Why It’s Not Selfish To Take Care of Yourself

One of the most compelling findings Jeff Greenhaus and I reported in our research (described in our book, Work and Family–Allies or Enemies?) on the lives and careers of over 800 business professionals was this: The more time that working mothers spent taking care of themselves, the better were the emotional and physical health of their children.

Does this apparent paradox surprise you? It shouldn’t, for it’s just another bit of proof that if you don’t take care of yourself then you can’t really serve those who depend on you. So why is it so difficult for people to devote the resources needed to take care of themselves?

When I ask participants in my Total Leadership program to rate how they feel about how things are going in the four main parts of their lives–work, home, community, and self–it’s often the last that’s rated lowest.

It’s easiest to ignore the self because the only one to whom you’re accountable is you. In the face of intense pressure to meet the performance expectations of the people around you at work, at home, and in the community you’re naturally inclined to give yourself short shrift.

Focusing time and attention on yourself is too readily construed as being, well, selfish — and so you’re likely to feel guilty if you do so. Unfortunately, while it might seem noble in the short run to sacrifice the needs you have to cultivate your mind, body, and spirit, over time it’s a recipe for burnout.

A sustainable life as leader who contributes meaningfully to the world requires the discipline to take care of you, too.

How, then, to overcome the guilt? The key is to very specifically identify how, by better meeting the expectations you have for enhancing your mind, your body, and your spirit, you are indeed making things better at work, at home, and in the community.

It’s not that hard: Just think, for example, about how you’re more likely to perform better at work and at home and in the community — according to the standards of those who evaluate you in these different domains — if you get a full night’s rest, exercise regularly, eat well, meditate, do yoga, take a walk, listen to music, or do whatever it is that rejuvenates and restores you.

Try it for a month or so, making sure to assess the impact of your experiment on your performance. If you’ve designed it well, with the interests of your key stakeholders in mind, then you’ll probably find that by taking better care of yourself you’re better able to get the results you want in serving others.

After doing experiments like these, I ask participants my program to rate their satisfaction in all four areas of life again. The biggest jump is in the domain of “self” — by an average increase of 39 percent! And their satisfaction goes up while their performance improves across all domains, too. (For an example, see the video of Deika Morrison.)

What have you done recently to take better care of yourself and strengthen your ability to perform well in the other parts of your life? In these stressful times, it’s more important than ever that we all do so.

Leave a Reply