During an airline safety demonstration, the flight attendant instructs you to put on your oxygen mask before assisting others if the cabin loses pressure. They tell you this for good reason. If you run out of oxygen, you will lose consciousness and won’t be able to assist anyone else. It is a life-or-death situation. But mental health is more nuanced. It does not exist in such absolute “either-or” terms. Of course, it is important to take care of yourself—to put on the proverbial oxygen mask—but it doesn’t mean you should retreat into yourself and disengage from the world around you. Here’s the thing: You can take care of yourself and be there for others at the same time.
I had a patient, let’s call her S, who became so preoccupied with self-care that it began to undermine her well-being. She withdrew from her book club so she could read self-help books on her own. The group didn’t always choose books she liked, so she felt justified in her decisions. Making herself a priority gave her license to decline invitations that weren’t convenient or to her liking. She didn’t attend a friend’s birthday dinner because it wasn’t at a vegan restaurant. She privileged “me time” over family time. When her sister came to town for a visit, she barely made time to see her.
It was self-care on steroids. S was getting lots of sleep, eating a healthy diet, meeting with a life coach on a regular basis, meditating 30 minutes a day, and getting plenty of exercise. But she was missing out on a crucial aspect of well-being: social connection. Instead of focusing exclusively on yourself when the going gets rough, remember to look up, look out, and, above all, connect with others.
It is well established that having a shoulder to lean on helps us get through a bad day, and studies show that social support is one of the best salves for stress. Less well-known are studies that show how providing a shoulder to lean on helps buffer against stress. In a University of California, Los Angeles, and Yale School of Medicine research article titled “Prosocial Behavior Helps Mitigate the Negative Effects of Stress in Everyday Life,” participants who engaged in other-focused behavior, such as holding open a door, asking someone if they needed help, and lending a hand, reported better moods and lower daily stress levels than those who didn’t. In sum, self-care is a good thing. Just don’t let it become the only thing.