Health Coach Stories is a series on the blog where coaches candidly share their personal experiences and struggles with leading a healthy lifestyle. We’re back this month to share Gina’s story about how she learned to take proper care of herself after years of misguided attempts. Though it can be a long, difficult, and messy journey, the benefits are truly worth the effort.
I think we can all agree that self-care is a good thing. But sometimes, it’s challenging to know how to take care of ourselves when self-care hasn’t been properly modeled for us. It was certainly the case for me and though I’ve always cared about health and well-being, the truth is that I’ve not always taken the best care of myself.
Growing up, I didn’t have a good sense for what self-care meant. Though my parents did the very best with what they had and were loving, big-hearted people, they weren’t the best role models for self-care. My dad was an alcoholic, albeit a gentle one, and smoked cigarettes like a chimney until he couldn’t anymore (he passed away at the early age of 66). Though he worked every day of his life and was “functional,” he was preoccupied with his addictions, which kept him from being fully present in his life and with his loved ones. My mom was often stressed and seemed to hold a lot of resentment and anger inside as she battled both depression and weight issues. After my parents divorced when I was 10, she raised my sister and I by herself while working up to three jobs at times. She would work all week and then spend the weekend doing chores without taking a break. She rarely asked for help and never stopped to reflect on her own needs.
I remember asking my mom one day when I was young, “Mom, don’t you want to be happy?” And I will never forget her response. She said to me sadly, “Gina, I just don’t think I was meant to be happy.” It was a pivotal moment for me and though I wasn’t quite able to fully understand and process it at the time, I can say now that it was a catalyst for my becoming a coach. Seeing my mom and hearing her response made me realize that there was nothing more tragic than giving up on yourself and I was determined I would never resign myself to a life of unhappiness.
But what IS self-care, anyway? Through my own journey, I’ve come to understand that beyond the obvious stuff of having your basic needs met, taking good care of yourself is highly personal and situational. It requires personal responsibility to not let ourselves take a backseat to other people and outside commitments. Of course, that’s easier said than done and when society tends to reward self-sacrifice and overachievement (even at the expense of our health and well-being), it’s no wonder that self-care can be so difficult for many of us.
So how can we start taking better care of ourselves? In my experience, the first step I found to be most helpful was to really get to know myself. I thought about what I really wanted, what was really important to me, and who I wanted to be. I started taking classes based on my interests and curiosities. I stopped listening to messages that told me I needed to look or be a certain way. I figured out, through lots of trial and error, what I liked and didn’t like. I took the time to look at my relationships with food, people, money, and work. I dove into a process of self-discovery and exploration, which resulted in a better understanding of who I really am. By giving myself that kind of undivided attention, I was receiving the kind of care that we all deserve.
Of course, this process didn’t happen overnight and it’s difficult because we all have our blind spots. There are aspects of us that we sometimes can’t see until someone else points it out. I learned a lot about myself from working with therapists and coaches, which was vastly helpful because they are objectively committed to helping you figure out what you want for yourself. Reading books and attending workshops and retreats were other sources of help that allowed me to become more self-aware.
In the past, I confused self-care with self-indulgence. If I had a bad day or worked too many hours without a break, I thought that eating chocolate, drinking some wine, getting a massage, or buying new clothes was what I needed. And sometimes, that IS the thing I need– to give myself a treat or a reward. But I’ve learned that often what truly serves me does not always feel good. It’s not always fun. It might actually involve doing the thing I really don’t want to do in the moment. But I do it anyway because I know that this will ultimately benefit me in the long run. It’s exercising even when I’m tired because I know if I miss a few days in a row, I will fall out of my routine. It’s giving up some of my coping mechanisms because they aren’t working anymore (like eating to quell unpleasant emotions). It’s saying “no” to a request from a friend because I have enough on my plate.
In short, self-care is a dynamic process. It’s one that we learn how to manage over time and get better at with practice. For me, my definition of self-care is doing what truly serves me, in the moment, from a place of love. When I give myself what I truly need and make it a priority, I can then face all my other responsibilities and people in my life with more enthusiasm, presence, and commitment. I am my first priority in life because taking care of myself is my job and no one else’s. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about others or that I don’t give (I give a lot). But, as they say, we can’t really give what we don’t have. And I truly believe that when we take good care of ourselves, it is one of the greatest gifts we can give to others. Life is a team sport and we are mirrors for each other. Together, we can help each other learn and grow to become better versions of ourselves.