I remember in college I visited a friend's dorm for a movie. Three of the apartment's residents joined us, but the fourth bowed out, saying she needed alone time. I was genuinely surprised—I didn't know you could do such a thing. I tried for a moment to find some way to explain her demand for alone time as rude, as a rejection. But I couldn't find one. Instead, it struck me as very gracious, a departure from the kind of passive-aggressive behavior I'd seen from friends who didn't know how to communicate. I was impressed by her ability to express what she needed and stick to it. Today, I’m even more impressed that she was well on her way to mastering a skill I am still trying to get the hang of.
A little awareness of how to best take care of yourself—and the determination to not apologize for it—goes a long way. We can feel a lot of guilt over taking care of ourselves. We spend so much time beating ourselves up over privilege. With an endless stream of "first-world problems" and "princess problems" being posted online and increasingly defensive excuses for our politics, religious beliefs and basic day-to-day convictions, like breast-feeding or eating vegan or owning a gun, we feel almost endless pressure to justify what we do and what we have. We're so busy apologizing that we forget that asserting ourselves isn’t always an indulgence. Sometimes, it’s just a step we can take to be nicer and more productive and ultimately do more good.
I'm not talking necessarily about what we usually think of when we think of self-care—the massages and pedicures and shopping sprees that clever marketers have us convinced are our just rewards for hectic, stress-addicted lives. Although massages and other body treatments can have genuine benefits for mental and physical health, I'm talking about something a little simpler. I'm talking about simply putting yourself first once and a while. That's not a free pass to be selfish and inconsiderate or to be a drama queen, always airily announcing your every anxiety or ethical position. But it does mean working to find that balance, then existing better in that space.
My co-worker has a great acronym that comes in handy a lot: FOMO, or the fear of missing out. I may be quite the introvert, but I also genuinely love my friends and work and have a tendency to overextend myself. I blame FOMO. I have an almost compulsive need to take people up on offers to go out or get involved. It's hard for me sometimes to admit that I need to say no and spend an evening at home watching TV with only the cat for company. It's hard to admit that work is socially and emotionally draining some days and that getting a drink with friends after work is more than I've got the energy for.
There are also larger-scale occasions to make your needs known. I spent years in bad relationships because I was afraid to admit what I needed. Sometimes, what I needed was a partner with more compatible interests and ambitions or who wasn’t hung up on some other girl. When you want to get it right with a guy you really like, it can feel like it'll all fall apart if you speak up. At my first full-time job, I didn't know enough about being an employee to have any idea what I needed, much less the confidence and authority to articulate it.
Even when I realized that I was bored and that my supervisor distrusted and disliked me, I couldn't figure out how to ask for something else—whether from that company or life in general. I was afraid of missing out on a huge career break. I was also afraid of missing out on money to pay my rent. I’ve stayed with incompatible guys and toxic friends and in all sorts of bad situations simply because I was so afraid of missing out on something, afraid of speaking up.
We shouldn't let FOMO paralyze us from asking for what we really need. Don't be afraid to turn down a movie night, and be honest about why. Don't be afraid to turn down a job that, although it looks amazing and brag-worthy on paper, wouldn't genuinely make you happy every day. Don't be afraid to break up with partners who don't give you what you need. Don’t be afraid to work it out with a friend who has different needs in the present moment. Don't be afraid to correct your bad habits that are holding you back.
Only you can be your own best advocate or know what you feel moment to moment. It will surprise you how much more you can get out of life when you take only what you really want from it, rather than letting yourself be motivated by panicked compulsion or obligation or anxiety. Saying no is the biggest liberation sometimes. A night spent in with a cat and a glass of wine is the best party you can go to on certain nights. Sometimes, the best year is one spent single or unemployed or simply staying in more. Ask for what you need. Surprise yourself with self-care.
Meghan O'Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
Updated @ 10:56 a.m. on 3/11/13 to correct a typographical error.