For people with low self esteem, self care is not something that automatically seems important. When you don’t feel much sense of self worth, putting your needs first is difficult. If everything else around you seems more important than you are, taking care of yourself is hard, and maybe you won’t get round to that until you’re too sick, exhausted, burned out and broken to have any option but to stop.
At this point, helpful people telling you that you should take better care of yourself can feel like further proof of how useless you are. Of course if you’d been any good you’d have done all the things AND the self care and wouldn’t be letting everyone down by falling over… So let me suggest that if you want to help someone who needs to do a better job of self care, telling them off or making them feel useless is likely to push them the other way. If you want to tell someone else that it is their fault they are crashing and burning, think carefully about what this might do to them.
For some people, there’s an extra layer of horribleness here. If you’ve dealt with abuse, then you may well have learned that doing anything for you is dangerous. If you’ve been verbally or physically punished for taking care of your own needs, or ever trying to put your own needs ahead of those of your abuser, self care may feel dangerous. There may be mental health backlashes when you do try to care for yourself. You may experience a great deal of anxiety around self care – and if you haven’t examined the mechanics of why that happens, you might not know it isn’t because self care is a bad thing when you do it. Facing down old memories to build a new perspective is hard work and something to do gently.
If this sounds like you, let me mention that everyone deserves to have their basic needs met. If you feel fear, queasiness, distress, or frozen up in face of the idea of self care, there’s probably something in your history that has badly undermined you. However, with time, and care and gentleness, you can rebuild, and looking after yourself can stop being a fearful thing. You are entitled to that.
It’s easy for people who haven’t been round something like this to get frustrated, and cross, with people who struggle in this way. People who cannot take care of their own needs can be frustrating to deal with. It can be horrible watching someone march grimly towards their next inevitable crash. But none of that makes it a good idea to get angry with people who struggle on this score. Telling someone off will only reinforce their low self esteem. Blaming them for the vicious circles they are trapped in will only add to their low self esteem. Broken self esteem is a serious affliction. Blaming a person for the consequences is like blaming someone who injures themselves sometimes because they have poor co-ordination.
Encouragement is good. Reminding people of what they are worth, and that they deserve not only the most basic of life sustaining things, but also nice things, is good. Showing up and being and doing the nice things can also help. Doing it once doesn’t magically fix everything. If you want to help someone climb out of a hole, that takes time, and a lot of care to help offset where there’s been a shortage of care. Patience is key here. Broken self esteem is a much harder fix than broken bones and takes a good deal longer.