Permission to Love Yourself, Too

You’ve likely read that self-care is something we’re supposed to do, and maybe you’ve even dabbled in it on occasion. But women particularly have a hard time committing to it. Here’s how women in recent research feel about self-care and some tips to help you create your own personalized plan.

You’ve likely read time and again that self-care is something we’re supposed to do, and maybe you’ve even dabbled in it on occasion. But women particularly have a hard time committing to it.

If self-care is so good for us, why can it sometimes feel uncomfortable making time for it? Here are some ideas the women in my doctoral research shared when I asked them about self-care and some tips to help you create your own personalized plan.

What is self-care, anyway?

There might be as many different definitions of self-care as there are people. It’s also a relatively new term, which may help to explain why some women are reluctant to embrace the idea.

The concept was developed in nursing by Dorothy Orem, who first published about her theory in academic journals in the 1970s. Orem’s initial version focused on patients who had to self-manage their health after an accident or the diagnosis of an illness. Behaviours included taking prescription medicines and altering their diets.

In many diverse disciplines, such as psychology and social work (as well as in popular media), the understanding of what constitutes self-care has evolved to include all activities that support the holistic concept of well-being, including the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual aspects of a person.

Yet, there is resistance

While the idea of being intentional about our well-being is good in theory, it’s not particularly easy for women to do because of how we were raised. In comparison to men, for example, research shows that despite all the social identities we have, women more often use relationship labels such as mother, daughter, and wife to describe themselves. These are considered gender roles, which refer to the social expectations associated with each sex.

For women, gender roles prescribe that we not only put others’ needs ahead of our own but also look good doing it. In this social environment, it’s no wonder that a woman might feel selfish if she takes time away from family or other responsibilities to do something that serves no one but herself. As evidence of the power of gender roles, 2014 research found that women who were diagnosed with breast cancer continued to prioritize mothering over their own self-care. In colloquial terms, that’s messed up!

Women don’t like the term

Some women have strong negative reactions to the term “self-care” itself, which may also get in the way of embracing it. For some, self-care refers to indulgences in which women are encouraged to spend time and money on beauty treatments—and of course capture it all on Instagram as evidence.

In other words, self-care has become another way to promote gender roles, particularly in reference to our responsibility to look good. One study participant pointed out that entire industries “are designed to cut women down and to make us not love ourselves.” In her opinion, this version of self-care can work against a woman’s holistic well-being.

Still other women wonder if the pressure to engage in self-care simply adds more to a woman’s already full plate. As evidence, several women who actively engage in self-care have commented that they need it so they are able to give more to others. While it’s true that “you can’t pour from an empty vessel,” the idea of taking care of ourselves simply so we can better take care of others certainly underlines the expectations placed on women.

On the other hand, women in my research are questioning the message that their needs are less important than those of others. Rather than looking outward for answers, women are beginning to let their own bodies tell them what they need in terms of foods, exercise, rest, social activities, alone time, and fun. And while there might be a general perception of self-care as a health-promoting activity, that’s not necessarily how women might experience it.

Self-care in expected places

Instead, most of the women in my research tell me about how they want to feel as a result of their self-care: free, calm, present, strong, energized, and healthy. How they get to that feeling is as individual as they are.

Of course, many women try to eat well and get some exercise, but the women also talk about activities I didn’t expect, such as practising guitar, participating in religious services, watching the sun come up, reading, taking a nap, or even cleaning their house as the vehicle that gets them to their feeling goal. These women are also finding the courage to be intentional about creating boundaries to protect their own needs. And, yes, that even includes enjoying time at the salon if that’s what gives them joy.

Permission granted

Some women have shared that they were led to their self-care practice by another woman who gave them permission to leave the dishes in the sink and go for a walk after supper, or to stop feeling she “wasn’t supposed to” enjoy her alone time when her children spent weekends with their father. Getting the go-ahead from a woman they trusted helped them to break free from social expectations so they could feel how they wanted to feel.

The idea of women providing this type of support for other women is incredibly powerful. Although, as a fully grown adult woman, you don’t need anyone’s permission to do things for yourself, I’m ready to step up for you now if it helps: you have permission to create the feelings you want in your life and to do the things that will get you there. We want this for our children, we want this for our partners, and we deserve it for ourselves.

Starting your self-care practice

Carve out some quiet time, pour yourself a cup of comfort, and grab a pen and a notepad.

Answer the following questions:

  • How do I want to feel?
  • What helps me feel this way (for example, activities, space, relationships, etc.)?
  • What gets in the way?
  • What non-negotiable commitment can I make to support my well-being?
  • What support do I need to make this happen?

Next step: put it into practice!

A version of this article was published in the January 2020 issue of alive Canada with the title “Permission to Love Yourself, Too.”

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