It is 5 am on a Saturday morning. My wife and two young children are resting peacefully. They are charging their batteries for a busy weekend filled with soccer practice, visiting the grandparents, diaper changes and everything else that comes with raising young children.
I could salvage a few extra hours of sleep, but the urge to get my day started is irresistible. My brain is a tyrant commanding me to work on my book or next op-ed. I obediently head to my office, turn on my laptop and start typing away.
I know I am not alone. My patients tell me stories with a similar theme. They share how self-care evokes feelings of guilt, restlessness and anxiety.
Self-care is self-explanatory. It is defined as paying adequate attention to one’s wellness.
A wide range of activities constitute self-care. For example, one may regularly exercise or go for walks to practice physical and mental self-care. Meditation and prayer are examples of spiritual self-care. Calling a loved one is an example of social self-care. Even taking a brief nap, listening to music or enjoying a nutritious meal constitutes self-care.
This sounds simple. So why is self-care so difficult to implement? Why do we need a $4 trillion industry to tell us how to exercise, eat, rest, sleep and live?
The reason is self-care is in direct conflict with our motivation to achieve.
The need to achieve is in our DNA. I see it in my 3-year-old daughter and my 1-year-old son. They are always eager to help me with tasks around the house. Every morning they both insist on helping me prepare my cup of coffee as I head out the door for work. Some mornings the dispute is so intense that my wife reluctantly agrees to a cup of coffee.
On the weekends, I have the honor of making them breakfast. It takes me three times as long to mix the pancake powder with water as they both insist on helping. I validate their efforts because it makes them feel good about themselves.
Adults are no different. We want to be praised for our efforts. We want to be recognized for our work performance, professional degrees or wealth accumulation. Achievement fulfills our need to be seen and heard.
This pattern is most evident on social media which is flooded with a wide range of achievements. You find images of families conveying prosperity as they pose in color-coordinated designer outfits. You read about someone’s work promotion or latest publication. You see images of luxurious homes with perfectly manicured lawns and white picket fences.
Social comparisons are inevitable. We use others as a measuring stick to determine our self-worth. Social media has hijacked this process as we compare our real, messy life to someone’s presentation of how perfect their life is. This triggers feelings of envy and shame. To compensate, there is no other option but join the race and strive to achieve more. Failing to keep up means only one thing — You Are Not Good Enough!
We become excessively busy to avoid feeling inadequate and inferior. We set our bar of expectations at unattainable and unsustainable levels. We strive to be wealthy, excel professionally, raise perfect children, maintain a clean house, keep a full social schedule and be pillars of our communities.
Yet, we neglect to recharge our batteries and wonder why we silently suffer with depression, anxiety and guilt.
The need to achieve and fulfill unrealistic expectations has mushroomed to the point that we have forgotten how to rest and relax. Have you ever felt guilty or restless on the rare occasion that you had nothing to accomplish but rest?
We have relinquished our inner peace in the pursuit of achievement. To reclaim our inner peace, we need to treat self-care with the same urgency as the rest of our responsibilities. This occurs by detaching one’s self-worth from the shackles of achievement.
Self-worth is an intrinsic part of our humanity. It is not tied to professional titles, wealth, a fancy house, a perfect family or anything else you have achieved. It also does not depend on how much you are praised for your achievements. You are worthy because you are human.
As a personal example, my father is a cook. My mother is a cashier at a grocery store. Even though money was tight growing up, my parents loved me dearly and encouraged me to pursue an education. With their love and support, I became a physician. From a professional standpoint, I may have achieved more than my parents. However, am I a more worthy human being than them? Of course not!
Stop worshiping at the altar of achievement. Accept your intrinsic self-worth. Give yourself permission to take a breather and make your self-care a priority.
This realization is a great achievement. It is one that I continue to work on.