Prioritizing Self-Care 

By Cheryl L. Woods Giscombé, PhD, RN, author of The Black Woman’s Guide to Coping with Stress

In my research with Black women on stress and the Superwoman Schema, many disclosed feeling an obligation to be everything to everybody while putting themselves last. Many women also shared that they often take on extra roles and responsibilities when they are already feeling overwhelmed. They reported neglecting their own health and well-being to care for others, and they shared feeling obligated to say yes to requests. Granting these requests usually caused them to neglect their health or to neglect taking part in activities that bring personal joy. Black women who took part in my research studies shared feeling selfish or guilty when they made time to engage in self-care activities. These feelings may resonate with you. You may have a need to nurture others, which is a common trait among women. You may even feel that it is your responsibility to make sure that everyone else’s needs are met or that it is your job to make other people happy. Often being Black and being a woman creates challenges based on the social context of your life. For example, you may often be called to help others. 

 – the benefits and liabilities of prioritizing caregiving over self-care; and 

 – strategies to use when you think there is nothing you can do 

Addressing chronic stress requires prioritizing self-care, and it’s possible to care for others without carrying the emotional weight of others. As flight attendants instruct, it’s important for you to put your own oxygen mask on before putting an oxygen mask on others. Caring for yourself is not selfish. Caring for yourself can actually give you the wherewithal to be of help to others in a more profound way. Are you ready to learn how to transform your reality to where you prioritize self-care and manage the ways you care for (and perhaps worry about) others?  

Loving-kindness is a useful strategy for prioritizing needed self-care over excessive caregiving. The loving-kindness meditation practice can enhance your compassion for others, while also honoring your own need for self-compassion. It’s a practice that can help generate feelings of caring and kindness for yourself and for others at the same time. In short, practicing loving-kindness can help you release burdens. Believe me when I say that it is possible for women to learn to “care without carrying” the burdens of others and the burdens of past stressful experiences. Through regular use of this practice, you can develop strategies to prioritize self-care, your own health, and your long-term well-being. In addition, loving-kindness can be used to promote mindfulness-based care for family, friends, strangers, and the entire world. 

Loving-kindness is a practice that can help you learn to be gentler with yourself. This meditation can be used to cultivate positive emotions, including friendliness and compassion (Salzberg 1995). It can help reduce stress, guilt, and pressure related to caring for yourself as well as you care for others. Through this practice, feelings of being overwhelmed or distressed can be released. Loving-kindness meditation involves guidance that promotes connection with positive emotions. Purposeful attention is placed on directing loving acceptance and positive emotions toward specific types of people, including yourself; a respected, beloved person (such as a spiritual teacher); a dearly beloved person (such as a family member or friend); someone you know but don’t have particularly special feelings for, like a cashier at the grocery store; a stranger; a hostile person (for example, someone you have or have had difficulty with); and finally, the entire universe. There are multiple approaches that can be used to boost feelings of loving-kindness, such as reflecting on a person’s positive qualities and quietly reflecting upon brief phrases or mantras that can be utilized to cultivate positive emotions (Salzberg 1995). 

Scientists have conducted rigorous research studies to investigate the healthful benefits and mechanisms of loving-kindness. They found that this practice is associated with reductions in chronic pain, emotional distress, and anger, as well as improvements in social connectedness, social support, and greater life satisfaction (Carson et al. 2005; Fredrickson et al. 2008; Hutcherson, Seppala, and Gross 2008).  

Time for Practice: Loving-Kindness Meditation  

For the purposes of this introduction to the loving-kindness practice, we will focus on self-compassion. The objective is to help you set intentions and priorities for engaging in daily work to promote health and well-being to enhance your overall quality of life. 

Step-by-Step Guidance for the Loving-Kindness Practice: Find a quiet place where you will be uninterrupted for twenty minutes. Find a comfortable chair or cushion to sit on. Sit in an upright posture or support your back while allowing your core to be a center of strength.  

Drop your shoulders from your ears. Hold your neck upright and elevate your head. Imagine there is a string attached to the crown of your head, and it’s being slightly tugged on to uplift your posture in a way that feels dignified, composed, yet relaxed and without discomfort. 

Close your eyes gently, or simply cast them downward so you’re not focusing on any one image or thing. Rest your hands gently on your lap or at your sides. As thoughts arise during this practice, gently notice them, and allow them to be gently released—almost like releasing helium from a balloon. 

 Don’t push your thoughts away or resist them. Simply allow your thoughts to be, notice them, and then gently release them. Now, notice your breath as it enters and exits your body. You may connect with how your chest is rising and falling with each in-breath and out-breath. Or you may notice the rise and fall of your belly as you inhale and exhale.  

Breathe in a pattern that feels best for you. If you notice that you’re holding your breath, perhaps three cycles of intentionally breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth will be helpful. Then bring your awareness back to your chest or belly.  

Notice your hips and upper thighs as they contact your chair or cushion. Allow the chair or cushion to support your weight, then see if you can release the weight of your hips and thighs into your chair or cushion.  

If you notice any tension there, gently allow the tension to be released with each exhalation. Similarly, notice your feet on the floor. Allow the floor to support the weight of your feet. You may even gently imagine the weight of your feet gently melting into the support of the floor.  

Take notice of your body upright. Poised yet supported. Dignified yet comfortable, as your breath moves in and out. Now bring to your awareness a person, pet, or group of individuals who consistently provide you with unconditional and unwavering love, kindness, and care. Allow the images of your supportive person, pet, or team to arise as if they were standing in front of you with smiles on their faces.  

Receive the following caregiving message from those who bring you unconditional love: (fill in your name in the blank), May you be safe. May you be healthy and well. May you be happy. May you be at peace. May you always feel loved. May joy constantly surround you.  

Next, allow the images of your supportive person, pet, or team to arise as if they were standing slightly behind you on your right with smiles on their faces, and receive their caregiving message once more. (fill in your name in the blank), May you be safe. May you be healthy and well. May you be happy. May you be at peace. May you always feel loved. May joy constantly surround you.  

Finally, allow the images of your supportive person, pet, or team to arise as if they were standing slightly behind you on your left with smiles on their faces and receive their message. (fill in your name in the blank), May you be safe. May you be healthy and well. May you be happy. May you be at peace. May you always feel loved. May joy constantly surround you.  

Bring to your awareness a circle of loving-kindness energy that surrounds you as you allow your breath to enter and exit your body at your own pace. Now, it’s time to share messages of loving-kindness with yourself. Bring your hands to prayer position in front of your chest or cover your heart with your right hand and repeat the following three times:  

May I be safe. May I be healthy and well. May I be happy. May I be at peace. May I always feel loved. May joy constantly surround me. At your own pace, continue to be aware of a few more cycles of in- and out-breaths. Allow your hands to rest gently on your lap or at your sides. Allow your fingers to start moving—perhaps roll your wrists around and around. Curl and stretch your toes and feet. Roll your shoulders forward, backward, and then up to meet your ears, down again, up again, then down to a relaxed position. Roll your neck gently from left to right, from right to left, and then to center. Gently allow your eyes to take in the scenery of the room. 

PP. 97, 106-111 Excerpt taken from The Black Woman’s Guide to Coping with Stress 

Cheryl L. Woods Giscombé, PhD, RN, is a distinguished professor, psychiatric nurse practitioner, and social and health psychologist. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing, the Academy of Behavioral Medicine, and the Mind & Life Institute. She is also an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine. Giscombé was named a Leader in the Field by the American Psychological Association, and her community-engaged research on mindfulness, mental health, and wellness for Black women has been consistently funded by the National Institutes of Health and other national foundations and health care organizations for the past twenty years.

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