love, connection, self-care, self-love, functional medicine, transformation, wellness, healing

The Dangerous Myth that Self-Care is Selfish

The Antidote? Self-Love (In Five Simple Steps).

How Caring for Ourselves FIRST is Vital…for Us AND Others

You’ve heard it a million times. Why? Because it is vital:

“In the event of cabin decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.”

-Commercial airlines in-flight safety instructions

Sally’s Story: Repairing a Lifetime of Self-Neglect

By the time she came to see me, Sally was SO FRUSTRATED, having made countless resolutions for healthy change but was not able to sustain a single one.

Sound familiar? This was me too at one point in my life!

She had come skidding into extreme exhaustion after the birth of her second child. She went back to her full time job after a six-week maternity leave and found herself working eight-hour days, picking up her three-year old daughter and new baby at daycare on the way home, fixing supper for the entire family, putting the kids to bed, then doing all of the household chores after that. It had not occurred to her to ask her husband for help because he was the major breadwinner for the family, after all. A good wife bears all, does it all, and puts her needs last (Yikes! So outdated, and so unfair, but still a powerful cultural legacy that takes its toll on many of us.)

In Sally’s case, she didn’t consider her own needs at all.

I got to see her about a year into this adventure when she was barely making it.

Her sleep was short and not of good quality. She often had difficulty falling to sleep and would be awakened by one or both children multiple times through the night. She got up in the morning feeling unrestored and usually quite stunned by her alarm, going off far earlier than she was ready for.

She had migraine headaches, vague joint pain, constipation, dry skin, weight gain around the middle, sugar cravings, depression… and she felt trapped.

Clearly we had a great deal of work to do to improve her health. Countless things really.

But it felt overwhelming–way too overwhelming for someone on the brink of emotional disaster because she did not believe that she was worthy of her own time, energy, attention, and support. She gave it all way and was paying a huge price.

Honor Thyself

In the totality of all her aches and pains and problems, Sally’s foundational issue was about honoring herself.

This is where we had to begin: with the work on self-love.

Intellectually she got it. She completely agreed with my observations and understood exactly what I meant when I reflected her personal story back to her–that her life was about everyone else—her children, her husband, her boss and coworkers—and there was no time, space, or energy left for her. How she asked for nothing–no assistance or support. How she shouldered the whole load of it all herself. How it was all too much.

But she had carried this story–that it was all up to her–for a lifetime.

This was her story.

She did not feel worthy of asking for help. She did not feel worthy of making her own needs as important as the other people’s in her life.

She came in last. Dead. Last.

Now she was so physically depleted and lacking in energy reserves that she didn’t have the emotional fire to advocate for herself, to ask for help, or to set personal boundaries. She was too tired. It did not feel possible.

But I sensed a glimmer of hope… she was here sitting with me, telling her story after all.

Baby Steps

We started with very simple steps that she felt she could handle. We negotiated these carefully because the balance of her life was precarious. She was so dang tired and there would be no quick fix. But there was important work to be done.

Sitting in my office, she crafted simple affirmations about honoring herself, using her own words.

On note cards she wrote: “I honor myself, I am worthy of my time and attention, I receive the love and support that I need, I am fully supported by the Divine Universe.” She planned to copy these onto sticky notes and place them on her bathroom mirror, in the kitchen, and on her desk at work.

Through her work with positive affirmations, she created small (but ultimately powerful) inroads to shifting her beliefs about herself and what she could expect from others.

Along with the affirmations we planned small healthy changes to her food plan, sleep, and movement–baby steps, just to get her started, so she could actually accomplish these things.

We pulled out sugar and added more vegetables to her diet. We moved up her bedtime by just half an hour, and she enlisted her husband’s help with the nightly chores (which, turns out, he was happy to do–he didn’t know how she felt!).

We had her stand more at work (using a standing desk), walk the steps instead of the elevator, and take short walks with the kids on the weekend.

Sally continues to be a work in progress but has made huge strides. By keeping the goals small and doable, and by following up together regularly to explore her progress and develop her action plan accordingly, she has been successful at creating sustainable changes, which have led to her feeling much better.

The positive affirmations were singularly pivotal to her success: they had a powerful effect on her, inspiring new hope, opening her mind to the possibility of positive change and healing.

She learned that it was not just okay, but necessary, to make herself a priority by tending to her own needs.

What Sally Can Teach Us All

Sally’s journey of health and healing had to begin with the fundamental truth that she is innately worthy of her own care.

AND that making herself a priority–caring for herself first–is necessary not just for her, but for the wellbeing of those around her, who depend on her resilience and resources.

Her previous habit of self-neglect in service of everyone else’s needs had to change. This new understanding about her worthiness for self-care was the gateway to the important work that needed to be done–eating and sleeping better, relieving stress, and moving more–that lead, ultimately, to improved health and wellbeing for herself as well as the important people in her life.

Self-Love is Scary

This is the scary part of self-care—and where each of our healing journeys really begins: with self-love.

This is where countless of my clients have to invest their early efforts because they’ve lived lives in which everyone else’s needs and concerns have come before their own—leaving no time or space to care for themselves. Sound familiar?

