Take care of yourself first

I’m a strong believer of “Take care of yourself first”.  It had been a long way before I came to this point.  Let me share about my journey.

Growing up:

I grew up in the mid 60s and 70s in rural China, the time of the Cultural Revolution.  Like every youngster, I was heavily influenced by the political propaganda.  It was almost impossible to develop my own thoughts.

If hearing the same stuff over and over again, you get used to it in some way.  You become numb, and lose the capability of independent thinking and questioning.  That was what happened during my pre-school and primary school years, when I was growing.

“Take care of yourself first?”  I was told that’s selfishness, and should be condemned.  Everyone should devote their life and time to the public, and government.  Just forget about yourself, and your family.

Not sure you ever heard about the young guy “Lei Feng” in the 60s in China.  After his death, he was promoted as the role model by the government.

What did “Lei Feng” do?  He minded everyone else’s business except his own.  That was being bragged as “Selfless”, “The model of serving the people wholeheartedly”.

Now it sounds so silly, fake, and bizarre to me.

Confusing years:

During my years of middle school and high school, I got confused.  The Cultural Revolution was gone.  But the damage had been so traumatic that it lingered there for years to come.

What should I believe now?  Obviously the old stuff couldn’t hold water.  Being selfless simply didn’t work.  If we didn’t care about ourselves and families, where would the money come from to pay for the food, clothes, shelter and schools?

I didn’t want to know what I believed in earlier was wrong.  But the old stuff just didn’t make any sense at all.

It was the time, when the old was gone, but the new was not born yet.  Quite confusing for a teenager like me.

College years and a little bit beyond:

I attended a technical college in Beijing in the early 80s.  I thought finally I figured out my own priority.  My plan was to take care of my parents first.

Why parents?  Well, that’s the way of traditional Chinese thinking:  the main obligation/priority for adult children is to take care of their parents.  This is the way to express the gratitude (or pay back the emotional debts) for what the parents did for the kids earlier.

It was not easy for my parents to raise me, and send me to college.  At that time, I felt I owed them a lot.  I would do anything and everything to make them happy, and let them have a good life.

My final version of belief:

When I was getting close to the age of 30, my thoughts changed quite a lot.  Older means wiser, doesn’t it?  “Take care of yourself first” – this has been my belief in the last 20+ years.

Once I became a mom, it gave me a new perspective to look at the relationship with my parents.  I was, and am, still grateful for what they did for me.  I care about them.

But happiness is a choice.  I can’t make them happy.  There is a limit what I can do for them.  Just like I should take care of my life, they need to do the similar for their life.

What have I been doing to take care of myself first?

Take care of yourself first, everyone knows the importance.  But, it’s so hard to execute, isn’t it?

Why?  The resources are limited: time, energy, and money.  There are so many that are competing for your resources: work, kids, aging parents, siblings, friends, pets, chores, and smart phones.  I’m sure, smart phones hate me, as I always bad-mouthed about them.

Wait a moment.  The most important person is missing from the list: You.  What about yourself?  Do you block some time for you, and only you, every day?  One hour is great, and 30 minutes is not bad.  Use the time to relax, and do something you enjoy, or simply do nothing.

Don’t feel guilty for taking care of yourself.  That’s the right thing to do.  You need down time.  The body and mind is a super complicated machine.  It can’t run in a deficit mode forever.

This is some of what I have done so far.  There is always room for me to improve for sure.

  • Get enough sleep:

When I was working, no matter how hectic the day was, I always reminded myself to get enough sleep.  Everything could wait for tomorrow.

  • Take a sick day when sick:

It sounds weird, doesn’t it?  But many people keep working even when they are sick.  That slows down the recovery, and makes life even more miserable.

  • Never give up vacation days:

Are you using all of your vacation days every year?  If not, you got to think about it again.  Use it, and don’t lose it.  According to CNN Money, Americans gave up half of their vacation days.

  • Cooking break:

Cooking is a chore to me.  While working, I didn’t cook the dinners on Wednesdays and Saturdays for several years.

My family got some simple carry out.  In this way, I could relax.  Especially on Saturdays, I could have lots of time to wind down, and enjoy a book or music at the yard.

  • Don’t be afraid to say NO:

No matter it is lending money to a friend or relative, or something else I don’t feel comfortable with, I always have the courage to say no.  And no means no.

It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.  I’m still using my weekly planner (the Christmas gift to myself last year), and writing down my 3 joys every day.

