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6 Ways to Start Putting Yourself First Without Feeling Guilty


Practicing self-care can improve your quality of life, but taking the first steps to get there can be easier said than done. Before we can begin to enjoy the proven benefits of putting ourselves first, experts say we have to free ourselves from any negative habits that are holding us back. 

Our panel of experts, including clinical psychologist Susan Pollak, Ed.D., who has taught mindfulness at Harvard Medical School for 20 years, therapist Ilene Cohen, Ph.D, who authored the award-winning self-help book, When It’s Never About You ($14.95, Amazon), and functional medicine expert Kendall Ritz, M.D., who practices at the Brandywine Center for Integrative Medicine, weighed in on how you can learn to break the cycle. Read on to find out what they had to say. 

Imagine Yourself in a ‘Circle of Care’

For many of us, the idea of taking care of ourselves goes against previously ingrained views we might possess about sacrifice and virtue, Pollak says. 

“We often need a ‘reframe’ to get comfortable with the idea [of taking time for ourselves],” the Self-Compassion for Parents ($14.95, Amazon) author explains. “Instead of thinking about ‘me time,’ imagine a ‘circle of care’—a big group of people around the world who take the time to be kind to themselves.” Picturing yourself as part of this caring community gives you permission to take time for yourself.

Learn to Strike a Balance

“So many of us live in the cycle of give, give, give … and end up burned-out,” reveals Cohen. “It’s much healthier to be ‘self-full’— somewhere between selfless and selfish.” To strike that balance, next time someone makes a request of your time, just pause. Evaluate what response will serve your needs before automatically saying yes. “Over time, your relationships will grow, because you’re being more authentic — you may even convince your friends that they deserve to be self-full, too!”

Acknowledge Your Feelings

“It’s a given that we’ll experience some guilt when we start to make ourselves a priority,” says Ritz. “Instead of ignoring that feeling, ask yourself what’s behind it.” 

If a nagging voice inside your head won’t let you zone out and enjoy your HGTV in peace, is it because you feel like you’re wasting time? “Remind yourself that watching TV can be restorative,” Dr. Ritz says, “but only if you’re sending your body the signal that it can relax and melt into that armchair.”

Start With an ‘Easy Win’

Dr. Ritz advises starting your self-care journey off with a super easy goal. “Decide on a small self-kindness action step that’s almost impossible not to achieve,” she advises. For example, maybe you start every morning with one minute of deep breathing. “I call this the ‘easy win,’ and it’s critical to keeping momentum going,” she says. “Do you crave a power nap, or want to walk barefoot in the grass? There’s your self-care starting point for today.”

Shift Your Outlook

The most valuable self-care activities are ones that Dr. Ritz calls “state shifters.” “They interrupt the stress response,” she notes. According to Ritz, state shifters are different for everyone, though bubble baths, sunlight, and music are all powerful examples. “Find three to four go-to’s that work for you. For me, it’s putting my body in motion — just marching in place sparks a shift.”

Make It Your Mission

To stay committed to taking time for yourself, Cohen encourages penciling “self-care slots” into your calendar and crafting a mission statement to look at every day. Jot down what you truly value, whether it’s volunteering or caring for wildlife in your yard. “If you’ve been putting yourself on the back burner, include your resolve to change that,” Cohen says. “Keep your mission statement visible on your computer or phone. Over time, you’ll integrate self-care with your most closely-held goals.”

This story originally appeared in our print magazine. 

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