“Sigh…” I thought as I surveyed half a dozen used coffee cups at Betty’s Diner on a winter morning in 1976. As the dishwasher, it wasn’t my job to clean the tables, but the waitresses were hunched over their coffee and cigarettes at the counter, and it was only a matter of time before another flush of truckers pulled in for breakfast. I was only 22, hardly old enough to boss the help around so I didn’t say anything. I bussed the tables and slid a rack of cups into the washer. It seemed like I’d been doing other people’s work all my life.
If you’re reading this post, you may have already embraced the concept of self-care. Perhaps you’ve always known it. Perhaps you were born knowing how to take care of yourself. You didn’t need the flight attendant telling you to “secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.” Perhaps your tendency for self-preservation came with your first breath; a survival instinct as automatic as your heartbeat.
Not me. Caring for my own needs did not come natural. The first time I heard the term “Self-care” I snorted and thought to myself, “I’m not sick! I’m not an invalid that needs to be ‘taken care of’.” Self-care – it sounded so…Selfish. In my hubris I thought, “I’m the care-TAKER; I don’t need taken care OF!”
It took a long time for me to realize that not everyone is wired like me. I assumed others saw the same un-done tasks as I did, and couldn’t understand why they didn’t feel an urgency to get them done. My inner voice had an under-current of resentment as I took care of things that no one else wanted to do. It wasn’t until reaching my fifties that it slowly dawned on me that I was an overachiever.
Even more startling, I realized that I didn’t need to bend over backwards to earn my keep. Much of the work I had burdened myself with was driven by an undue sense of duty and responsibility. My expectations of myself were much higher than what others expected of me. I began hearing my resentment for what it was – a gentle nudge to throttle down. I now pause to reassess my actions whenever my inner dialogue begins with “I’ve love to do this but I can’t because I have to…”
It doesn’t matter where my sense of responsibility comes from (being an oldest daughter with six little brothers) or how long it has been in play, or how much I imagine others depend on me. Every time I step in to solve someone else’s problem or clean up a mess they left, my irritation tells me I am on the wrong path.
I’m learning to walk the line between contributing and enabling. And I find that others happily step up to the plate when given that opportunity. Since removing my barriers to self-care, I’m getting good at asking others to pitch in, and at staying my tongue before saying “yes” or offering to solve someone else’s problem.
Although I worried about becoming lazy and selfish or about getting kicked to the curb for not pulling my own weight, this has not happened. In fact, I’m still getting just as much done. The changes I’ve made are transparent, no one has accused me of being an underachiever, and I’ve never felt happier or more relaxed!