Self‑Care, the Secret to Repairing Self‑Esteem
Over the last ten years, as a clinical psychologist working with women, I have had the opportunity to hear deeply personal stories shared by clients across age groups. And I always ask them a question that may seem simple on the surface: “Have you been taking care of yourself?”
The answer is always no.
One of my clients – middle-aged, with children in their early teens – reached out to seek counselling for her son, who was facing a difficult time in school. In one of his sessions, however, she burst into tears, admitting that in last 15 years, she had forgotten who she was. Immediately, she wiped her tears and said, “It’s so selfish of me to eat into my son’s therapy session. I can manage.”
Since then, I have been wondering if – in the pursuit of fulfilling various roles such as daughter, wife, mother, professional – women lose their personal sense of self and forget that they need to care for themselves as well as others. ‘Self care’ is an important skill that’s a part of our emotional hygiene; it means investing in one’s physical and psychological needs. Our wellbeing is very deeply tied to how much we take care ourselves. It’s not selfish; it’s self-preservation.
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The first step, however, is to recognise that these needs exist. Taking care of one’s physical health through exercise, eating right, and sleeping well fulfills basic human needs. Research shows that every time we exercise or go for a walk, our body secretes endorphins—happy hormones that lift our mood. Eating right keeps us mentally and physically up to juggling all the different pieces of our lives. And acknowledging when your body feels tired and giving it appropriate rest will enable you to function better in all your different roles.
Mike Tyrrell, co-author of the book Self Confidence Trainer, says research clearly indicates that individuals with genuinely low self-esteem treat themselves, not other people, badly. Maybe this is the root of a problem that makes many middle-age women look back at their lives in regret. There’s a constant compulsion to sacrifice one’s own basic needs for the sake of the family, which overtakes the ‘self’ in self-esteem.
But this can be balanced through self-compassion. We all need self-compassion, points out Kristin Neff, a professor of human development at the University of Texas. She defines this concept as including self-kindness, a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness. In her research, she has found that people who are compassionate to their own self are more happy, resilient, and less anxious or depressed. The only way to deal with guilt and inner critique is to substitute it with kindness and empathy toward yourself.
Outside support is also critical to our wellbeing. There is plenty of evidence and research that ties social support in the form of close friends to a boost in self-esteem. However, most women often feel that in the midst of multitasking, they lose out on friendships. Women need to keep some time aside for themselves, when they can connect with close friends and feel good.
During therapy sessions, I ask women to tell me about hobbies or activities they used to enjoy, but have since stopped. Often, connecting back to these forgotten interests marks the beginning of connecting within. In the often-repeated wisdom of airline flight attendants—you need to put on your own oxygen mask first in a moment of crisis, before helping another. If we can’t care for ourselves, how can we possibly care for others?
great article Sonali 🙂
Thanks Nabomita. Much appreciated.
An important message for every woman, especially before marriage and vital for that prototypical obedient daughter who may have imbibed a lot (overdose?) of sociocultural messages and aphorisms glorifying the role of mother + homemaker + “supporter of husband”. Rarely do boys get advised on growing into a role of “supporter of wife”. Even if a man thinks about “supporting the family” or “providing for family” the connotation is one of earning money (perhaps through long hours outside the home, away from family) to satisfy basic needs and material desires.
And the narratives in the minds of women are filled with the concept of sacrifice, service, taking care of others. This is such a big problem because the point in your last line of your post is missed out–taking care of oneself is the foundation on which taking care of others rests.
The following is wild, offhand speculation so please excuse sloppy articulation or inadequate analysis (counterpoints welcome): older generations of largely homemakers were part of a social support circle (even if you think of a gossiping aunty group) that gave an outlet for shared woes, general letting off of steam and commiseration etc. Maybe it acted as a coping mechanism for many. Plus their acceptance of the inequality in society at various levels.
On the other hand, the current generation working woman living in big cities faces multiple challenges: (a) the stress of perceiving the unacceptable imbalances in gender role expectations and opportunities (b) no comparable community of support – neither the time nor the familiarity to be able to count on neighbours for any solace (c) the inherent double load of being a working woman with competitive pressure at work and evolving but not yet evolved expectations at home.
I believe the language in which we discuss and debate these issues need to become more sophisticated. “Tradeoffs” instead of “sacrifices” seem more respectful of individual choices (of course, subject to such choices being given to and made by women). Regressive TV serials, movies and ads in every one of our dozens of languages need to be countered with more enlightened ones.
Thanks for the positive feedback. I appreciate it and yes the cultural , societal context does create concerns.
A much-needed message, Sonali. Thanks for putting it out there. Women are unnecessarily conditioned to believe that caring for ourselves is a selfish act. Another unfortunate outcome of this is that many who start out as obsessive carers of others sadly end up as very annoying martyrs , as in “..after all I do/sacrifice for them …”
That’s so true Marga. It can be an impediment to personal growth if women feel they have sacrificed and can lead to sadness, anger and resentment.
An important point. But so easy to forget. I think while in some it may manifest itself in giving up on oneself, in others it could take the form of outlining your own self a little too sharply as different from that of your role as a mom. Either way it is about balance, one that’s so hard to figure out.
Increasingly with my friends I find that sacrifice and guilt are now a smaller part, but the feminist movement had made them (and me) push ourselves in the other direction, albeit a bit too far.
Thanks Sonal . Yes I totally agree with you. I think it’s all about balance, so beautifully put! yes, sacrifice and guilt can trigger deep negative feelings that can lead to discontent.
Your insights made me realise that I do not take care of myself as well as I do for rest of the world. I was perhaps in denail about the fact, that I lack confidence in my own self. Having awareness itself is great way to set the right tone. Thank you so much Ms. Sonali Gupta. You are a blessing in disguise.