What Are You Worth? Why Don't You Take Care of Yourself?

11/17/2016 11:15 am ET | Updated Nov 20, 2016

While conducting a series of webinars and teleconferences on the importance of self-care for nonprofit professionals with my co-author Beth Kanter, I was struck recently by a comment from a participant. After hearing about the definitions of burnout, the replenishing powers of self-care, and the challenges to staying committed to taking care of oneself, someone equated “self-care” with “self-worth.”

The message was clear: “If you value yourself, you take care of yourself.” My immediate reaction to this statement was: “YES!!” And then, “NO!!”

Yes, because of course it really is that simple: If you care about yourself, if you believe that you are worthy, you will prioritize yourself first and be committed to self-care.

But if that were true, why do so many amazing, motivated and accomplished people, especially women, fail daily to take care of themselves? Why are we so afraid to tie “self-care” and “self-worth” together?

Do many of us really feel so unworthy that we’d think it’s okay to shirk sleep, eat poorly, and not make any time at all for movement or fitness in our life?

I mention these three bad habits because they sleep, nutrition and fitness are three fundamental needs of all of us human beings - what Beth and I refer to as the “Wellness Triad” in our book The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit. Sleep, nutrition and fitness. All three are essential for any of us to function well and have the energy and focus to not just do good work but to be a good person. A person without adequate rest, with bad eating habits and boasting a sedentary lifestyle is more likely to be stressed, irritable, short tempered and unable to bounce back from emotional setbacks.

Do we really feel so unworthy that we’d put everyone else’s needs - and feelings - in front of our own?

One could argue that selflessness and taking care of others is a sign of generosity, charity, and goodness. And yet, if we deplete our own personal energy and resources to help others without tending to our own care, we will inevitably hit a wall (burnout, anyone?) and no longer be able to sustain our good work and good deeds.

Self-care isn’t selfishness. It is fulfilling fundamental human needs and honoring ourselves with care so we can function at our highest levels. Once we are fortified, we can then choose to help others - whether that be our family and friends, our community, or anyone else we are called to serve - and truly be of service.

My “NO!” reaction to equating self-care to self-worth stemmed from a sinking feeling the thought gave me. No matter how much lip service I pay to the importance of engaging in self-care, no matter how many true stories I share about my self-care epiphanies, I still do not consistently follow my own advice and tend to relegate self-care to the back burner of my attention.

We need to be gentle with ourselves.

Beating ourselves up for failing to walk those 10,000 steps or getting the scientifically-recommended 6-8 hours of sleep or disconnecting every night from electronic devices doesn’t help us feel more motivated. We’re human. I have to call myself out of averaging 1200 steps a day, getting up at 4am to work, and compulsively reaching for my iPhone every waking moment. I say these things to let everyone know that it isn’t easy, we aren’t perfect, and most of us - like me - are scrambling every day just to get by.

How do you gauge your self worth? By accolades from others? Accomplishments at work? The number or quality of friendships you have? Being in a relationship? Having a happy family?

My new “Self-Worth Meter” is definitely tied to how regularly I’m being good to myself. And this means far more than a massage or yoga class or taking 5 minutes to meditate - although those are all valid self-care tactics. I gauge how well I value myself by how kind I am to myself and how often I stop to focus on my own needs first. I gauge my self-worth by the number of times I say “No” to things that are literally not worth my time but are too often the “Yeses” of my day-to-day existence, sucking up my time and energy with little or no reward. By reward, I don’t mean accolades. I mean the reward of learning. The reward of contributing value. The reward of connecting with others.

Life is so painfully short. You don’t realize it as you go about your stressful life in a job you love but that drains you of your energy and passion or a job you don’t love but you’re afraid to leave. When you’re in those negative spaces, time seems like it goes on forever, like the soul-devouring pain of it will never end. So we endure and think that sleepless nights, thankless jobs, and frantic juggles are somehow noble signs of our fortitude and determination.

Accepting less than we deserve, self-sacrificing and putting off regular self-care are not badges of honor but signs of inherent weakness signaling a lack of self worth.

One hard part of getting out of our ruts of chronic stress is that when we’re in a workplace where everyone is physically, mentally and spiritually burned out, that condition begins to feel like the norm. Recognizing toxic situations and habits is the first step to changing them. Recognizing our own self-worth and truly believing in it can help drive the changes we need to make to better value ourselves and be of more value to our mission and to others.

So what ARE you worth? And how are you treating yourself based on that worth?

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