Basic mammal maintenance, or How to be nice to yourself.

Continuing on the theme of childhood neglect, my nonscientific gut-check tells me that if people were mean or indifferent or unable to care for you while you were a kid, you might lack the skills to care for yourself as an adult.

This can lead to a place of acute suffering. It can also make you feel like something is fundamentally wrong with you, instead of understanding that your suffering is the result of something that happened (or didn’t happen when you needed it to), and not something you are.

Which can obscure the fact that these skills are, in fact, learned — people aren’t just born with them.

When you’re suffering, and you suspect that something is fundamentally wrong with you, it can be very difficult to find effective help. If you struggle to find effective help, and you also don’t know the basics of how to care for yourself, it can feel like falling into a very deep pit where every attempt to dig yourself out crashes in on you.

The thing that lifts you out of the pit is taking care of yourself, first, and understanding that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with you, second. Your experiences are proof of your humanness, not your brokenness.

Even when you’re in pain, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with you.

Even when you’re sick, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with you.

Humans get sick and feel pain.

Guess what you are? I’ll give you one guess.

Even if you didn’t learn to take care of yourself as a kid, it is something you can easily learn as an adult. At the same time, being nice to yourself can be surprisingly difficult to master, thanks in large part to our weird and often dysfunctional culture. But I have some thoughts.

First of all, you won’t suddenly become a molten sloth if you start being nice to yourself. That’s a myth, and it’s part of that thing I just said about our dysfunctional culture. If anything, learning to be nice to yourself helps you to build resilience, so the next time some crappy thing happens in life, you have a bit more stamina to get through it. It makes life a tiny bit less scary since you know that, even if things get really bad, you’ve got yourself in your corner, doing nice things for you.

Second, being nice to yourself involves both doing things that you want, and doing things that you need to do. It is not all one or the other. In fact, the quickest way to be super mean to yourself is to pick one and avoid the other.

Only doing the things that need to be done ends in a super clean house, glowing reports from your boss, and all your bills paid on time…but also burnout, sadness, and no time for yourself.

Only doing the things you want to do feels really, really good…for a while. It also ends in sadness, feeling sick or groggy, and often having waaaaaay too much time on your hands.

So how do you start this incredibly, strangely difficult process of being nice to yourself? I’ll give you some pointers.

Take Breaks

You would be shocked at the number of people I talk to who simply…don’t…ever…take breaks. It actually boggles my mind. Sure, a lot of them goof off, at some point, sneaking stolen moments of time to look at Facebook, or guiltily wresting an hour to do something other than work-work. All of them collapse, at some point, in the evening when they are incapable of doing any more.

In my mind, none of that really counts as a proper break. First of all, it’s usually not planned or intentional — it often only happens once the person is up against the wall of their own exhaustion and has no other choice but to stop for a while. Or it’s completely spoiled by guilt. Too little, too late.

What I’m suggesting, instead, is that you plan, on purpose, to take regular, restorative breaks throughout the day. For me, a fully restorative break requires: knowing what time it’s coming, getting up from my desk (not just sitting in the same spot and looking at the same screen), and preferably having a change of scenery, even if just means the next room or a different part of the room. And then some kind of reward, whether it’s a snack, a beverage, a book, music, doodling, or petting a cat.

Most jurisdictions have some law on the books about legal break times. If you possibly can, find out what breaks you’re entitled to and take them. On purpose.

Comfort Yourself

Do small physical things that are comforting and distracting. Especially when stressed, this can be very useful. Doing small physical things helps to keep your mind occupied while feels (of any variety) run their course.

Small physical things I like to do can depend on which emotion I’m feeling (sad vs. angry, for example.) If I’m anxious or angry, sometimes a small bit of exercise, like even a few wall pushups or a brief walk, followed by taking a break is the key. When I’m sad, usually something very comforting, like a very hot shower, fuzzy pajamas, and then getting in bed early with a heating pad and a book and a cat, is the most helpful. Sometimes I’ll eat a particularly nice snack while paying close attention to how it tastes.

For some people, music is helpful, or something nice-smelling. Think of each of the five senses and try to make a list of things you find comforting. Hand lotion? Cuticle oil? Warm socks? Pretty pictures? Perfume? Videos of people jumping off a rope swing at the place where you used to go camping as a kid (warning: heights)?

