Three Ingredients You Need to Master Self-care Without Guilt

Do you struggle with implementing regular self-care activities because you feel guilty or believe you’re being selfish?  

Working moms, who already spend a significant chunk of time away from their kids in pursuit of a career, may feel compelled to spend every moment outside of work with their kids, lest they fail to achieve the elusive and much-coveted work-life balance.  Moms who are not employed outside of the home may believe that it is their duty to dedicate themselves exclusively to their kids, as being a mom is their “most important job,” one they deliberately prioritized over having a career.

The Conflict

Whether you’re a career mom or a stay-at-home mom, when it comes to implementing self-care activities the inner critic is likely ever-present and relentless in her criticisms: “You’re selfish,” “you’re not a good mom,” “you don’t really love your kids,” “why did you have them if you’re going to take off on them whenever you get a chance.” This inner critic is the part of us who is looking after our kids’ interests. It is the part that reminds us of our responsibility as a mom, the part that wants to do a good job and give our kids all the love, attention, and support in the world.  From that perspective, the inner critic serves a good purpose.

But this inner critic competes with another part of us, the part that longs to have quiet moments to be alone, to reflect, to meditate, to dream.  The part who longs to do some of the activities we used to do before we had kids, or hang out with the friends we used to hang out with and have not seen in forever.  What about the part who dreams about fun, romantic dates, who wants to feel sexy and attractive and youthful. And then there’s the part that has ambitions and interests and desires that go beyond those of being a mother and wife.  This is the part that seeks fulfillment as a human being.

Why does it seem like these sides of ourselves are always in conflict and cannot peacefully co-exist?  Why must we sacrifice our own desires, our interests, our happiness and our fulfillment just because we got married and had kids?  

I am a firm believer that mothers are women first, and as such we have wishes, desires, and interests of our own.  I believe that too often when we become mothers we forget that we are also people. I also believe that we can be great moms, giving our time and energy to our kids and spouse, all while we continue to grow and nurture ourselves as human beings.

“Supermom” who?

There is much made about the ideal of the “supermom,” a superhuman character that we embody when we take care of home, kids, husband, work, doing it all perfectly and gracefully, pulling it off as if without effort, and leaving everyone else to wonder “how does she do it?”  Well, I don’t know about you, but I am no superhero.  I am a flesh-and-blood woman with faults and vulnerabilities, as well as limited time and energy.  And I suspect that if you’re reading this you may feel the same way as I do. I think that while the concept of “supermom” is a beautiful ideal, most of the time it creates pressure and stress for us, and it is a myth that is not terribly useful in everyday life.

I don’t think we need to wear a cape or be “supermoms.”  I think we can care for our children and partners at the same time that we honor and tend to our own needs, desires, and personal growth.  To me that is being a real, whole person. If we want to embrace this notion we must start with changing our mindset about motherhood and about self-care.

The Cup Metaphor

I find it useful to explain the importance of self-care using the metaphor of a cup.  As I see it, we walk around with a cup of internal resources from which we give and give to others, including our kids, our partners, our jobs, and other people, as well as activities.  As moms we may feel most committed to giving to our kids, as they are the most vulnerable and needy. However, because we are not superheroes, our resources are limited. This means that our cup will run dry sooner or later, unless we actively refill it on a regular basis.  

What Happens When You Don’t Refill Your Cup?

Just like a car cannot run when it is not given fuel or appropriate maintenance, neither can our body, mind and spirit be at their best when our resources are depleted and we have nothing left to give.  Thus, an empty cup, in my view, would result in symptoms such as:

  • Exhaustion

  • Overwhelm

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Resentment

  • Irritability, anger, losing temper easily

  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach problems, poor sleep, high blood pressure, etc.

What Gets in the Way of Self-care?

Despite how well we conceptually understand the importance of self-care, many moms seem to have an incredibly hard time implementing it on a regular basis in order to keep that cup adequately supplied.  A common obstacle to moms engaging in self-care activities is feeling like they’re being selfish for doing anything that is just for them, something that is for their own personal wellbeing. Please know that this is entirely normal and common.   In addition, feeling this way is a manifestation of how much you care for your kids and how much you want to be a good mother to them. As women we are socialized to put others’ needs first, especially once we become mothers. This means that any time we do something that deviates from this belief that we must put others first we may enter into a state of cognitive dissonance- i.e. when our behavior doesn’t match our beliefs and values.  For this reason, it sometimes becomes necessary to:

  1. Change our mindset about what self-care actually entails

  2. Be clear on whether it is guilt or shame that we’re experiencing when we deny or ignore our own needs

  3. Look at our beliefs and values to determine which of them currently serve and not serve


The Three Ingredients to Mastering Self-care

I will now describe what I see as the three ingredients to ensure that we will, not only fill the cup regularly, but experience joy and fulfillment even as we take care of our families and provide great role modeling for our daughters.

