As I was scrolling through Instagram one evening, I came across an Instagram story from a friend who was feeling troubled about her never-ending to-do list. In the follow-up post, she asked an age-old question that most people — especially millennials — try to answer on a daily basis: how does one do it all and not feel like a terrible, no-good human being at the end of the day when everything doesn’t get done?
This question sparked a slew of answers from her friends that were cradled with kindness. Sage pieces of advice, such as “do your best” to “take naps” to “don’t do everything at once,” were said to remind her (and us) to be kind and take care of ourselves san guilt. But even though we know to do this from the pit of our stomachs, why do we have such a hard time putting ourselves first when we feel pressured to accomplish so much in a single day?
“In the United States, people treat being busy like a badge of honor. Being busy is often associated with being successful and hard-working. There is an underlying and subtle resentment in society for successful people who don’t work hard for their success. Thus, many people feel guilty taking time off to enjoy life or take care of themselves for fear of what others may think or say about them,” licensed psychologist Dr. Sarah Schewitz says. “Many people derive their sense of worth from their accomplishments. They only feel worthy of love, relaxation, vacation, etc, after they have finished their to-do list or accomplished everything they think they should have accomplished.”
But why do we “reward” ourselves with self-care only after we’ve completed our to-do list? Preventing ourselves from taking a walk in the park or visiting a friend can and has been proven to lead to burnout, yet we still feel guilty indulging in these little pleasures because we still somehow believe that taking care of ourselves should be last on the list.
So to help understand why we should start putting ourselves on top of our to-do list, I connected with a few experts to get to the bottom of why we should stop feeling guilty for taking care of ourselves.
Self-care reinforces that you’re worthy of unconditional love
We tend to feel guilty about taking care of ourselves because we may not believe that we’re worth it, or we feel it’s wrong to put ourselves first. While it’s important to be there for others, it’s also vital to make sure that you’re considering your emotional and physical state by engaging in self-love.
“Taking care of yourself reinforces to your unconscious mind that you are worthy of unconditional love,” Schewitz says. “It’s so easy to get caught up in accomplishments and to-do lists and lose sight of the real purpose of life as a human: to live fully, to love, to enjoy, and to experience pleasure!”
Self-care increases your confidence
When you begin to learn to love yourself for who you truly are, you’re more likely to accept who you are as a person — faults and all — which will help build your self-confidence and a happier, healthier relationship with yourself. “Taking care of yourself increases confidence because you are sending the unconscious message (both to yourself and the world), that you are something to be cherished and cared for,” Schewitz says.
Self-care helps you to care for others
While we often empty our gas tanks to help others before taking care of ourselves, doing so will quickly lead to emotional and physical exhaustion. “Caring for yourself and making sure you are healthy and happy also allows you to be more present and giving to others,” Schewitz says. “The saying you cannot pour from an empty cup is absolutely true. We must take care of ourselves in order to be able to take care of others.”
It creates healthy boundaries in your life
“Those who engage in regular self-care typically have or develop higher self-worth and confidence than those who do not engage in regular self-care,” Schewitz says. “Individuals who have high self-esteem and confidence are typically better at setting healthy boundaries because they are clear on their own needs and aren’t afraid to advocate for themselves.”
Putting yourself on the top of your to-do list without feeling guilty about it reminds you that your mental and physical health are your top priority. When you exemplify that to others, they respect the boundaries you set, which will create less resentment, stress, and anger in your life. “This is largely because they know they are worth it, and they are confident enough to say goodbye to those who don’t value them or their time in the way that they do,” Schewitz says.
Self-care regulates negative emotions
Experiencing high amounts of stress prevents us from controlling our emotional response to external factors. When we’re tired, irritable, or simply overwhelmed, we’re more inclined to snap or negatively react to other people or things around us. But, according to psychologist Dr. Kim Chronister, self-care can help regulate negative emotions from getting out of control. “If we are easily angered or saddened, using self-care when negative emotions arise can help us to manage the negative emotions much more effectively than simply being reactive,” Chronister says.
It makes you more equipped to handle stress
When your cortisol levels are at an all-time high, you’re more inclined to feel negative, irritable, and tired, which can make it incredibly difficult to handle new stressors. However, self-care practices, such as intentional breathing or taking a warm bath, help activate your body’s relaxation response, which is the complete opposite of the flight or fight mode we’re used to when experiencing stress.
“Imagine spending the day working out, then going to the sauna, then taking a hot shower, then having lunch with a friend, then taking a nap, then enjoying your favorite meal, and finally listening to guided imagery before falling asleep,” Chronister says. “You would most likely be rejuvenated the next day ready to help other people and perform much more effectively at work.”
It helps strengthen your immune system
As you probably already know, self-care practices like exercising, eating healthy, and taking naps will help make your immune system stronger and healthier. When you don’t include these things into your routine, chronic stress can then affect your immune system and shut down, which can make you more susceptible to colds and illnesses. “Self-care positively affects both emotional and physical health. It gives you time to yourself to recharge (which is especially important for introverts),” Chronister says. “Since the mind and body are connected the immune system must be kept up by preventing stress and increasing self-care.”
While there will still be days when you can’t complete your full to-do list, remember that your top priority should be your mental and physical health. Be kind to yourself and take a break whenever you need to. You don’t need to feel guilty or punish yourself when you put yourself first. You deserve it!