Most people would agree that self-care is vital: You can’t help others if you’re not taking care of yourself. But we often do a better job of preaching the virtues of self-care than actually fulfilling those goals in our own lives. In some cases, it’s simply that we fail to make time for it. But for others, the reasons are deeper-seeded: We don’t believe we’re worthy of that time and attention, often because of the ways life experiences and intergenerational trauma have impacted our self-image. Alina Liao—the founder of Zenit Journals, which aims to make wellness accessible to everyone—is someone who has struggled with this over the years. Below, she talks about her strategies for working through this obstacle.
“Alina, are you the flower or the gardener?”
A friend asked me this when I was in a toxic relationship. I responded, “I’m ALWAYS the gardener.” She asked, “Wouldn’t you like to be the flower?”
My brain did something of a short circuit. Not only did the idea of being the flower feel foreign, it felt wrong. Alarm bells went off in my head as I entertained the idea of being the flower. “How dare you!”
Here, I’m talking about being the person who toils and takes care of others (the gardener) vs. being the person who receives nourishment to flourish (the flower).
Growing up as a daughter of immigrants from Taiwan, I learned the values of hard work, discipline, and sacrifice—what it took for my parents to survive and provide. They sacrificed their self-care, quality time with us, and their health. And I saw it pay off. They overcame enormous barriers
and gave my brothers and me a world of opportunity for which I’m forever grateful.
In my professional life, I adopted the values of hard work, and particularly, sacrifice. I got really good at pushing aside what I needed and wanted. Our team needs someone to stay after hours to finish a deliverable? I’ll do it. You need me to change this part of my personality for you to feel better about yourself? I’ll do it.
This subconscious habit to bend, twist, and cut off pieces of myself for others made me a productive worker, a reliable team player, and a service-oriented leader, which are all great things. But I was unknowingly taking it too far. It got to a point where my self-worth was based on my suffering.
It was this subconscious belief that led me to wind up in relationships that ate away at me. They ended in traumas that sent me deep into depression, fueled my anxiety, and harmed my physical health. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t function at a high level. Every day, I woke up feeling like a failure. I was always one step away from tears.
I finally began to rethink the way I live my life so I could prioritize my healing. But taking time for my healing in my daily life was in and of itself a fight.
I didn’t have a model for self-care growing up. We never talked about how we were feeling. I didn’t know what a counselor was for. When I struggled with trauma and anxiety as a child (I didn’t know that’s what they were then), I never talked about it. I didn’t know it was an option. I have talked with many people who have this shared experience.
Over the past several years, especially with the pandemic, the conversation about mental health has grown. For many of us who grew up in cultures where the term “mental health” didn’t exist, we have awakened to the realization that yes, our mental health is important.
The challenge is, what do you do when you know intellectually that mental health is important, but deep down in your core, you don’t believe that your mental health matters?
Or you have constant guilt when you try to squeeze in a breath for yourself because “self-care is selfish?”
Or you believe that you are not worthy of health or happiness?
Or you believe that if you’re not suffering, you’re doing something wrong?
When you believe that being the flower is wrong?
In the past few years of my healing journey, here are some ways I have navigated these deep, internalized barriers to go from saying “my mental health matters” to truly believing that my mental health matters, to then making actual changes in my life that support my mental health.
First, name it. It was a big step to identify—and then admit—that I didn’t really believe that my mental health mattered. This was hard. It felt like I was starting over. But naming it opened the door to the path ahead.
Understand where it comes from
Then, I began reflecting—both on my own and with a therapist—on where this belief came from. It involved a lot of inner child healing work, tracing the ways the messages I received as a child created my belief that I’m selfish if I advocate for myself. With this came the understanding that these messages came from a place of unhealed trauma, too.
Build your awareness of when it crops up
Third, through my journaling practice, I’ve been building my ability to notice when I am faced with that choice of either taking care of my mental health or falling back on the old habit of sacrificing my health for someone else.
One day when I was journaling, I wrote the prompt, “How am I honoring my wants?” I began to journal to that prompt every day. After a few weeks, I began to awaken to all the little moments day to day where I would push aside what I wanted. For example, one day, I was grocery shopping with someone I was starting to date at the time. He asked me, “What do you want for dinner?” I wanted burgers, but I had the automatic urge to respond, “What do you want?”
Sure, what we were going to eat for dinner that night was no big deal. But if I couldn’t even honor myself for the little things, how would I stand up for my needs when it came to big choices?
The power of journaling to this prompt inspired me to found my wellness company, Zenit Journals, where people can choose the wellness- and healing-centered prompts that go in their customized journals. To this day, I continue to journal to this prompt, strengthening my ability to identify and honor my needs and wants in the moment, softening the voice in my head that says, “You’re not worthy.”
Lean on community
Fourth, I have leaned on community. I joined a therapeutic writing support group hosted by Coach Melony Hill of Stronger Than My Struggles. I cried in front of close friends. It wasn’t easy. Several times, even in my pain, as I wiped away my tears, I’d have the compulsion to say, “Well, and how are you doing?” because it still felt wrong to receive loving attention. I would notice that urge and gently put it aside as part of the healing work.
Find your middle ground
Finally, I’ve been starting to see how it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. One way my old traumas show up is by automatically thinking in terms of
extremes. From my parents and culture, I have inherited a sense of duty to my family and community—and I’m proud of it. I am OK making sacrifices for the people I care about. I’m learning that I don’t have to harm myself in order to be there for others. There is a large span of middle ground where I can give a little and get a little. So taking care of me doesn’t have to be “putting myself first.” It’s about including me in the equation. And that is enough.
WRITTEN BYAn Phan