1. Self-care Starts with Your Mind

Having explained the metaphor of the cup, I want to clarify a point here.  Most people think of mom self-care as going to yoga, getting a manicure, or having a girls’ night out.   There is no question that these are cup-filling activities and are essential to refresh and renew us. At the same time, the calm and joy that we experience from these activities tends to be short-lived because they primarily address self-care from the outside in.  I have come to believe that self-care starts in our minds because we must address the mental and emotional roadblocks that prevent us from truly loving and nurturing ourselves at the same time that we are nurturing and supporting our children.

2. Is it really guilt or is it shame?

In a previous blog post Mommy Guilt vs. Mommy Shame. What's the Difference and Why you should care I talked about the distinction between shame and guilt, noting that, whereas guilt is about doing something bad, shame is about being bad.  Brené Brown defines shame as: “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”  

If you’re struggling with scheduling and completing self-care activities because you feel rotten about it, you may find it useful to ask questions such as: “Am I doing something bad by doing activities that fill my cup?”  “Am I being bad?” “ If my dear friend (also a mom) were engaging in an enjoyable activity without her children, would I say that she was being bad or was doing something bad?”

Let’s take an example. Say that you decided to go to a girlfriend’s house for several hours to watch a movie, leaving your kids at home with no food in the house.  In that case there might be good reason to feel guilty because your plan does not adequately take into account the kids’ needs. If, by contrast, the kids are well provided for and are mature enough to be safe on their own for a few hours, or have a parent at home to supply their immediate needs, there may be no real foundation for that guilt.  Now, if you still feel as though you are being “bad” by doing things that you enjoy and that make you feel good then this may be more about whether you feel worthy or deserving of self-care, i.e. it is linked more to mommy shame.   

In either case, the questions “am I doing something bad?” and “am I being bad?” lead us into an exploration of our own needs and desires, as well as our values and beliefs, and our sense of worthiness and of being good enough.   But whether it is guilt or shame you’re dealing with, ultimately the important thing is that you can choose to create a different experience, one in which you are satisfied and happy while also feeling proud of yourself as a mother. Sometimes creating this shift can be achieved on your own, and other times it requires help and support.

3. Belief and Values Analysis

In order to create a new experience of motherhood, one of the first steps that I do in my coaching program for moms is to have a discussion with my client about her values and beliefs around motherhood.  Beliefs are essentially convictions that we have about ourselves and the world around us. They are statements that we hold to be true. Some examples of beliefs around motherhood may be:

  • “A mom’s career should be secondary to her role as a mother and wife.”

  • “Fathers and mothers should equally share all parental and family responsibilities.”

  • “Mothers sacrifice their interests and needs and put their kids first.”

  • “To take care of my family properly I need to take care of myself first.”

Values, by contrast, refer to overarching ideals that we hold dear and which can be summarized in one or a few words. For example:

  • Fairness

  • Giving

  • Sacrifice

  • Loyalty

  • Independence

As human beings, we are always growing and changing.  Therefore, it is possible that beliefs and values that once seemed very important and were very useful to us may become less so at a different stage of our lives. For example, the belief that “mothers sacrifice their interests and needs and put their kids first” may have been a dearly held belief based on your childhood experiences, but may not fit well with dreaming about taking a weekend vacation with a dear friend away from your husband and kids.  If you have decided that taking such a trip is something you want to do and it is neither doing bad nor being bad, it may be that the original belief needs to change to give way to a new one that better fits the life you want to lead. This would bring your beliefs, values, thoughts, and behaviors back into congruence, thereby reducing conflict and stress.

Ready to Fill the Cup?

Now that you better understand what real, deep self-care is all about and what it takes to do it, I would like to invite you to brainstorm ideas on how you will fill your own cup.  Take a sheet of paper and orient it horizontally (landscape style). Make a table five wide with columns. In column one write down your self-care idea. You may wish to bring to mind activities that you used to do and have gotten away from. In the second column write down whether this is an activity you will do on your own or with someone else. If someone else is involved write that person’s name in that column too.  In the third column identify any obstacles that may get in the way of your successfully implementing this self-care strategy. In the fourth column write down how you will address this obstacle. When you think of addressing the obstacles you may also consider whether you will need the help or support of someone else to successfully implement the strategy, such as your spouse, a friend, or a professional. Identify that person and how you will recruit their help.  Finally, in the fifth column write down when you will do/start the self-care strategy and how often you plan on doing it. Be as specific as possible (e.g. every Wednesday at 7 p.m., or the last Friday of each month).

Once you have completed this process, let me know how it went and what aha’s you had.  You can send me an email at info@joyfuimperfectioncounseling.com or join the Recovering Supermoms Facebook group, where you can share your triumphs and challenges with other moms.  Your comments may just inspire or support another mom in the group.