For many of us, the term self-care is synonymous with self-indulgence. I used to think so too. Our thoughts immediately race towards behavior that would require us to take time away from our loved ones or somehow shortchange them of our responsibilities.
As a child, I looked to my parents as prime role models. They were first-generation immigrants from Iran, who were trying to uphold their upper-class standard of living in a new, adopted country. They had left everything behind during the revolution and were trying to make it from ground zero. They worked all the time and were as removed from the practice of self-care as possible. They wanted to make sure I would succeed and therefore instilled a fierce work ethic in me from childhood. They would remind me on a regular basis that hard work and education were by far the most crucial factors to ensuring stability, security, success, and happiness in life. I embraced this mentality and exerted myself fully, securing college admission at Stanford University, and ultimately choosing a career in medicine.
As a female, first-generation immigrant in medicine, it was far from an easy road. An ultra-demanding journey from training to a full-blown medical career against the backdrop of consistent racial and gender discrimination set a foundation for me to make unhealthy lifestyle choices. Oftentimes, it seemed I had no choice. In order to compete on an unfair playing ground, I felt compelled to push myself to the limit over and over again when it came to sleep, diet, and stress to prove that I was just as, if not more, competent and qualified as my male counterparts. I was more than prepared and willing to refrain from basic bodily functions like sleep or skipping essential meals while on 24-hour calls, if it meant staying in the game and showing that I was strong enough, resilient enough to persist and come out on top. At this time of my life, self-care was not an option. The system made it such that self-neglect seemed to be the only way to succeed. The staggering irony of dedicating one’s life to empowering others to care for themselves often means falling victim to and embracing a personal culture of self-demise.
Later, when I became a mother and my responsibilities and challenges exponentially multiplied, I really let myself go. I gained an excess amount of weight and felt winded easily, void of energy, and poorly rested. I thought this was the new version of me that I had to accept. Once I had reached the pinnacle of self-neglect, it dawned on me that my then lifestyle was unhealthy and unsustainable. Fueled by frustration and the knowledge that I was better than this, I knew I had to make a drastic change.
I had always taken pride in my ability to empower my patients with the tools and mindset to lose over 50 lbs., reverse chronic illnesses, come off of lifelong medications and regain balance and happiness in their lives. It was time to empower myself. I wanted to feel healthy and happy with my body. I wanted to be a good example for my children, so they grow to view self-care as something they deserve and practice. I wanted to teach my children to have healthy habits and relationships to help them live a happy, healthy and successful life.
After my lifestyle medicine training, and motivated by this new awareness, I knew it was time to focus on turning my life around and helping myself in the same way I had helped my patients. And this was when my perception of self-care began to shift drastically. Just because an ideology or way of thinking has been accepted and engrained, does not necessarily make it right. The time had come, and it was now.
I embraced self-care and shifted my mindset to include myself as a priority because I wanted to be there for the people I love the most. I focused on my own health and wellness, became mindful of my choices when it came to my lifestyle, and in the process lost the extra over 40 lbs. I was carrying, and gained energy, strength, confidence, and most importantly, a genuine sense of peace and happiness.
Self-care means something different to everyone. One of my goals when coaching my clients is to eradicate the negative perception of self-care and this being equated with selfishness and neglect of others. It’s actually the exact opposite. Many of my clients are physicians and because of the nature of our training and work, this topic comes up often. I realize there is much work to be done to overhaul our health care and medical training system to stop revering self-neglect and incorrectly labeling it as “resilience.” But realizing the system is broken and will not be remediated overnight, we need to take matters into our own hands and shift our mindsets to embrace self-care as self-love and love of others, for us, our families, and our patients.
Solmaz Amirnazmi is a lifestyle and internal medicine physician.
Image credit: Solmaz Amirnazmi