How to Self Care When You’ve Been Taught Caring for Yourself is Selfish

Church leaders are among those especially susceptible to burn out

Cara Fox
Cara Fox
Sep 23, 2019 · 9 min read
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Photo: swissmediavision/E+/Getty Images

When I was a teenager I spent at least 13 hours a week, every week, at church. I made myself a part of every activity that went on in the community, even if I wasn’t invited or even eligible to participate. I’d often show up and offer to do jobs that no one else wanted to do, so my presence was appreciated and welcomed with open arms.

However, as I grew older, things began to change. First, I got a job and started taking a heavier course load at school. Then, I moved out on my own and began navigating life as a young adult. Juggling the new changes in my life meant I was increasingly exhausted — so exhausted I was burning out — so I stepped down from an official role in leadership.

At first, my pastors and church friends told me they understood. But as time went on, I realized my decision to step back had given rise to resentment and a skepticism about my commitment to Christ. For years I tried to resolve the doubt, disappointment and guilt that I felt by overextending myself to prove that I was still “worthy” to be included in my church community. I said “yes” when I wanted to say “no,” I forced myself to read books and listen to music I didn’t like, I went to church early and returned home late, and I neglected my health to the point where I often felt unable to connect with God simply because I was too exhausted.

It eventually became clear that I couldn’t manage everything, so I decided to step away from the church completely.

Stepping away gave me time to sort through the painful parts of my experience. I realized I had sacrificed many healthy boundaries because of shame, guilt and the desire to be accepted. I took responsibility for my healing by putting myself first, even if self-care was a form of “new age idolatry” that posed a stumbling block to eternal salvation. I told myself I needed it in order to survive this world before passing into the next! Sometimes, I worried I was making big, irreparable mistakes. I turned to blogs and magazine articles for support, but the advice always seemed trite. This meant I had to take it slow, using deliberate actions that gradually helped me heal my body, mind and spirit. These are a few things I learned along the way:

Become reacquainted with yourself

The first step I took towards healing was rebuilding a relationship with myself. I started taking time to recognize the needs and desires I had shut down, like a whack-a-mole, for so long. I built trust with myself by learning to discern the sound of my inner voice. I asked myself questions like, “What do you really want?” or “What’s the worst that can happen if…?”

The answers to these questions sometimes surprised me, but I kept asking them and giving myself the space to answer honestly. Instead of beating myself up, I made a decision to remind myself that God still loved me (Romans 8:38–39).

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Photo provided by author.

I reminded myself that I needed to love me, too. As I clumsily and imperfectly found ways to do that, I set boundaries that kept me from the sabotage of guilt, shame and people-pleasing. The more I strengthened this practice, the more I was able to make decisions that were right for me.

Differentiate self-care from selfishness

One of the most pervasive notions that plagued me in the beginning of my self-care journey was the fear that I was being selfish or self-serving. I struggled constantly with double-talk, uncertainty, and a nagging feeling of doom. My own fears were accentuated by the pressure of those who felt my choices were misguided. When confusion set in, it was often crippling. I wasted energy on my perceived failures instead of giving myself the rest I really needed.

Dr. Monique Tello, a practicing physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School, and published author, says that a lot of people struggle with guilt related to self-care: particularly parents, caregivers, and those in health or service professions. It is a common belief that self-care is self-indulgent, but the truth is that it isn’t optional. “If you think of a car, we don’t expect it to run endlessly without some kind of maintenance,” she says. “Self care is taking care of the maintenance of your car, your body and mind, so that you can function.”

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Photo courtesy of Dr. Tello

According to Dr. Tello, there are four well-supported categories that are scientifically proven to support a person’s health and wellness; superior nutrition, physical activity, sufficient sleep and stress management. That being said, she stresses that self-care begins with creating the space to practice the habits that will benefit you. “[It] requires a time commitment,” she says.

Carving out time to go for a bike ride or go to bed early may be difficult. That’s why practicing proper self-care also requires cognitive reframing, or identifying and challenging thought patterns that inhibit healthy behaviour. Dr. Tello recommends that instead of imagining self-care as treats or rewards for hard work, it should be reframed as engaging in ongoing habits that are scientifically proven to be healthy. “Some people think, ‘I’m going to go get myself an ice cream, and that’s my treat, and that’s taking care of myself,’” says Dr. Tello. “But actually, the evidence suggests that you are not going to feel better by eating processed foods high in sugar and saturated fat. That doesn’t mean that you can’t ever have a treat, but what you eat is the fuel for your body.”

