Taking the time to love ourselves, too

Posted on: 14 Feb 2018

Getting the right balance of selflessness and service, alongside self-care and selfishness...Charlotte Avery, headmistress at St Mary’s School in Cambridge, outlines how.

We all wear many hats. For my part, I am a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a headmistress, a colleague, a school governor of three schools, an inspector of independent schools, a member of a church congregation – and many other things besides.

I am certain that most of us struggle at times to feel that we are fulfilling all of our roles, all of the time, as well as we would wish. I am struck by quite how busy so many of us are! So many children, parents and grandparents spend a substantial amount of time each week supporting other family members – through everything from making weekly calls to distant or lonely elderly relatives, to providing physical care to someone who might need it or child-care for grandchildren. There are also those who are so passionate about their vocation or career, so busy simply paying the bills, or so committed to a team or to supporting a charity or the local community, that they might struggle to draw a line between time for work and time ‘off’.

As we go through different stages of life, the effort we put into and importance we place on these different roles may wax and wane, but we also need to remember when we take off any one, or all, of these hats, to think about the person underneath. I am me, and you are you – and in the same way as the attention we pay to our other roles will change during the different seasons of our lives, so too will the emphasis we place on our own well-being. But we each need to take the time to love ourselves, too!

As a society we frequently celebrate people whom we perceive to have sacrificed much in the pursuit of their achievements – from Mary Ward to Mother Teresa to Martin Luther King Jr. – but we don’t always recognise so keenly the difficulties people battle through, or the loss often felt by loved ones, when other areas of life are neglected or become a lower priority.

Mary Ward is also known for saying, perhaps to soothe herself as much as her supporters, “work with great tranquillity, joy and magnanimity, for what is not done in one year can be done in another”. In this vein, we need to all remember to give ourselves a break, whether that’s a physical rest, setting aside time for personal priorities from eating with family to exercising or reading, or simply quietening the voices in our minds that tempt us to feel bad about not having accomplished everything we’d hoped to within a given day.

Learning, or remembering, to love ourselves will look different for everyone. I think that’s part of the reason that it can take us so long to learn what works for our own well-being, as it might not look like what our parents did, or our siblings or friends do, and so we might wrongly assume that there’s something wrong with us. Where one person might simply need to have time to rest, in the comfort of home, perhaps sleeping, watching a film, reading or listening to music, another person might need to get out of the house, to get away from the physical surroundings of daily life, to see some different scenery and get some fresh air, and yet another might not mind where they are or what they’re doing as long as they’re surrounded by family or friends, feeling content.

In an effort to provide valuable suggestions about how to achieve some balance, I wanted to invite a couple of members of our community to offer their view on juggling obligation, vocation and service, alongside personal well-being and what society might call (wrongly in my opinion) ‘selfishness’.

Sister Frances Orchard, Congregation of Jesus, school governor

There was a time a few decades ago when, with the arrival of modern technology, social psychologists began to fret about what people would do with their free time: they need not have worried… Most of us still complain of being too busy; the whole day from one end to the other is just one big rush.

We can’t find things – purses, keys, mobiles, a particular document; we become more temperamental and tense; we wake up feeling tired because we’ve been fretting all night about all the things we need to do; we feel unloved by everyone except, perhaps, the dog; and, too easily, we become trapped in the ‘too busy’ cycle and the quality of life reduces.

This is not actually a modern trend. Being busy has always affected people. Socrates (470 to 399 BC) astutely wrote: “Beware the barrenness of the busy life”. St Francis de Sales (1567 to 1622) told his followers: “Half an hour meditation each day is essential except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed”. Jane Austen (1775 to 1817) wrote: “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings”.

Somehow we have convinced ourselves that being busy, especially when we are busy doing things for others, is commendable. Of course, it is – but it has its limits! Being over-busy affects relationships. No one can relax and feel at ease if someone is rushing around being busy, and so the key is to live a balanced life – work to live, don’t live to work.

There are other important things to be fitted into life – time for others, especially those closest to us; time to eat and drink leisurely with our friends; time to gaze and wonder at the amazing world in which we live; time to rest and sleep; time to read; time for art and music that bring pleasure; and time when all these have a place in our lives to thank God for them.

Kay Dodsworth, Lay Chaplain

It is difficult to give any 'quick tips' when people are struggling to balance busy lives because there can be all manner of issues to be addressed, as well as simply having too much to do. It’s important for each of us to recognise what drives us, though, and it may be worth considering influences such as fear; an overdeveloped sense of duty; thinking we are the only person who can do a task; feeding our ego because we lack self-esteem; or even avoiding people or family responsibilities. People can also be being exploited by an employer or family member, and so the situation is not so straight forward.

That said, some of the easier things to consider when weighing what to prioritise might be to think, 'will the event, or other people's enjoyment, be seriously impaired if I do not attend?’. The same thinking can be applied to tasks and, if trying to decide between multiple activities, it can be helpful to assess each one’s importance on a scale of one to 10 to see which has a higher score. You can question, 'why do I think I need to do this by yesterday?'.

More generally, making a timetable can be useful too, to show how much time you devote to things. You can then make a list of everything you want to achieve, prioritise them, and then compare whether this correlates with the amount of time you spend on them. In the same way, some people find it helpful reflect on their death, questioning, ‘what would you like people to say about you in your obituary?’ in order to highlight what you want your priorities to be, and this may show some disparity between how you actually use your resources (time, finances, energy) in practice.

I hope everyone in the education community is enjoying half term and spending the time ‘off’ in whichever ways most promote a happy and healthy balance, whatever that might look like. I for one am spending time relaxing and holidaying with my family, in Spain – as opposed to France – for the first time in many years!


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About Charlotte Avery

Charlotte Avery is Headmistress at St Mary’s School, Cambridge and GSA President