How Do You Start Caring About Yourself?

A lot of advice about self-improvement rests on the assumption that people care sufficiently about themselves and their life. But some people may not care. They feel hopeless. They think they’ve made too many mistakes. They’ve sunk into apathy (“What does it matter what happens to me?”).

There’s no easy answer for getting more motivated to care about yourself, because people don’t all respond to the same approach at different points in their life. But here are some things to consider:

Do a favor to your future self

At the moment, you may feel hopeless. You may be depressed or stuck in a terrible job. But you don’t know with certainty what your life will look like down the road. Even if you think it will all be bad from here on out, you can’t know that for sure.

So don’t decide on your future based on your current situation or mental state. Emotions change, mental states change, and so do circumstances. You may not currently care about yourself, but at some point you may see the worth in your life. Act with that possibility in mind, even if you aren’t believing in it at present.

Pick one thing to change

Sometimes, people lose interest in caring for themselves because they perceive so many problems in their lives that they don’t even know how to start changing. They stop caring because to care would mean to feel overwhelmed and crushed.

In this frame of mind, any change can seem impossible. But what if you start with only one thing?

Let’s say you have a drinking problem, eat poorly, and exercise infrequently. Trying to change all of these behaviors at once can be too much. So pick the one that seems most urgent or that you’re most able to tackle at the moment.

If it’s your drinking problem, you work on that. You find reliable ways to cut back on or completely abstain from alcohol. Depending on the nature and severity of the problem, you may need to go to a detox program and attend group meetings.

As you work on this one problem, you may begin to notice positive ripple effects in your life. Because you’re drinking less, maybe you have more energy or motivation to exercise or to work on some projects you’ve neglected. Maybe you start to pay more attention to what you eat and increase the nutritious variety of your diet. The quality of your sleep may improve, and your bonds with other people may become stronger. If you’ve neglected other health issues, you may wind up making appointments with a doctor or therapist.

Changing one habit can make it easier for you to improve your life in other ways.

Let action lead to emotion

You may have no motivation to exercise, and you may not think it matters one way or another. But what if you were to set aside a short amount of time, maybe just 10 minutes, to go for a walk or do some calisthenics? What if you were to repeat the 10-minute exercise the next day, and the one after that?

It’s only 10 minutes, so even if you don’t feel that it’s worthwhile, it won’t take up much of your time. And, as weeks go by, you may find yourself getting into the habit of exercising. You’ll need less effort to push yourself into it. Maybe you’ll want to start extending your exercise time to 15 minutes, maybe 20. You may even come to like exercising, appreciating the feeling it gives you.

Repeatedly performing an action often increases its importance to us. The action comes to mean something and become a part of our day. So even if you’re apathetic about exercise (or about something else, like studying a new skill), maybe give it just 10 minutes out of your whole day, for starters.

Look outside of yourself

I’ve read accounts by people who were close to giving up on life entirely, but they stayed alive for their cat. They sometimes talk about it self-deprecatingly, but there’s no shame in making your pet a reason to live, and then finding other reasons over time. A cat is a living creature, and it needs you. You’re nurturing it and giving it your attention and love. If it helps keep you alive, that’s great.

You may not care much about yourself, but it may be easier for you to care about someone or something else. You don’t want to let your kids down. You want to be there for your spouse. Or maybe you volunteer at a nonprofit, and other people depend on you. Focusing outside of yourself may remind you of reasons to care about your own life, even if you’re feeling hopeless or empty.

Let go of a rigid view of what your life should look like

Life may seem to matter less to you if it doesn’t look the way you want it to. You may not have the job you want, the person you love, or the home you always imagined living in. Maybe you look around and see little of value.

For one reason or another, many people don’t lead the life they’ve always pictured. What we can control is limited. It’s possible to be so focused on an idealized version of your life that you miss out on what you have now. Try not to overlook what’s good in your life, what has potential (even if the potential is currently unrealized). Even small things can bring pleasure, inspiration, and contentment.

Don’t see setbacks as proof of permanent failure

After major failures or one too many failures, you may respond to the pain with apathy, a personal shutdown that enfolds you with protective numbness. 

Failures can be devastating, but try not to see them as unbreachable walls that you can’t get around. Maybe you’ll need to take another path in life and try new things. Failure doesn’t have to extinguish all hopeful possibilities. (And if you can’t see any possibilities now, give yourself time.)

Listen to the impulse to live well

Even when people live in hopelessness or apathy, they may sometimes be visited by thoughts about living well. They think about a job to apply to, an educational program to enroll in, or a friend or relative to reach out to. They remember an activity they used to enjoy. The apathy may roll over and crush these thoughts, but they exist. 

Grab at a thought, examine it, and – if it’s a life-affirming one, if it’s something that may make your life feel less cramped, less gray – maybe follow where it leads.

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