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How to ditch the guilt of putting yourself first

I made a single resolution this year: get to yoga as often as possible. I frequent the studio near my house and spend a whole hour involved in my practice. It is one the trickiest resolutions that I have ever made, not because I hate going, but because I love it.

The fact that I want to go makes me feel selfish and guilty for taking so much “me time.” This is hardly the first time I’ve felt this way. Often when I meditate or take any sort of time for myself, I also wrestle with feelings of guilt. I could be spending time with my kids. I could be cleaning the bathrooms. I could be working and earning more money. Even though I know self-care is important, it's challenging to quiet the chatter in my mind that says I'm doing something wrong by putting myself first.

“Society makes us feel like when we have downtime, we should be spending it on work, creating more work, or helping someone with their work,” says Jaime Kulaga, Ph.D. and licensed mental health counselor. “Going to the gym, meditating, or taking time to create fun and happy moments isn't on that list, so we get sucked into feeling guilty from the pressures society puts on us.” Kulaga notes that our focus can be easily misdirected on “how to be busy” rather than actual productivity, so instead of indulging in free time, we tackle the next item on our endless to-do list. I’m certainly no exception to this rule. When I consider sitting down to read a book, the next thought in my mind is always what else I could be doing. I complete the drudgework on my to-do list and then actively look for the next thing to do; enjoying the stillness, and taking the time to enjoy a job well done is a habit I’d much prefer to cultivate and stick to.

Beyond the constant craving to feel productive, I also struggle with frequent impulses to serve others—I should devote more time to my husband, my kids, my family, my friends. Engaging in activities that only benefit me feels selfish, even when I know it helps me come back to the people I love with more to give. Cara Maksimow, a licensed clinical social worker and owner of Maximize Wellness Counseling says that connecting the term self-care with selfish can be a stumbling block for many. “Being selfish implies that we are doing things that make us happier or better at the expense of others and that is not at all the case. The belief that if we take care of ourselves we are not taking care of others is false because if we are not healthy and happy our ability to care for others is diminished.”

I know I can better care for my family if I take time each day to find some stillness and perspective. I feel calmer, happier,  and far less stressed. If anything, I should feel guilty when I don’t take time to prioritize myself, because it affects how well I can then care for others. In order to put myself first more often, it’s crucial to quiet that nagging voice in my head and keep perspective of what really matters. I can change the script and the routines. “Remember that self-care and care for others are not mutually exclusive and that you can and deserve to be happy and healthy, just like everyone else,” says Maksimow. “Our ability to take care of others, take care of our home, succeed at work and all the other things that are important to us are more achievable when we take care of ourselves.”

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If anything, I should feel guilty when I don’t take time to prioritize myself, because it affects how well I can then care for others.

Gemma Hartley

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