Imagine if school curriculums, right from the start, taught that each of us has a unique inner essence and that true happiness comes from aligning our lives with that true self? What if we learned that money and cars and houses and clothes might make us more comfortable, but they will never bring meaning to our lives? And what if we understood that taking care of ourselves must always come before taking care of others, because only in valuing ourselves and putting our own self-care first will we ever be able to effectively care for anyone else?
This is certainly not (yet) our norm. Especially for women. From a very young age, we are taught that one of our key roles is to nurture and attend to others. Pervasive messages about prioritizing other people’s needs are standard, as is the commonplace practice of women working all day outside the home, yet still being responsible for most household and family duties.
But when you get on a plane they show you a video of putting your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone else. I’ve always believed this to be the best metaphor for the vital importance of self-care. If you don’t take care of yourself first, you won’t be able to help others. Seems like a no-brainer, but sadly that advice is not widely dispensed.
Self-love. Self-respect. People bat these terms around, but what do they even mean?
In our culture, loving and respecting oneself is generally only superficially understood. Self esteem books tell us to paste affirmations on the walls of our offices, have a bubble bath, buy new clothes, or “treat” ourselves to wine out with the girls.
I think that self-love is much bigger than that.
Love of self must come from actually recognizing the truest part of who we are. This is not the part that is the family superhero, making lunches, mending clothes, tending to aging parents, meeting with teachers, and going grocery shopping. This is not the part that is the office star, staying late, writing the best reports, meeting every deadline, and routinely exceeding everyone’s expectations. It’s also not the critical voice in our heads; the voice that so many of us use to flay our spirit when we accuse ourselves of not being a good enough partner, friend, mother, or daughter.
The truest part of us lies beneath all of the doing and social conditioning. You can call it whatever feels right – your soul, your inner being, your essence, your true self.
It’s the still, quiet voice that gets shoved aside in the normal day-to-day of our existence. While everyone else’s needs seem so loud, this part speaks in a whisper. It’s so easy not to listen.
On this International Women’s Day, I want to encourage you to listen. Today, ask yourself: What do I want? What do I need? And truly pay attention to the answer, showing that voice the respect it deserves by writing down what you hear and carefully considering what it has to say.
Although this might seem like a private and insignificant act, I would argue that its impact is enormous. Humanity, at this point in history, needs this. We are collectively at a tipping point and I believe that women will play a significant role in what comes next. We still live in a world that does not afford equal rights or value to women, but that is changing. The MeToo movement, women taking to the streets in protest, and the rise of women in power are proof that there is a shift afoot.
As the world changes, so must we. What we most need now is what most of us were never taught. We need to learn to love and respect ourselves.
As women, we need to stop putting everyone else first and instead begin believing that what is inside us is vitally important – just as important as all the other people and all the other projects we support. Taking the time to tune in, and seeking quiet, reflective moments, especially in the busy and fast-paced world we live in, are actually radical acts.
Radical acts of love.