Why don’t I prioritize my mental health?

Whether it is because of time, finances, resources, or energy, so many of us resist prioritizing and investing in our health. The excuses we make are phenomenal and most of them are because of some external influence. We use our children, bosses, friends, family members, or mortgages to justify self-neglect. Otherwise, we complain about a lack of time, energy, or money as a reason not to focus on our own wellbeing and happiness. Why do we do this? Why are the boundaries we have for ourselves so permeable? Since when did the needs of other people become a reason to abandon our own physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health?

I am not pretending to be immune to this problem. Despite rather serious odds, I notice the fundamental activities that I need to maintain some equilibrium in my life rapidly disappear down the priority list when I am feeling tired, stressed, overwhelmed or frustrated. If it isn’t my feelings that get in the way of me maintaining some sort of routine, it is defiantly the needs of others – especially when they are having feelings. That could be a partner, a friend, a family member, a colleague, a client or even a stranger. It’s nonsensical. Whenever feelings are happening in or around me, all of a sudden, I forget about maintaining my own health as a daily practice and commitment.

Intellectually we know that self-care in the form of exercise, meditation, play, movement, creativity, and connection are fundamentally important and non-negotiable. So why do we sabotage this so easily? How is it that we talk ourselves out of investing time, energy and money into things that actually matter? And more importantly, why do we find ourselves doing other less helpful and impulsive things that create only short-term distractions from the fatigue and stress that is building up in our systems. I know I am not the only one who has wasted money on absolute rubbish right after telling myself that a pass for 10 yoga sessions is too expensive. Similarly, I am defiantly guilty of telling myself I don’t have time to take a walk in the late afternoon sun right before scrolling Insta for 45-minutes on the couch.

The truth is I don’t really know why we do this. I’m sure there has been all sorts of research conducted into neural pathways, dopamine and serotonin receptors, subconscious beliefs, trauma, consumer marketing, instant gratification, and other trickery that our minds are capable of.

In reality, it’s probably a combination of multiple factors and spending time figuring out what is at play might be part of the problem.

Just being aware of this phenomenon as ‘a thing’ might be enough to consciously bring our decision making, thought processes and habits to our attention. The fact that we deny ourselves healthy habits, activities, and connections is real. Evidence of this includes the rather rigid boundaries that health and wellness businesses now have to set for themselves due to non-attendance or poor communication. But even this isn’t enough to help us commit to ourselves. It seems as though most of us are insistent on waiting for things to get unbearable before we proactively do anything about it. Then, as soon as we start to feel better, we abandon the things that were working and go back to other less helpful activities and routines – and round in circles we go!

So how can we get more proactively engaged with our bodies, minds, hearts and spirits. How can we start getting more engaged in asking ourselves and our bodies what we might need? Can we start being more accountable to ourselves and our futures by making healthy choices on a daily basis? And more than that, what stories or beliefs do we tell ourselves when we try and hold ourselves to account?

If we want to be healthier, happier, more peaceful people then we have to look at the stuff that we use to get in our own way. Exploring our boundaries is probably a good place to start, knowing that if we have pretty permeable boundaries then it is going to be hard to give ourselves what we need. It is likely that we have been doing this for a long time and learnt to exist in this way given what we were exposed to in our family systems. As children, we might have learnt to believe that other people’s needs were more important than ours. Similarly, we might have been taught or learnt that if everyone else is happy then we will be okay. While this might have helped us to survive, as adults it is probably keeping us stuck in the very same dynamics we experienced growing up.

Below are a few reflection questions that might help you to explore your own difficulties in getting your needs met.

  1. What do you need to maintain physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual wellbeing?
    • e.g., running, yoga, dance, walking, martial arts, swimming, a team sport?
    • e.g., meditation, breathing practices, mindful walking, chanting, prayer?
    • e.g., cleaning, food preparation, systems for bills and other life admin?
    • e.g., date nights, social gatherings, family activities, games nights?
  2. What stories or beliefs do you tell yourself when you are tempted to abandon yourself?
    • e.g., I’m responsible for everyone or I like to share even if there is nothing left for myself.
    • e.g., I don’t like upsetting people, I feel too guilty if I left people down, I find it hard to make a decision for myself.
    • e.g., I’ll do it tomorrow, I don’t have to do things if I don’t want too, No one is watching me so it doesn’t matter.
    • e.g., I can’t be seen as selfish, People will judge me if I speak up, I want to be liked by everyone.
    • e.g., I can’t let people down, I don’t want the conflict, It is easier said than done.
  3. What situations or scenarios trigger you to abandon your own self-care needs?
  4. How can you remind yourself that your health and wellbeing matters and needs daily attention?
  5. What investments are you willing to make for yourself, knowing that in doing so most other areas of your life will improve?

If this all seems quite overwhelming and confronting, engaging in either individual or group therapy might be helpful. It certainly is an investment of both time and money, but my guess is that you are worth every bit of it. Learning to say YES to yourself and your needs can be extremely liberating. Not only do we feel healthier, happier, and a greater sense of freedom, but we also give others the opportunity to connect with us in more sustainable and fulfilling ways.

BE AWARE: if you are seeing a therapist, this absolutely will become ‘a thing’ in your therapy. You will prioritize other things instead of yourself and your appointment from time to time, you will try and talk yourself out of the usefulness of it given all the other things you are juggling, you might find yourself wanting to spend time or money on other things, you might set limits for yourself based on what funding options are available, and you probably will want to avoid certain topics… it will all come up. Remember this is excellent material to discuss with your therapist as we all learn to prioritize our needs and wellbeing.

Remember, as you do this work go gently, kindly, and with patience. This is big, deep, and often subconscious stuff that we are not always thinking about when we navigate our daily lives. To help you on your journey, books like Setting boundaries: Care for yourself and stop being controlled by others’ by Dr Rebecca Ray are a great resource.

With love,

Sarah

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