Get Some Rest

Set yourself up to get enough rest. Even if you’re having trouble sleeping, lying down to rest can be useful. I read somewhere that you receive 70% of the benefit of sleeping just from laying down, awake. I have no idea whether this is true, and I don’t want to verify it because it is such a useful fiction when I’m lying there, fretting about not sleeping.

I also find that when I do all of my get-ready-for-bed tasks right after dinner, instead of waiting for Late O’Clock, it’s easier to fall in bed when I’m tired and actually sleep. When I’m particularly stressed, letting myself lie in bed early, even when I have no intention of sleeping yet, helps me wind down until I just fall asleep on my own, usually at an earlier time than I otherwise would. A Kindle loaded with a bunch of extremely silly books is indispensable for this.

And if I really can’t sleep, getting up to read in a comfy chair until I’m sleepy helps too. I know this breaks a lot of sleep hygiene rules, but you can experiment.

Give Your Feelings Some Credit

When you feel sad or anxious or angry, don’t try to talk yourself out of it. Acknowledge that your feelings make sense, even if the thoughts that go with them don’t always. Feelings are allowed to be there, even when you don’t act on them. The best way of acting on them is usually by taking care of yourself, not by acting out.

Get Out of the House

Especially if you work from home, or have an irregular schedule and a tendency to cocoon — get out of the house once per day. Even if it’s just to take out garbage or stand on your stoop for five minutes. On days when I am just slammed and have no time, I will often just stand on my balcony and stare, slack-jawed, at trees for five minutes. It helps. The fresh air, the change of scenery, getting out of your head for a bit…it helps.

Feed and Water Yourself

Offer yourself food and fluids at least three times a day. I had a period of time where I noticed, on weekends, I would often just abandon any pretense of structure with my eating. You know what happened? Rather than experiencing the joys of a free-wheeling, zero-responsibilities, foodless existence, I laid around and felt like death. It reliably destroyed my mood, my energy levels, and basically my entire weekend.

Once I realized what I was doing, I made a deal with myself: I didn’t have to eat meals AND regular snacks the way I often do on weekdays, when my schedule is more structured and I’m expending more energy and thus feel hungrier, but I was going to make an effort to put something breakfast-like, something lunch-like, and something dinner-like in front of myself three times a day.

When I got into the habit of doing it (it did require a bit of clock-watching at first), it became very natural. Now I get reliably hungry at those times, even on weekends, and it’s easy to remember. Plus I don’t feel like a zombie. My weekends are saved.

Get a Tiny Thing Done

Do one thing each day that makes you feel a sense of accomplishment. If you’re really in the hole, it can be something small, like unloading the dishwasher or opening one piece of mail. Once you’re somewhat out of the hole, it can be doing a few hours of work-work, or responding to emails, or cleaning the bathroom. Just one thing, each day, that gives you a sense of “I got something done.”

Your Brain Will Try to Talk You Out of It

What will get in the way? Mostly, a lot of internalized messages about how doing nice things for yourself is lazy or self-indulgent or frivolous or selfish. Which, yes, true, if you stopped to do any of these things while a house was on fire in front of you, they might be. But most of us are not in such urgent situations, at least not all of the time. Somewhere, at some point in the day, most of us do have time that could be devoted to the care and feeding of ourselves.

It is tempting to think of all of this as optional, nice-to-have-but-not-necessary, to which I respectfully say — especially if you’re dealing with any symptoms of depression or anxiety or going through a stressful time — bullshit. This stuff is not optional. It is basic maintenance to remain a functional human being. If you don’t want to function at all, that’s your call, because I promise that will eventually happen if you don’t start taking a tiny sliver of time to reward yourself for not imploding.

Another thing that will get in the way is feeling that you don’t deserve it. That other people, sure, should take breaks and eat food and sleep as part of basic mammal maintenance, but that you, you, are set apart from them in a special category reserved for the most intense self-loathing and the least pressing creature needs.

I mean, if people treated you like you didn’t deserve basic care as a child, that none of your needs were valid, why wouldn’t you go on to believe that and treat yourself that was as an adult? You would! It’s perfectly understandable!

It’s just completely wrong.

You are just as valuable as anyone else, and you deserve just as much care-taking as anyone else. This is how you should have been cared for all along. You can’t go back in time and erase the past, but you can make the effort to place your feet on a different path right now.

Even if your past involved neglect, your future doesn’t have to. You need care, and you deserve it. You can do this.


Share with the class in comments.



