Are you America’s Next Top Martyr? How to suck less at self-care.



If you’re too stressed to read a whole blog post, try this instead

8 steps to avoid burn out

1) First, visualize very gently leading your inner child to a safe place for a nap
2) Calm the F*ck Down
3) Get a reality check on everything you think you HAVE to do
4) Ask yourself what will matter in 5 years time
5) Delegate
6) Keep a gratitude journal
7) Remind yourself that no-one finds martyrdom sexy and it’s rarely even helpful in the long run.
8) Have the humility to admit that you have fallen off the self-care wagon and could use a hand up

…and if all of the above doesn’t work, I refer you back to Step #2

I have a confession to make, I used to be a serious contender for America’s Next Top Martyr. Quite frankly, if I were a dog-sitter I would have fired me on numerous occasions for reckless disregard to needs for adequate exercise, rest and good nutrition.

The worst part of not taking care of myself is knowing better  – and not being able to do a damn thing about it anyway. Unless you’ve been under a rock somewhere, I think it’s fairly safe to say that we all have an idea of what self-care should entail. If only it were that simple. I regularly meet people who wouldn’t neglect a house-plant they way they treat themselves. A big part of the problem, it seems to me, is that people are uncomfortable with the whole concept of self-care, judging it to synonymous with narcissistic naval gazing and self-indulgence of celebrity proportions.

There is such a cultural aversion to it that you could be forgiven for thinking there really is a competition for America’s Next Top Martyr, when you listen to people try to outdo each other with boasts of how much they are working and how little sleep they are getting.

People who do a good job at looking after others are amongst the worst offenders when it comes to looking after themselves, it seems. As for professional caregivers – Oy! These are intelligent people with a good sense of cause and effect and more than a passing understanding of human biology and yet they would pretty much rather die of a stress-related illness rather than take the risk that anyone could possibly accuse them of being selfish.

The ironic thing is that, actually, not taking care of yourself is really far more selfish. If you neglect your physical well-being for long enough, chances are you will be checking out on your loved ones somewhat earlier than they could have wished for.   And back in the here and now, when you don’t manage your stress, you’re guilty of polluting other people’s day with a toxic emission of negative energy.

Self-care is about taking personal responsibility for your health and well-being so you can show up for the people and things that matter, most able to give your best. At the very least, it’s about maintaining your physical body in good working order for as long as possible. Not eating crap, moving the moving parts on a fairly regular basis, resting when you are tired. That’s the minimum and yet at times even that seems like an impossible task.

Often we just don’t realize how much hot water we are in until it’s too late.  As my acupuncturist explained to me, when chronic stress reaches a critical level, it triggers a permanent acute response to everything.  Your blood-work will confirm that your cortisol (the stress hormone) level indicates that your fight or flight mechanism has been stuck in the on position.  At one point, mine resembled that of someone with PTSD.  By which time, I am not only way beyond prevention, but so busy drowning in stress that I am unable even to wave for help.

The sympathetic nervous system evolved back in the day when having a snappy response to an approaching tiger was a giant asset. However, living today like a tiger is permanently about to attack is not conducive to doing most of the things that are good for you.  It makes sense really. If I thought the chances were fairly high that I was about to be eaten by a tiger, I probably would choose the extra calories with a side of Chardonnay. As far as exercise is concerned, I’d want to conserve my energy to out-sprint the tiger – this of course, is the reason that there are no prehistoric cave drawings of people doing aerobics.  No wonder when I am over-whelmed with anxiety, I am simultaneously suddenly glued to the sofa.  I can’t convince myself to leave the house and head for the gym, when my body is sending me signals that a disaster might happen at any second and sheltering in place is the obvious choice.

Sometimes it seems that just understanding the process is enough to get control of the situation. I have also found acupuncture to be really helpful to “reset” adrenal function: Believe it or not, after just one session, I woke up with the startling realization that I was feeling calm. Normal, happy even. Rational. What a relief.

In the preventative realm, aside from the 8 steps above, exercise seems pretty crucial for my mental health and is also good for creativity and your libido 😉  amongst other things. Check out Temptation Bundling for innovative ways to motivate yourself, like listening to awesome audio-books or podcasts only at the gym or by meeting friends for hikes instead of drinks. Another suggestion is to figure out what your personal warning signs may be when you are approaching your limits.   Perhaps you start to lose patience in traffic or with your kids, maybe you notice you are reaching for comfort foods or the wine a little too often.  If you are able to spot the red flags, you can take some evasive action.  Ideally of course, you don’t want to wait to refuel until the psychological version of the fuel low warning light has comes on.   Mindfulness and journalling are helpful in this respect and I use a sleep app to monitor how much rest I am getting so I can spot the trends before I take the nose-dive.

Sometimes all it takes to prompt a course correction is a gentle reminder that no-one finds martyrdom sexy and that you don’t win any prizes or get any medals or help anybody else by burning out.  However, stress can suck you into a downward spiral of pushing yourself too hard. Survival mode can foster compulsive over-doing. If you feel unable to stop then just as with other addictions, you may need to enlist the help of a professional and some people who care about you for an intervention.   Do yourself and the people who love you a favor, be nicer to yourself. You’re welcome. I love you.