Similarly, there is no evidence to support that watching television to unwind, sleeping in on the weekend, or skipping activities that help to manage stress will benefit someone long-term. “There are moms that might say ‘Oh, I wish I could go to yoga, that would be such a luxury.’” says Dr. Tello. “But, if that’s what helps you manage your stress, it’s not a luxury. It’s actually really important that you do that.”

If you can’t practice self-care for yourself, do it for someone that loves you

Bo Lane was a pastor for almost a decade, serving at evangelical churches in Oregon, Ohio and California. Despite his belief that he was called by God, Lane found himself pushing to meet the demands of his job. “I had this voice in the back of my head that said I wasn’t good enough unless I gave it everything I had,” he says now. “I just didn’t realize, at least for a very long time, that giving everything I had didn’t necessarily mean giving all of my time and my energy.”

By 2015, Lane was shouldering far more responsibility than he had signed up for. In addition to having a premature child, facilitating multiple ministries within the church and speaking on a regular basis, Lane was balancing the unwritten rules and expectations placed on him as a pastor. It wasn’t long before he burned out and resigned from full-time ministry, leaving behind the only career he had known since he was nineteen years old.

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Photo courtesy of Bo Lane

Lane decided to write about his experience on his personal blog, outlining his frustrations with ministry and why he wouldn’t return. Despite having a very small following at the time, his post garnered thousands of hits, and he was contacted by several people through comments and emails. The response inspired Lane to launch, a website created to share stories, offer encouragement, and provide a healthy platform for dialogue on the topic of pastoral burnout. He later went on to write the book, “Why Pastors Quit.”

After many years of reflection on the topic, Lane now says the most painful part of his experience was the way it affected his family.

“I neglected [them] by spending countless hours and, in hindsight, pointless sleepless nights on ministry-related activities, events or responsibilities,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, the times I spent in hospitals praying for people or the early mornings I spent preparing for messages to adults or young people, those times were worth the sacrifice. But often the pressure of ‘giving my all’ came at the expense of my family, not at the expense of the church.”

Lane’s story is a reminder that as much as we may assume self-care is all about us, it’s also about the people we share our lives with. It affects those who rely on us and who matter to us the most. While pushing ourselves to our absolute limit may convince us that we are being valiant or dutiful, the truth is that it’s not only harmful for us but also for those who really need us. Not the strung-out, stressed and tired version of us; the healthy, happy and present version of us that is ready to share and show up in our relationship with them.

In 2016, Lane’s website conducted an informal survey of pastors, ex-pastors and those in between. According to the results, 64 percent of respondents said they consider themselves overworked, 86 per cent said that at times they feel unable to meet the demands of their job, and 77 percent said they feel there are unrealistic demands or unwritten expectations placed on them and their family. Lane’s advice to those struggling is simple: Put yourself, and your family, first.

“Being intentional about self-care, about surrounding yourself with mentors, about saying good is good enough is the key to avoiding burn out,” he says. “Be intentional. Take vacations. Demand better salaries. Demand better healthcare. Fight for better vacation packages and more opportunities for your family to get rest. If a church is unwilling to understand your needs, find a different place to work.”

It was several years before I joined another spiritual community after leaving the church of my youth. When I did, however, it was as a much healthier individual and more authentic Christ-follower. If there is anything I’ve learned in all these years of trial and error self-care, it’s that it’s worth it. Perfection is not necessary, and in fact, it’s impossible.

But today, even the imperfectly cared-for version of me is brimming with more creativity, gratitude, and joy than I could have imagined. Miraculously, I haven’t lost my faith or been possessed by demons (yet). Instead, I’m thriving in the permission I gave myself to be awake and alive; to say “yes” to the things that are good for me, and “no” to the things that are not.

As a result of that, my ability to extend genuine care and grace to myself has softened my heart towards others and I am able to share myself with courage and strength I didn’t have before.

The Salve

The Salve is a progressive Christian lifestyle publication…

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