Learning Self-Care: Recovering from the Unrealistic Expectations of Organized Religion

Only recently have I been learning more intentionally about self-care, and more clearly acknowledging its importance for me and others. When our wells are dry, we have nothing left to give anyone. Self-care is one of the kindest things we can do for our community, as well as ourselves.

The concept of showing kindness to myself is one which has often evoked shame in me. I grew up thinking that if I’m having too much fun, feeling happy for very long (more than a designated day at an amusement park or vacation week in which “fun” is on the schedule and the family expectation), or if I’m pampering myself, then that means that I’m not being responsible, because if I were responsible, I would be suffering.

As my parents’ eldest daughter, I shouldered a fair amount of responsibility – both from their delegation and my own self-protective initiative. My three siblings required the bulk of my parents’ worry and attention, so I did everything possible to be a problem-solver for my parents and not to be a burden on them. I didn’t want to get in trouble, so I made a mostly unconscious effort to be “the good kid” or the “golden child,” who could bask, by default, in her parents’ good graces and avoid their wrath and disappointment.

Whether from my parents’ requests or my own self-protective helpfulness, I watched my younger siblings when my parents were gone, helped with breakfast and supper prep, cleaned rooms in the house, did the dishes, all on top of my own school, laundry, and musical pursuits. I even began to volunteer excessively at church. I couldn’t foresee how all of this would contribute to wearing my health so thin a few years down the road; I thought I was invincible. I had some health issues (migraines, fatigue, brain fog, strong cramps, skin issues) at the time, but I often took them for granted and assumed that many people felt the way I felt, and I just pushed through them. The security of my parents’ default approval and good opinion was worth the sacrifice.

I learned that to care for myself, I had to care for others first. To avoid disappointment, punishment, resentment, or emotional stress from others, I had to continue to please them and maintain the status quo I had previously established. My parents were used to my other siblings contributing less, making messes, and being defiant or difficult, so when these things came from one of them, it was less of a big deal. But I couldn’t afford to slip up, because my parents were used to me being “perfect” – a background support without needs or problems.

Only recently have I learned that, in order to care for others, it is imperative that I care for myself first. I’ve lived long enough at this point to see that “putting others first” is not really putting anyone first long-term; it is only a recipe for burnout and my well running dry, as well as fostering others’ practical (or emotional) dependence on me, and my need to be validated by them. This prepares everyone for disappointment when the inevitable energy crash strikes.

I don’t believe the correct or “Christian” response to this is “Well, just ask Jesus to keep you fueled and going (as you run yourself into the ground).” No. Jesus modeled self-care when he sought solitude in the mountains. Jesus needed rest when He walked in human form. Certainly He knows that we do.

(Perhaps there are times when we have no choice but to complete a certain task, and we must ask for strength to get through it. I have been in such situations, and been given the grace to do what was necessary when it was necessary. But there have also been times when God did not give me the strength or energy I desired, because He didn’t want me to be the problem-solver or savior in a situation, on whom people would learn to depend. He didn’t want that for me or for them.)

Jesus didn’t compliment Martha on being a hard worker. He complimented Mary on choosing the better thing: sitting at His feet (like the men) and learning from Him – resting in His presence. He essentially complimented Mary on being her culture’s version of a “b**ch” – having boundaries and not letting traditional expectations run her into the ground – and communicated to Martha that being a “nice” woman fulfilling her traditional “womanly role” – and trying to please God or show love to Him by killing herself – was not impressive, and He was concerned for her. (Of course I’m adding my perspective here to the simplicity of the original story, but these are my takeaways. Jesus prioritized resting in His presence over social conventions, conveniences such as an elaborate meal, or cultural expectations.)

I am the sort of person who highly prioritizes efficiency (although I haven’t been able to as much the past few years with chronic health issues). I often can’t bear to see things disorderly (particularly on days I’m feeling healthier and have the energy to even care about my surroundings). I am sometimes so obsessed with orderliness (or with avoiding others’ resentment) that I will ignore my own physical needs to correct the disarray, which means I may do the dishes before I eat, even if I’m feeling faint. I often associate others’ resentment with the judgment of God, and I prioritize others’ happiness to prevent feeling my own shame.

I’m working on this. I recently created a self-care plan, and already I can tell it is helping. I’ve set a limit on the amount of “things” per week I do to help my family. I’m gradually learning to accept the risk of others’ disappointment in me, and the tension or resentment my limitations may cause in them.

In the end, the healthiest thing I can do for both my family and myself is help us learn independence of each other and the ability to improvise in the face of challenge. They and I need to learn self-responsibility and take ownership of our own futures, rather than blaming others for their lack of contribution to our self-care, or to the progress we make in our own lives. The answer to my family’s conveniences (like “needing” a clean kitchen), or needs (like my mom needing to care for herself) is NOT for me to stop caring for myself. Self-care is not a zero-sum game, in which there’s only so much to go around. Rather, the more we each take ownership of our own self-care, the more we will have to give to everyone around us.

Growing up in organized religion, which emphasized the importance of “diligence,” self-denial…and, in my culture, capitalism, my worth became primarily about my busyness, self-sacrifice, and “other-mindedness” – my ability to “contribute more than I took” (be a “net producer” rather than “net consumer”) or to “hold my own” financially in the world. If I could gain and maintain these things, I was a good person; if I slipped in these areas – perhaps even one – my lack of “fruit” called into question the validity of my very status as a “Christian,” or at least whether I was actually following and honoring God. If I couldn’t produce external results that others would recognize and praise, then I worried I might not have God’s favor either.

I’m finally learning that to have anything to give others, I have to be my best self first. There is nothing selfish or wrong about prioritizing self-care. And when I model self-care, others may be encouraged to care for themselves as well.

Jesus didn’t say that loving ourselves is wrong. Rather, He told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. I think it’s time I raised my level of self-care to the level I have for others.

In my research on self-care, I found this helpful list of self-care ideas – categorized by various types (including mental, physical, emotional, spiritual). If you are in the same boat of needing to reprioritize self-care, I hope you find it useful and encouraging. ❤

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