Many people may wonder what it means to take care of yourself emotionally, especially after Simone Biles withdrew from some of her Olympic competitions for mental health reasons. But we all deserve to take care of our emotional health. Here’s why.
Mother-in-Law or Mother-in-Love
“I think we should move your parents down here where they can be closer to you,” I said to Pedro two Thanksgivings ago.
“Really?” he looked shocked at my suggestion. My suggestion shocked me, too.
“They seem to struggle with keeping up around their house, and your poor mom…” my voice trailed off.
Pedro nodded. For years his mom had acted as a force of nature, but now she seldom left her bedroom and took no interest in orchestrating the universe. His dad looked exhausted from taking care of her.
For years I looked cynically at other people who posted on social media about their ‘mother-in-loves.’ And secretly wished I had even an amicable relationship with my mother-in-law. We tolerated each other’s company. Mostly.
Her personality irritated me like citrus juice on a canker sore. She could talk her way out of a traffic ticket or convince a lawyer she had a trial-worthy court case. I failed to act like the adoring Hispanic bride she envisioned for her youngest son. Although a passable Spanish speaker, I lost my ability to speak Spanish intelligibly around her. She never met a boundary she wouldn’t try to breach.
When Pedro got cancer, we both agreed to keep the names of his doctors, his treatment facilities, and hospitals secret from her. I wrote regular updates to my in-laws and mailed them to friends in far-flung cities to drop in their local mailboxes.
Some might see this as overkill, but I called it taking care of myself emotionally. The buffer of distance as a boundary she couldn’t barrel through gave me peace of mind. I could focus my attention on helping Pedro and not worrying about the possibility of her busting through the hospital doors insisting to speak to Pedro’s doctor.
Take Care of Yourself Emotionally
Simone Biles’s courageous decision to step out of the Olympic gymnastics team finals due to mental health reasons has brought the concept of emotional self-care to the forefront. While many people questioned the boundaries with my mother-in-law during Pedro’s cancer, we understood what worked best for us. We knew the need to protect our mental health during a time already fraught with emotions and difficult decisions.
We often got the dropped-jaw reaction when we told people how we controlled the involvement of his parents in his cancer journey. But we knew we had done the right thing. Each individual is the only one who can fully know what he or she needs to do to preserve mental and emotional health. Fences, whether virtual or literal, not only keep things out but also provide security for those within.
I could have worked harder to understand my mother-in-law. At times, I joked that I loved her but couldn’t stand being around her. She raised two wonderful sons, but she wasn’t the kind of person I would naturally want to spend time with.
It took me decades to learn how to take care of myself emotionally when around her. And it took even longer to realize it was o.k. to not have a ‘mother-in-love.’ For years I believed I had to get along, do what she asked, and never push back. But those beliefs left me frustrated, angry, and mad at the world.
It took time, but I learned to make time for my own mental and emotional health. And if that meant I spent less time around her or enacted hard boundaries, so be it.
You Deserve it!
We all deserve to take care of ourselves emotionally. But the path to understanding this doesn’t always look clear.
When I first started standing up for myself, I didn’t always do it in the kindest ways. I deliberately slighted her a time or two because I wanted her to see the consequences of her actions. (If you cross my clearly defined boundary, you won’t like the consequences). I take no pride in some of the ways I acted in a desperate attempt to make her understand the boundaries I needed. But I needed those boundaries for my own emotional health.
You, too, deserve to take care of yourself emotionally. Other people around you might not understand your choices. If you have any sort of public-facing presence, scads of people will weigh in on your decisions and either applaud you or excoriate you. Just do a quick search for Simone Biles and you’ll see what I mean.
Hopefully, as mental health awareness grows in the United States, more people will take the time to think before they react to someone’s decision to put emotional health ahead of fame, glory, or national bragging rights.
Your emotional health matters. You deserve to take care of yourself emotionally. Here’s why.
1. One size doesn’t fit all.
Recognize the uniqueness of every individual. I can drive a busload of rowdy teenagers for hours on end. The same experience might cause someone else to melt down in tears or kick puppies.
We all have unique needs for interactions with people (think extroversion and introversion). Those differences don’t have ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ attached to them. They simply exist.
2. You can’t help others if your tank is empty.
Over the years, I’ve realized I only do this when my emotional tank nears empty. If I haven’t taken proper care of my mental or emotional health, things with other people get tense. I need time by myself every. single. day. It doesn’t matter specifically what I do, but it usually involves journaling, reading, exercise, and working creatively on something.
Spending time alone fills up my emotional tank and gives me tolerance when dealing with other people. Take away my alone time, and I start to get snappy, easily offended, and unpleasant to interact with.
Figure out what fills and empties your tank and learn to honor your discovery—no apologies needed.
3. Your health will improve.
Scientists have started making the connection between people’s emotional health (emotional intelligence) and their physical health Emotionally healthy people make better life choices and enjoy better physical health.
Perhaps because those who engage in healthy emotional health practices have learned what can happen when they ignore their mental health. Although I limited contact with my mother-in-law during Pedro’s cancer journey, I failed to take care of other aspects of my mental health.
By the time Pedro went into remission, he had lost 60 pounds and I had gained 60 pounds. He regained his physical health in a year. It took me more than a decade—until I fully understood the importance of taking care of myself emotionally—before I improved my physical health.
If I could have a do-over, I would make sure I took care of myself emotionally during his illness. I would go to counseling and support groups. We don’t have to navigate the treacherous waters alone.
4. Your relationships with others will improve
We need each other. Some of us need others in bigger doses than others, but we all need community. The better we understand ourselves, the easier it will become to understand other people.
The more grace I give myself, the more grace I can offer other people. When I take care of myself emotionally, I find it easier to understand other people’s points of view. Sometimes I find myself reacting critically to all. the. things.
I’ll get away by myself with my journal and start writing about my frustrations. Eventually, once I’ve had my paper temper tantrum, I can see how my attitudes or reactions made the situation worse. I’ll map out steps to take to improve the relationship or the situation and come away feeling more emotionally balanced.
5. You deserve grace
I set pretty high standards for myself and learn towards perfectionism. But everyone deserves grace. Last week I finished off a 4000-mile road trip and the third day after my arrival home my mother-in-law passed away.
My blog calendar plan for today’s post? “10 Reasons Why You Deserve to Take Care of Yourself Mentally.” The reality? I waded through mountains of laundry, unpacking, organizing, grocery shopping, and catching up with Pedro for the first two days. I had no emotional bandwidth to write.
On Friday, I had just sat down to write when Pedro texted me that his mom had stopped breathing. I’ve been calling and texting family members and friends, driving to Phoenix to pick up our daughter, cooking for a gathering crowd, and providing emotional support to others. Now the clock ticks closer to four, and I can’t think of anything else to write. I had great ideas for ten reasons when I planned this out.
But I can’t handle lengthy research sessions right now. I can give myself grace. We all deserve it. It’s part of having healthy emotions.
Don’t Put Off Taking Care of Your Emotions
Whatever you do, don’t put off taking care of your emotions. For the past 16 months, Pedro’s parents lived three blocks away from us. Covid got in the way of having frequent interactions, but I did spend more time with my mother-in-law than I had in the previous decade.
We never know how much time we (or others) have on this earth. I regret not working harder to improve my relationship with my mother-in-law for so many years. But I’ll be forever thankful the last face she saw was her beloved son’s.
Help me out! What are other reasons why you deserve to take care of yourself emotionally?