  • Refuse to let the junk overtake my garage:

When I started learning English, I was confused by the two words Garage and Garbage.  Hey, look at the garages in the American neighborhoods.  How many families are using garage to store garbage?

Kick the junk out of the garage, and pull the cars in.  That’s one way to take care of ourselves.  So we don’t have to clean up the snow and ice on the car in the winter.  And the car won’t get too hot in the summer.  Plus thieves won’t be able to bother your car.

  • Walk 30 minutes every day:

Yeah, walking outside is great. Nature soothes my soul.  If the weather is too bad, I use my treadmill at home.

Are you taking care of yourself first?  If not, hurry up, and start today.  Only when you are being taken care of, you have the energy and means to take care of your loved ones.

Please check my eBook, a mini-memoir on Amazon: “DAD’S BICYCLE: Journey of A Chinese Family”.

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14 Responses

  1. Helen, Love to learn a little bit about your history. So nicely written. And the advice is (or should be) timeless. As individuals, we are no good to anyone if we are not rested as well as feeling physically and mentally good about ourselves. Tom

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi Tom, thank you. When life is getting hectic, we forget about the needs of ourselves.

      I heard someone saying: “Oh, I need to walk my dog. He/she needs some workout.” That’t a valid point. On the other hand, it sounds like the walk is more for the dog than for ourselves. We need workout, fresh air, and a break, too.

      The funny thing is that, I saw some dog walkers are so hands full: one hand with a leash, the dog is trying hard to get away from the leash. The other hand has a bag with dog’s poop, and a cell phone the person was staring at. What a busy life!

  2. Joe says:

    Thanks for sharing. This is a bigger issue for Asians. We’re raised to be more selfless and sometimes we forget about taking care of yourself. My mom’s dementia problem is getting worse and she needs more care. She is taking more and more of my time. I need to figure out a better balance. That kind of issue is tough.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Joe, yeah, it looks the issue is bigger for Asians. I have some friends in China, and their aging parents already moved in to their places. I personally feel , it’s very challenging living under the same roof. In China, for some reason, they feel it’s a stigma to let their parents live in an independent or assisted living places. But, the reality is, there is no perfect solution.

      Yeah, you are in a tough spot. Very sorry to hear about your mom’s condition. You take care.

  3. Caroline says:

    When my husband passed away, I was very worried about my kids’ well being. All I wanted to do was take care of them, whatever they needed, anytime. The one thing the support team kept telling me was “Take care of yourself first” so you can better care of them. Hard to do sometimes but so true.
    It works in all situations, you do need to take care of yourself first.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi Caroline, thanks a lot for sharing your thought. That was a very tough time for you and your kids to go through. It’s hard to take care of yourself first during the very challenging time. The stress and responsibilities could be overwhelming. Just like Dr. Paul Kalanithi said: “I can’t go on. I will go on.” (from his book “When Breath Becomes Air”).

  4. Steveark says:

    Helen, what a journey, I can’t begin to imagine how confusing living through that period was! You have so much wisdom from seeing life from so many different perspectives, thanks for sharing that look inside your own amazing personal development.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Thank you, Steveark. The political movements in the 50s and the Culture Revolution in the 60s-70s twisted people’s mind and destroyed people’s soul. Family members turned against each other. It was a huge human tragedy. Believe it or not, even today some people still love the Cultural Revolution, and can’t wait to have another one. I question those people’s sanity.

  5. I am a big fan of using all my vacation days. I have found that even if your group gives you a hard time about it they forget about it shortly after.

    It helps to disconnect from the stress of a day job.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Right, take vacation days, so people could get recharged. Working like running marathon non-stop, it’s counter-productive. There is never a good time to take a vacation, as the work is always piled up there. A good manager should encourage staff to use the vacation days.

  6. GYM says:

    I love using up all my vacation days. I would never let them go to waste.

    I like this one:

    Cooking break:
    Cooking is a chore to me. While working, I didn’t cook the dinners on Wednesdays and Saturdays for several years.

    My family got some simple carry out. In this way, I could relax. Especially on Saturdays, I could have lots of time to wind down, and enjoy a book or music at the yard.

    I think I will try and go for this when I go back to work. I think it will be too much. Cooking is kind of a chore for me too. It’s not very fun to meal plan and it stresses me out.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi GYM, for vacation days, me, too. It’s good to walk away from the daily grind, and relax once a while. And we’ll be more productive back to work later.

      A simple carry out did cost some money over the years. But it’s much cheaper than eating in the restaurant. It may not taste that good as the home-cooked meals. But the trade-off is that, I got some time to relax, which is priceless.

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