Self-Care With a Side of Guilt: How to Set Boundaries and Not Feel Like a Let Down
As simple as Instagram makes self-care seem, following through is often easier said than done.
Making time for ourselves often means saying no to others—turning down a night out, career-boosting work assignment, or phone call with a friend in need of advice. For me, setting those boundaries often feels impossible.
I’m constantly saying yes: Sure, I’ll take on that last-minute story. Yes, let’s absolutely meet for coffee. Of course I’ll mentor your sister’s friend’s daughter!
And whenever I do turn my “yes” into a “no” in the name of self-care, I feel wracked with guilt—like I’m not showing up for others or I’m wasting my time. Cue me sitting at home trying to chill in a bubble bath, but making mental lists of who or what I’m letting down.
Sounds super relaxing, right?
Turns out, I’m not alone in this kind of self-care shame.
“We are surrounded by overt and covert messages that encourage us to minimize our own needs and feel guilty when we engage in self-care,” psychotherapist Ashley Elder told Psych Central. “Think how many times a day you see some kind of reference to a woman ‘indulging,’ ‘splurging,’ or ‘sinning’ because she meets a basic need like eating food she enjoys or taking time to relax.”
So, how can we embrace self-care—without the guilt? Here, six ways to start:
1. Plan Dates With Yourself
One tactic that’s helped me own my “no” in the name of self-care: Making standing appointments with me, myself, and I.
My weekly yoga classes? They’re on my calendar, right up there with work assignments and birthday dinners. When I give self-care the same importance as all my other commitments, it not only reminds me to guard my time, but reaffirms that it’s time well spent. It’s helped me make self-care a regular part of my routine, rather than a whenever-I-can-get-it thing.
2. Get Serious About Why You Feel Guilty
If your me time is plagued with guilt, you might be connecting your self-worth with your productivity.
The next time you find yourself fretting over, say, the 20 minutes you set aside to just read, grab a pen, some paper, and ask yourself why.
Do you feel like time you don’t spend working is time wasted?
Do you feel like others might deserve your time more than you do?
Write down your thoughts, then read them over—you may be able to see the links between taking time for yourself and feeling guilty about it more clearly, and seeing your thoughts written out might help you move past them.
Bonus: That time spent journaling counts as self-care, too. A recent study found that those who regularly wrote about stressful and emotional events had better psychological and physical outcomes than those who kept their thoughts bottled up.
3. Digitally Disconnect
One major pitfall of the digital age? 24⁄7 reachability makes it nearly impossible to take a step back, and texts and calls from family and friends can serve as a constant reminder of what you “should” be doing instead.
Put your phone on do-not-disturb whenever you’re engaging in a self-care activity. That way, you won’t get sucked back into your emotional web, but you won’t miss emergencies, either.
If you’re worried friends of coworkers might not know how to handle a few hours of your absence, set an Out Of Office response explaining that you’ll be offline for a few hours and can handle things when you’re back.
4. Be Honest About Your Needs—But Know You Don’t Owe an Explanation
If a pal asks why you’re suddenly saying no to happy hour or can’t pick up her packages while she’s on a work trip, tell the truth. Chances are, they'll relate and respect your needs.
And if someone questions your self-care time, try to stand firm. Your time is your time, and taking care of yourself means you can better care for others in the future.
Still feel impossible? Try emailing a response, using the formula here.
5. Offer an Alternative
If you feel like you’re constantly turning down others in the name of solo time, try responding with a “no, but…”
Suggest a different time for a hangout session or another way to help out. You could even try setting aside designated time for friends, or co-workers, in the same way you set aside time for yourself.
If you find yourself dreading or rescheduling the same appointments and catch-up drinks, though, you might want to think about tapering off that relationship—remember, preventing future burnout counts as self-care, too.
6. Find a Self-Care Crew
It’s easy to talk yourself out of taking a solo break—but, as we’ve discussed, harder to say “no” to friends. Use that truth to your advantage. Find a yoga class, meditation group, or even a similarly burnt-out friend who can take some R&R with you. Yes, you'll be together, but you'll get to recharge solo, too.
That accountability will help you stick to your routine, and the other class-goers will respect your inward focus, since they’re likely there for the same reasons.
Bottom line: Self-care isn't selfish—but it can feel that way. Be kind to yourself as you learn to prioritize me time—and know you'll be better for it.
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