Every hour I make decisions, solve problems, move on. Then, at some point, comes the self-doubt. Did I do the right thing? I could have done that differently, better. I don’t deserve to be here. I’m not up to the task. I’ve let people down, made a fool of myself.
The downward emotional spiral comes with its own set of physical manifestations: Tight chest, racing heart, knotted stomach. And then, before I know it, another problem comes along and my thoughts turn to finding a solution. Or I scroll through my phone in search of a quick dopamine hit, or take solace in solitude and routine.
But it never really goes away, does it? That anxiety, that self-criticism. It’s like a spring: The more you push it down, the harder it pops back up. As Brene Brown writes, “After two decades of research on shame, authenticity, and belonging, I’m convinced that loving ourselves is the most difficult and courageous thing we’ll ever do.”
It’s true, prioritising your own needs can feel selfish and indulgent, especially when your job is to take care of beings whose needs are much greater, whose vulnerabilities run far deeper, than your own.
But think about it like this: Selfishness is a grasping; it’s a set of actions and emotions born of fear; its goals involve taking something at the expense of another. Self-care, on the other hand, is an approach to yourself and your needs that empowers you to give freely and compassionately.
I used to assume self-care was simply about doing things that feel good. In the past, however, my contentedness was tinged with guilt, because I wasn’t really doing anything with the power and energy I gained. Stuck in a loop of self-doubt, I was paralysed into inaction.
It was only in fostering compassion for myself that I was finally able to start being truly effective. Once I started befriending myself, I saw that my limitations are not barriers, and my contributions are worthwhile.
Look: I’m not saying I have all the answers. I’m still at the start of this journey. Most of the time I’m a confused mess of contradictions. My vulnerabilities sit bricked up behind a wall, as if they have a half life. Yet even the tiniest inkling of compassion can start to erode that facade. It’s the kind of work that takes a lifetime.
At some point along the way I realised that not only is it okay to slow down, to make mistakes, to allow yourself to think and feel without judgement — it’s part of the adventure of being human, imperfect yet whole, capable of suffering and joy (each a valid experience).
More importantly, I began to understand that there is no ‘me’ in relation to others. Self-care, in an obscure but important way, actually diminishes the self. At an event in Berlin recently, Teju Cole said something that has helped me understand this concept in a non-spiritual way. He said: “The other is alarming because we sense within them a self that we have failed to recognise or acknowledge.”
So when those negative thoughts start, I try and remember the meditations I learned on compassion. I take a deep breath and give myself the kind of break I’d give anyone else in the same situation: You’re doing great. You’re learning. You’re here, making a difference. You’re not perfect, but who is?
Fostering compassion for yourself is not a selfish act. On the contrary, compassion begets compassion. You begin to see that, ultimately, every living being is trying to avoid suffering, and the things they do are reflections of that deep desire to be happy.
There’s a common misconception that in order to reduce someone’s suffering, you have to suffer yourself. As if suffering were like energy, a finite resource that adheres to the rules of physics. But the truth is, the more you suffer, the less able you are to help others. How can I be truly effective if I’m constantly riddled with self-doubt? If I’m exhausted, anxious?
That’s where self-care comes in. It allows you to do your best work — whatever your goals. Once you get over the fear, not only of external others but of the many selves we each carry within us, it becomes clear: We are one, universally connected, our fates intertwined.
Being kind to yourself is being kind to others. Framed in that way, self-care — self-love — is more accessible, achievable, and even intuitive.