This all-to-common practice of self-neglect is soul and energy-sapping, and a major player in illness—it stands squarely in the way of healing.

Self-care is not selfish, it’s vital.

All sustainable healing requires that we place ourselves in a prominent position within our own lives. There is no other way to support even the most basic acts of self-care.

It Starts With a Decision

Contrary to what most of us tend to believe, honoring ourselves through self-care doesn’t require that we feel self-love—or even believe it (whew!)—for it to work.

All that is required is the simple decision to heal through the action of love—because love is a verb—it’s what we do. It starts with a decision, fueled by intention, followed by action. That’s all.

Self-Love: We’ve. Got. This. (In Five Simple Steps)

One: You already innately know how to do this. It’s totally in your wheel-house.

Take just a moment to reflect on something that you do for yourself daily, no matter how small you think it is. Perhaps you make a nice cup of coffee or tea for yourself, enjoy a long hot shower, leisurely read the paper, take time to eat lunch, talk to a friend, go for a walk, cuddle with your dog.

Think of something you do for yourself each day. Be there in the moment with it. Be reminded of the experience and how it feels.

Consider: How does this practice make you feel? Important? Relaxed? Rewarded? Consoled? Uplifted? Peaceful?

Now: Carry that feeling with you. Marinate in it. Be empowered by the fact that you innately possess the impulse to care for yourself. Let’s carry that into the rest of our lives.

Two: Breath into this.

Feel overwhelmed? Yah, we all do.

Establishing ourselves as a personal priority is scary! What will our families think? How will our friends respond? Will they be angry? Jealous? Resentful?… Maybe. They just might be all those things. But it’s also possible they won’t, just like Sally’s husband, who didn’t know she wanted help with the nightly household chores and was happy to help when she asked him.

And, who knows, maybe self-care will be difficult. We’ll have to learn something new or do something hard.

Yep. Self-care is not for sissies!

But there are always inroads to what we want to achieve. Remember those baby steps?

And it starts with Breath… with Breath and being here in the Present. Not worrying about the future. Not letting our assumptions about what’s to come drive anxiety or worry or hopelessness.

Let’s put those aside for now and breathe deeply. Slowly. In and out. We. Can. Do. This. Create space for the decision and intention to heal.

Three: Start With Just One Small Step

What will that be for you? Remember: a decision, followed by an action.

For Sally it was creating affirmations that supported her sense of worthiness to make herself a priority.

I am worthy of self-care. I am worthy of my time and attention. I receive all the support I need.

Fifty more steps in a day. One extra serving of vegetables. Fifteen more minutes of sleep. Five minutes of meditation and breath work–heck, how about one deep breath?

Endless small inroads… all leading to progress and deep change.

Plant the seed… that first decision and action that sets us up for those to come. One begets the next and the next and the next. Before we know it, we feel better.

Four: Practice Non-Judgment

There is nothing more hurtful to the soul than judgment. Especially the insidious forms of judgment we inflict on ourselves through neglect of our needs in favor of other’s.

This is easy to go unnoticed as we do the nice thing, or the socially acceptable thing, to fulfill our duties or the expectations of those close to us. Casting ourselves into last place.

My rule of thumb: When I feel overwhelmed or resentful in service of my self-proclaimed duties, something is out of balance. I am likely giving too much to others without filling my own energy tank first. My first impulse is to blame myself for my feelings (I jump to self judgment). But I’m learning to read the signs of my overwhelm and recognize when I’m giving too much to others and not enough to myself.

Suspend self-judgment. How might we interpret our weariness or overwhelm in a more ennobling way? That supports rather than condemns us?

Five: Learn to Fail Well

In other words, fail. Just fail. Failure will always be our best teacher. It’s the obstacle or disappointment or disaster that shows us unequivocally that there’s a better way for us at this time.

Fail and stand back up. We must find the strength to continue the risk of trying–of running the experiment of “x” in our lives today. Knowing that success and failure both lead to progress. As Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Thanks God he thought about his experiments that way! Where would we be if he had given up?

Your self-care is vital to us all… Tell us what you plan to do for yourself today.


Karyn Shanks, MD. Self-Care: How to Cope With the Loneliness. 2017.

Karyn Shanks, MD. Thought Shifting: Using the Power of Positive Affirmations to Change Our Minds. 2016.

Karyn Shanks, MD. Four Simple Steps to Jumpstart Change. 2017.

Karyn Shanks MD


Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-eight year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.


    I really like the way you tie self love to taking care of oneself. We can so easily convince ourselves that having that extra sugar or sleeping or watching tv instead of going to yoga is a “treat” that we deserve. Of course, it’s the reverse…eating right and exercising is the gift we need to give ourselves. I also think that learning to stop the constant self-critique is a part of learning to love oneself. Why are we so willing to love so many people (many of the “wrong” people) and so hard to love ourselves? How did self-love become equated with conceit? Thanks for the thoughtful post.


    So true! And yet when we really think it through, and acknowledge the very positive effect our own self-care has on all those in our lives, the conclusion is that self-care is also how we care for others… It’s the opposite of conceit. It’s vital. Thanks for your thoughtful comments!


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