, and continued to the deeper ones.
1 – You’ve fallen into a pattern of care that excludes yourself. Through pregnancy, labour, childbirth, child-rearing (often in multiples), or care-giving for others, you’ve enrolled in an endless course of attending to others’ needs, and this has become the norm in your life. When you deviate from it, it feels like something is wrong, and that turns into guilt.
The solution: Start training your brain to believe that self-care is normal and acceptable. Here’s how: start off with small acts of self-care, like 5 minutes more of sleep or treating yourself to 5 minutes with your favourite hot drink. When you get this down, add other small acts. You’ll feel uncomfortable (like stomach-churning, head-spinning discomfort), but tell yourself “it’s allowed.” Every time you feel guilty, repeat “it’s allowed” to yourself. If you do this consistently over several weeks, the stomach churning will go away.
2 – You’re trying to live up to other people’s expectations. You want to be like the moms who seem to have it together and women around you who are advancing in their careers. On top of that, you may have family members commenting on how you raise your children or attend to your spouse. You want to meet their standards and prove that you can do it. Meanwhile, you’re burning out behind closed doors and hating yourself for it.
The solution: No matter what standard or expectation you’re trying to meet (whether they’re informed by others or your own preferences), if you aren’t healthy, you won’t be there to meet any standards within a few years. If you want to meet your standards, you need to be strong.
3 – You’re following a do-it-all model. You’ve seen a mentor, role model, caregiver (parent, grandparent) or community activist attempt to do it all. You’ve come to believe that that’s the only acceptable way to be and anything else is less than human.
The solution: Get real. Those models burn out too.
4 – You don’t truly value yourself/you feel unworthy. If I took away the expectations and standards that you strive to adhere to, you may find that left alone, you wouldn’t take care of yourself no matter how much time or resources you had. Deep down, you feel fundamentally unworthy of self-care and attention.
Solution: Ask yourself, “If I was left alone on a desert island and had endless resources at my disposal, would I live a balanced, healthy lifestyle with exercise, healthy foods, and regular sleep? Or would I let go of these things?” If you’d let go, perhaps you need to look closely at how much you truly value the body, mind and soul that you have. Struck by realizations? Consider engaging in self-esteem work with a coach or counsellor.
5 – You’ve come to believe (whether consciously or not) that self-neglect is an integral part of living a life of service and sacrifice. You may have fallen into this belief after constantly putting aside your needs in order to be at the service of others, such that you can’t see it any other way.
Solution: Challenge your thinking. Understand that service is a part of Islam, but serving yourself is also essential, and more critical, than serving others. As we’ve established, self-care is a religious obligation. It’s essential to living a life of service. And if you don’t take care of your needs, you might end up with spiritual, emotional and mental issues that impact those you’re serving.
Which of these challenges applies to you (if any)? What little things can you alter in your life to bring a bit of self-care into it? It’ll be a challenge and you’ll feel quite uncomfortable at first, but you’ll get the hang of it, and in turn, you’ll be much stronger, God.
Asma Maryam Ali is a certified therapist, educator and the founder and Director of Concentric Care Wellness Services. Asma has counselled individuals, couples and families through mental health and relationship issues since 2012. She also focuses on holistic wellness and runs wellness programs and retreats. She holds a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Education, Master of Arts in Education, and Master of Arts in Psychology. Check out her work at www.concentriccare.com.