How I’m Finally Learning To Stop Ignoring My Need For Self-Care

My new year’s resolution for 2016 was to take care of myself. This was a departure from the way I usually went about making resolutions. Generally, I treated Jan. 1 as an excuse to put together a list of things I was feeling particularly annoyed with myself about: Why don’t you read more books? Why don’t you exercise every day? Do you not realize that you’re no longer in college and can’t actually handle frequent all-nighters?

This probably tells you everything you need to know about how I go through life and how I treat myself. Occasionally, someone will tell me that perhaps I need to be a little less self-critical, but I tend to dismiss this as American coddling. I was raised on Catholic guilt and British modesty, not praise and affirmations.

My kinder, though vaguely phrased, resolution was a reaction to the stress I’d felt all through 2015. During those 12 months, I’d gone through unemployment, underemployment, waiting for my green card, applying for graduate school, planning my wedding, making the decision to move to another state, and grieving the death of someone I loved. I rarely slept through the night, I couldn’t eat properly, and I became anxious or angry about the smallest thing. At the same time, I hated myself for not simply being happy.

I entered 2016 knowing it would also be a year of flux and chaos. My husband and I have moved twice, both of us have left full-time employment to start graduate school, and there are still a lot of unknowns in our future. But, I kept telling myself, I would do better this year. I would take care of myself this time, because that is what a functional adult does. Just as I would for an academic project, I made a list of goals. I would prioritize exercise, get more sleep, and always eat my greens. Problem solved, right?

Except that didn’t take care of the real problem. Yes, of course I do feel better when I’m active, eating healthy foods, and getting adequate sleep. But these things are outrageously difficult to accomplish when the rest of your life is on fire, and they ultimately don’t solve anything if you’re not just a little sad, but depressed.

I resist the label of depression, because from an objective standpoint, I don’t have anything to complain about. (See: Catholic guilt and British modesty.) I have a nice family, a wonderful husband, good friends. I’ve been accepted to prestigious schools. I’ve been able to travel and live abroad. On my best days, I can see that I’m at least a decent writer and not completely hideous, plus I have an impressive collection of pretty dresses and very well-behaved hair. As to the hard parts of my life, like financial insecurity and living far from home, aren’t those just typical Millennial grievances?

Twenty-somethings are particularly prone to depression, and Millennials have been dealt a poor hand: It’s not surprising that so many of us are depressed when we’re also isolated, broke and in debt. Most of us cannot afford vacations, yoga classes, or, for that matter, the support of a therapist when we need one. And it’s hard to find real self-worth when your social life is diminished to Facebook chat, or you live with your parents, or your career is going nowhere. But we at least have to stop beating ourselves up.

This is the narrative that most of us hear about mental health: “Sane” people do not get depressed, are always grateful for what they have, and learn to take care of themselves without ever being a burden to others. Mental health issues are so deeply stigmatized, so often misunderstood, that most of us cannot even talk to our closest friends about our own. Like most women I know, I was socialized to be the ultimate people-pleaser, which means any time I’ve revealed something of myself, got a little too vulnerable, asked for someone’s help, it’s always come with the shame of not being able to keep quiet and handle it all alone.

What I keep coming back to is the need to practice self-compassion. Part of me still rolls my eyes at this. (I tried to keep a gratitude journal once and found it impossible not to write sarcastic responses to the prompts. An acrostic poem of my name and best attributes, really?) Do I really need to be kind to myself, or do I need to get over myself, stop worrying, and work harder?

Part of the problem with managing depression—both as individuals and as a society—is that our conversations often lack nuance. Depression is complicated, yet we offer up simplistic solutions, like one of the goals I outlined for myself, such as getting more exercise. In an essay for The Establishment published earlier this year, Sarah Kurchak, a former personal trainer, discusses this simplification of depression and how it can be damaging to those who are struggling: “The fitness industry talks a lot about ‘exercise lifehacks for depression!!!’, but it seems to be coming from a place of ignorance about the cold war going on in the average depressed person’s head.” Kurchak’s thoughtful, non-shame-inducing exercise tips are fantastic, and have already helped me so much with how I approach my workouts and other health goals.

For now, I’m retracing my original steps of more exercise, healthy food and sleep—but with a caveat. I can’t approach these things as a form of self-punishment. I can’t view my own health as a quest for achievement. I can’t berate myself for not being perfect. Instead, I try to offer myself the same empathy, understanding and encouragement I would give to a friend. Sometimes, that does mean kicking myself in the butt to actually get to bed at a reasonable hour, or to put on my running shoes even if I’d rather watch Netflix.

Other times, it means telling myself, It’s OK if all you can do is get through today. Sometimes all we can ask of ourselves is to simply keep going.

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