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?