To nurture is to nourish and give; to self-nurture is to do the things that offer physical, emotional, and spiritual nourishment to yourself. – Carol Mithers
Many of us make an effort to be there for friends and family who need us: offering a listening ear, or a shoulder to cry on; providing practical support such as childcare; giving encouragement and unconditional friendship.
But we often treat ourselves in ways we’d never consider behaving towards a friend or a family member.
- We’re always encouraging about our friends’ goals (even when these don’t resonate with us) – but we ignore or diminish our own ambitions.
- We offer praise and encouragement to others – but we are unnecessarily self-critical.
- We lend a hand when neighbours need it – but we refuse offers of help because we think we should manage alone.
- We tell others that they need “me time” – but we don’t take time to rest and relax ourselves (or when we do, we feel guilty).
- We prepare healthy, tasty, meals for our children – but we make do with junk food ourselves.
Why are we so bad at self-nurture, when we’re so good at building others up? I think there are a couple of possible answers here:
- We’ve been taught that it’s “selfish” to put our needs first.
- Deep down, we think we’re not worth it (but that others are).
It’s Not Selfish to Take Care of Yourself
I’m a Christian, and spent my childhood attending a welcoming, loving though quite conservative church. We were taught the motto “JOY – Jesus first, yourself last, and others in between.” As a rather serious, religious little girl, I found myself feeling guilty if I ever put my own wants before other people’s. I now think that this was a misapplication of what I was being taught – yes, we should put the good of the community first, but not at the expense of looking after ourselves.
I expect that, like me, you’ve known downtrodden, miserable, stressed people who insist on shouldering the burdens of others. Many people think that women are more prone to this sort of martyrdom than men, but I’d argue that there are certain male mindsets (such as feeling the need to work long hours to provide “the best” for the family) which also lead people into this trap. To me, the biggest tragedy of this is that it doesn’t succeed in making you or anyone else happy: these words of C.S. Lewis’s rang very true when I first read them several years ago, and they’ve stuck in my mind to this day:
She’s the sort of woman who lives for others – you can always tell the others by their hunted expression. – C.S. Lewis
I’ve found that, whilst I get a great deal of joy from being able to encourage, support and help motivate others, there’s a danger of ending up trying to shoulder other people’s burdens quite unnecessarily. And the times when I’m at my worst – snappy, irritable, thoughtless – tend to be when I’ve ended up feeling resentful about the energy and time I’m giving to others, at the cost of my own well-being.
I found these words helpful, and perhaps you will too:
It’s not selfish to do what allows us to continue giving to others. It’s not selfish to treat ourselves with the same thoughtfulness we show those we love. – Carol Mithers, from, Be Good to Yourself: How to Self-Nurture
Are You Worth It?
This is a difficult thing to face, but I’ve sometimes felt a deep rooted sense of inadequacy – and I suspect this is common: however strong, positive and worthy the front that we present to the world, we’re often keenly aware of our own flaws and faults.
Here’s just one example from my life. I studied at Cambridge University, and during my introduction week there, one lecturer told us that “everyone thinks they’re the person who was let in by mistake”. I was astonished: this was exactly what I’d thought! For years, I’d been convinced that Cambridge was full of geniuses, and I knew full well that I was no genius! Over the first term, I came to realise that a lot of my new friends there felt just the same. Of course, there was little or no real difference in standard between any of us – it was simply that we were all aware of our own struggles and failings, and that other people’s similar difficulties were invisible to us.
So how does this show itself in our lives?
- We might think that other people are worth our time, attention and love – but that we aren’t.
- Perhaps we praise others’ talents and skills – yet deny our own.
- We encourage others to believe that they can quit smoking, lose weight or find a new career – whilst feeling that we ourselves lack the power to change or to stick to our resolutions.
This isn’t simply a case of low self-esteem. It’s to do with the fact that we know our own hidden thoughts, fears, desires and fantasies. Perhaps we’re ashamed of the times that we think something bitter, unkind or cruel: we may not express it by any word or action, but we know that we thought it.
Of course, we can never know what other people are thinking. We can never see what’s going on inside their head or heart – all we see is the external manifestation of that. And, as we know from our own experience, it’s perfectly possible to think or feel something, and to hide it from the world.
Give yourself permission not to be perfect. If it helps, consider that it’s a form of arrogance to believe that you’re an unforgiveable sinner whereas all those around you are somehow better and more worthy than you are.
Since I became interested in personal development, four years ago, I’ve become more and more acutely aware of the areas in which I fall short. But I know this does not mean I’m any less worthy than others – it simply means that I’m learning to recognise the places where I still need to grow.
To make this a little clearer, here are a couple of examples:
- If we pay attention to our time-management, we might berate ourselves for wasting time and procrastinating – when we’d be much more forgiving to others, and would recognise that no-one can focus 100% for long.
- If we’re trying to be more loving towards our children, we might become better at noticing the times when we behave impatiently – yet we’d forgive our spouse for the same actions (recognising the role that tiredness, worry or other factors might play).
Here’s the truth: you are absolutely worth exactly as much as every other human being on this planet. Everyone has doubts, insecurities, and times when their innermost thoughts are ones they’d be horribly ashamed to express.
I won’t give you a trite list of “ways to nurture yourself” (I’m really not a “take a long bath” person myself). You probably already know exactly what you can do in order to give yourself the spiritual encouragement and nourishment that you need. I simply want you to know that you have permission to treat yourself just as well as you’d want to treat your friends, partner and children.
Ali Hale is a freelance writer from London in the UK, and is currently taking an MA in creative writing. She writes for a number of sites, including her own Aliventures blog which focuses on getting more from life.
If you have your own stories and experiences of self-nurture (or your own struggles with treating yourself well), please share them with Ali in Comments below.