, ,




12 responses to “Basic mammal maintenance, or How to be nice to yourself.”

  1. amesgregor Avatar

    Thank you!

  2. Valentina Avatar

    Such great advice! It’s so rare finding suggestions on how to properly take care of yourself without feeling guilty. Society seems hell bent at making us feel guilty for taking care of ourselves or makes it sound that the only way to properly take care of yourself or relax is to meditate for 30 minutes or practice yoga for an hour — I find both fantastic but sometimes I cannot handle even that much!


  3. Maura Avatar

    Thank you so much for this. I really needed it. Somehow I’ve got to re-send it to myself every week. Forming habits around self-care is SO hard. My small first step is just to keep reminding myself that my brain is plastic and that I can still learn. Strangely enough, I have a toddler, and a refrain from Daniel Tiger (an animated show based on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) keeps singing itself in my brain: Keep trying, you’ll get better. It should be an obvious message, but somehow the authenticity of teaching it to my son makes me realize that I don’t really believe it of myself. But my brain can be retrained. So I keep trying. I’ll get better.

  4. Jill Avatar

    I had no idea I was neglected as a child until I was in therapy for being unable to complete things when I was in my mid-thirties. It’s really hard to see things that _didn’t_ happen. I looked back and saw that I always had somewhere to live, got sufficient medical care, and went to a decent high school, and I thought my feelings of deprivation and anger were because I was an entitled little princess.

    What I couldn’t see without the therapist’s help (that’s why they call it a blind spot) was what was missing. Children seldom do well when they are only occasionally fed, not noticed or spoken to for hours or occasionally days on end, and criticised or punished with no relationship to some kind of more or less set standard for what was good and what was bad. Our parents paid almost no attention to what we did in school or who our friends were.

    My sister worked out much earlier than I did that we were underparented and did a couple of psychology degrees. Her perspective is very helpful when I slip back into feeling embarrassed over feeling I grew up deprived even though we had enough money to be in the lower middle class.

    These posts on grownups who didn’t get some significant part of the nurture children need are very helpful. Thank you.

    1. Mich Avatar

      I’ve been thinking about your comment for a few days, and I feel that I must be in the same boat. I have ended up buying books and magazines as a result of underparenting. I still live at home since work is hard to come by these days, and as a child I was frequently not allowed to have friends over, or I had to finish homework first. Plus my friend’s family was kinda weird as well, so she wasn’t allowed over either.

  5. RachelB Avatar

    Went through a recent breakup, and you’d be amazed (or maybe not!) at how much of this I forget when I’m under stress / emotional duress. Thank you so much for the reminder. I’m bookmarking this for especially rough days.

  6. Cat Avatar

    Wonderful post and an excellent reminder about not only how important self care is, but how to do it! Thank-you. :)

  7. Janet Avatar

    Your post made me cry. I was neglected as a child and went through the first 25 years of my life not knowing where and when the next meal was going to happen. Even after that I couldn’t always afford to have the foods that I wanted and craved. I certainly struggle with my relationship with food and my body and the reminder that nourishing food = good self-care is a good one. I hope that I can learn more with you.

  8. K Browning Avatar
    K Browning

    I forgot this just before I met my partner. My childhood food routine wasn’t great anyway, and when I broke up from a *previous boyfriend who did all the cooking, my eating habits all but stopped. I hated food shopping and hated cooking, so I’d either go hungry or eat out. Which obviously got me into big debt.

    My current boyfriend is the reason I now have a routine – I’m also starting to experiment, but reading this has confirmed that actually I had a really bad relationship with food

  9. Christine Lehman Avatar

    Wow, I really relate to a lot of this. One thing I have to give myself permission to do is to exercise in ways that do NOT require me to go to the gym. For so long I’ve equated “being healthy” with “forcing myself to go to the gym” – when the reality is, it’s something I just despise and think of as something to “get through” so I can go do something I really WANT to do. So today, I am going to stay home, crank up some happy music, and dance around the house instead!

  10. Amber Avatar

    I kinda disagree on the idea it is easy to learn what is missing as an adult. So many things just seem to be assumed to have been learned growing up and there is almost no way to figure out what is missing until you step in it. I don’t even know what I don’t know, how do I go about learning how to do it?

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I think you’re right. I don’t know why I typed “easily,” to be honest. But I do want to reassure people that things missed earlier in life can be learned later. It’s maybe not easy, but it’s possible.