Women’s Complicated Relationship With Self-Care Versus Other-Care

I am really loving the heavy focus we are putting on self-care these days. Particularly when it comes to women. For too long, society has told us that it is our job—in fact, it is the very essence of our nature—to care for everyone but ourselves. That training has done significant damage to our ability to think of, and care for, ourselves.

So deeply do I care about this issue that I’ve written a book about it, which is scheduled to be released later this year. It’s called Self-Care Potato Chips: How to Choose Nourishing Self-Care in an Empty Calorie Culture (title may change as it undergoes the editorial process). The book examines how women navigate the journey of choosing self-care in a world that prefers its women submissive and exhausted.

As I do my own work of self-care, my feelings about it evolve. I discover new things about just how difficult and complicated it is for women to decide to take care of ourselves.

The “Inborn” Nature of Caring for Others

I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t being told of my inherent desire to take care of others. My inborn, feminine gift of compassionate nurturing was something I was supposed to prize. My parents did everything they could to counter this training I received from the world. They always instilled in me the belief that I am worthy of caring about myself, even putting myself first (crazy thought, right?). But the world’s domestication is persistent, and it made its way into my budding self-image nonetheless.

Women are told that we were born with the desire to serve and care for others. If we happen to be raised in religious households, we are told that this nature was endowed upon us by God himself—that it is His will that we submit, serve, and obey. When we demonstrate traits that are not in line with this God-ordained nature, we are called selfish, wayward, and self-absorbed. If we’re lucky, like I was, we have parents at home who try to offset this corrosive indoctrination. But for many women, that training is just as enforced inside our homes as it is outside of them. For a lot of us, the only promise of being cared for at all is if we land a husband. And if we’re lucky (and definitely submissive and obedient enough), our husbands will care and provide for us. Just make sure his stomach is full, and his balls are empty, and we can hope to be taken care of.

What is Nature, and What is Nurture?

I want to undo this training I received. I’ve spent a lot of time in therapy, in fact, doing that very work. And I’m making progress. But something that continues to trip me up is that I do have a strong desire to take care of the people I love. I derive great satisfaction and personal joy from caring for others. As I work to yank out the threads of indoctrination regarding my “inborn nature” to care for others, I find myself wondering: which of this is brainwashing that was forced on me from childhood, and which of it is from my actual nature?

Divesting of this training that tells me I have to put everyone’s needs ahead of my own (and enjoy doing it!) is actually quite complicated. How do I do that without stripping myself of my own inherent desire to care for others? The desire that has nothing to do with my nature as a woman but, instead, comes from my personal and unique characteristics as a human being? How do I tell the difference? When I feel the urge to put someone else over myself—to care for them as the expense of myself, even—is it coming from my genuine sense of love and altruism? Or is it coming from an indoctrinated sense of obligation?

The Self-Care Identity Crisis

These questions threaten to send me into a crisis of my identity. Who am I at my core? Am I fundamentally a good and nurturing person? Or was I chiseled into this person with the scalpels of patriarchy, sexism, and religious dogma? And when I feel resentment toward all the care-taking responsibilities I have, is it the caretaking I resent or the pressure to constantly enjoy and appreciate it that I resent? Would I feel differently about taking care of the people I love if it didn’t feel like an expectation that was put on me entirely because of my gender?

How many of these feelings are actually my own, and how many were woven into me by a society that wants to subvert women’s joy and ease?

The Only Answer is Balance

I may never know the answers to some of these questions. It’s possible that I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to untangle my feelings about self-care and care for others from the indoctrination that was put on me—that is put on all little girls who become women. What I do know is this: my relationship with caring for myself and caring for others will probably always be complicated.

I am working hard to rid myself of the guilt that creeps in when I do things strictly for myself. I choke down the urge to feel ashamed, to think that I am somehow betraying my nature or my loved ones by putting my needs first.

I’m learning that I am actually better at taking care of the people I love when I am taking good care of myself. That helps to ease the bitter feelings of guilt and blame when I tell the people I love that what they need from me will have to wait, or that they’ll have to do it themselves.

I’m coming to understand that the more I invest in real self-care, the better I am at understanding myself. I am more able to tease out the indoctrination from my actual nature. I come to understand myself better, and the world around me, too.

I’m becoming bold in giving a proud middle finger to any ideology that depicts any gender as being “inherently” anything. We are human—all possessing in our nature the ability to be altruistic and selfish, compassionate and callous, kind and cruel. I am no more inclined to be submissive and nurturing because I am a woman than a man is to be domineering and aggressive because he is a man. These are silly ideas that patriarchy has invented to benefit men at the expense of women.

It is loving to take care of others. It is loving to take care of ourselves. And all of us, regardless of our gender, have the inherent right and obligation to do both.

It’s as simple and as complicated as that.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

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