"Pay yourself first." We often hear this advice in the context of retirement savings. The concept is this: If you pay yourself first, automatically, then you won't miss that money and will get used to spending only the remainder on other things. If, on the other hand, you pay yourself last, you often find there's nothing left, and you are unable to invest for the future.
In working with patients, I frequently find that poor physical health is not the result of being lazy or self indulgent. To the contrary, poor physical health frequently results from focusing so much on others, never taking any time for yourself. Some of the most selfless and hard-working people I have met are like this. These folks spend so much of their time focusing on others' needs that there's no time left to care for themselves. Some examples include:
- The patient who works long hours, perhaps multiple jobs, in order to provide for others
- The patient who cares for elderly or sick family members
- The patient who devotes all their time to their kids' and spouse's needs
- The patient who never says no, always volunteering to help in their community and social circles
The selflessness of these patients is admirable. Yet, when I am seeing them, it is clear that this approach has taken a toll on their health. Lack of self-care has caused physical health problems. Often it is a wake-up call and a reminder of this fact: We can best care for others when we take care of ourselves.
An analogy I've heard and really like is this: Think of self-care like the oxygen masks on an airplane. As the flight attendants remind us, "Put on your own mask before helping others with theirs."
We know the physical effects of not exercising, not eating well, and not getting enough rest:
- Energy level decreases.
- Mood becomes depressed.
- Decision-making suffers.
- The body becomes less able to fight off illness.
Alternatively, when we take care of our physical health (through exercise, diet, and rest) and when we nurture the other aspects of our health (such as our spiritual, emotional, and intellectual health), we see many positive changes:
- We have more energy to be a great parent, caregiver, employee, etc.
- We're in a better mood and feel more motivated.
- We make better decisions and are more efficient and productive.
- Our bodies become better equipped to fight off illness.
By paying ourselves first, we gain optimal health, which can best fuel a life of generosity and helpfulness to others.
This post was originally published on February 29, 2016.