Self-care Is Not Selfish

Patient Expert

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Self-care is an important strategy for everyone. If you live with a chronic illness please don't negate, or neglect this vital part of your treatment plan. Self-care can help propel you to better emotional, mental, and physical health. At the very least, it can help you maintain the quality of health you currently have. That's not a bad thing. Far too often, the road of chronic illness is riddled with potholes, which can cause serious breakdowns.

What is self-care and why practice it?

Here is the World Health Organization's 1998 definition:

“Self-Care is what people do for themselves to establish and maintain health, and to prevent and deal with illness. It is a broad concept encompassing hygiene (general and personal), nutrition (type and quality of food eaten), lifestyle (sporting activities, leisure, etc.), environmental factors (living conditions, social habits, etc.), socio-economic factors (income level, cultural beliefs, etc.), and self-medication.”

Do you feel selfish when you practice self-care? I could tell you to stop it, but that's not enough, especially if you've held this as a lifelong belief. Rather than slapping a negative adjective, such as “selfish” on self-care, leave off the judging word. Just make it something you do. Period. Thoughts that you think over and over again become beliefs. Make self-care a new belief.

Self-care is one of the least selfish things you can do, especially when you take the long view. When you practice self-care, you not only function better, but you also feel better. This ripples outward, anointing the people and things in your life with your given best.

If self-care seems like a foreign word to you, create your own definition. Instead substitute the word “generous” for self-care. During the 17th century, generosity was identified as a nobility of spirit, which was thought to be associated with people from noble lines, who were presumed to possess traits such as courage, fairness, gallantry, gentleness, and strength. If you live with a chronic condition, you probably possess many of those traits already. Currently, the Science of Generosity defines it as the virtue of giving good things to others freely and abundantly. Be generous with yourself.

I hope to convince you to regularly implement self-care techniques by releasing negative feelings, such as guilt and selfishness. Immersing yourself in those negative feelings also contributes to stress — something you don't need, considering its connection to the inflammatory response.

Elements of a self-care practice

  • T.O.T.O.M. I could say, “Da plane, da plane,” if you're old enough to remember the TV show “Fantasy Island.” If not, think T.O.T.O.M. – Theory of the Oxygen Mask. Prior to an airplane’s take-off, there's a reason the flight attendant tells you to put on your oxygen mask before you deal with the masks of those under your care. When you practice self-care, you not only model good behavior for your children, but you also cultivate your own wellbeing so that you can effectively look after the people and things in your life.
  • 2-4-6-8! Who (what) do we appreciate? This exercise, done over time, can change your half-empty glass to one that is filled with effervescent bubbles of optimism. Find out more in this article: “Optimistic people have healthier hearts, study finds.”
  • Be selective about who you tell. When you make a behavior change, keep it close to your heart. Only tell those you can trust. It's hard enough to make the change without the voice of the naysayer.
  • Your life depends upon it. I recently heard a woman complain,“I wish I could get paid to exercise.” Her partner worked in emergency services, and because of the dangerous nature of his work, his job description included regular fitness sessions, so, in essence, he does get paid to exercise. But even if we don’t, our wellbeing still depends on us being as healthy as possible.
  • Know your “window.” When you live with a chronic illness, you have a threshold of “too much.” It might mean too much work, too much activity, too much stress. Cross the threshold and you feel exhausted, have a flare-up — emotionally or physically — or get sick.
  • Never mind “Fill the bus!” Instead, fill your toolbox with a number of different self-care strategies. Your brain may get bored with the same old ones. It’s good to experience something new, even though you may have your favorites. Keep in mind that your self-care may be different from mine.
  • The value of yes and no. This is pretty much self-explanatory, but you might try this little experiment: Say “yes” to the things you usually say “no” to, and vice versa.
  • Schedule it. If you're new to self-care, put it on your calendar. I find, regardless of what task I want to do, if I write it down the night before, I usually accomplish it the next day.

For those who regularly practice self-care, you may wonder if you could overdo it. Maybe. If your quest for self-care becomes an obsession, where the quest is more important than the actual practice, you might be overdoing it. Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us to have moderation in all things. Or as my mom once said to me when I asked why we couldn't have her special dessert every Sunday: “Because then it wouldn't be special, would it?”

Don't wait until International Self-Care Day on July 24, a day selected for its 24/7, or round-the-clock symbolism. The International Self-Care Foundation was formed to promote self-care around the world. See how you're doing with their 7 Pillars of Self-Care.

To get started, ditch the perfectionism and self-flagellation. In other words, be as kind to yourself as you are to those you care about. Be generous about self-care!!


Marianna Paulson is known as Auntie Stress. On her website, you'll find links to her two blogs, Auntie Stress Cafe and the award-winning, A Rheumful of Tips. When she is not helping clients (and herself) address stress, she keeps active by swimming, dog walking and taking frequent dance breaks when she is working on her computer.