When it comes to health, becoming your own biggest advocate is more complicated than it seems. Over recent years, wellness has experienced a renaissance, growing twice as fast as global economic growth from 2015 to 2017. However, this resurgence has also created an influx of mixed messaging toward consumers. At the forefront are themes like #selfcare, #treatyourself, and #bodypositivity.
But at what point does #selfcare become selfish? When does #treatyourself become gluttony? Does #bodypostivity mean exercising to change your body composition is vain?
If these thoughts sound familiar, then you know that prioritizing your health and needs isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Here I share the obstacles I faced when confronting my health and 5 tips on how to be your own biggest advocate (skip ahead here).
Surviving our Twenties
My health journey started in 2017. The word journey implies a grand tale, beginning in turmoil, leading to realization, and ending in transformation. But by no means has my health journey been an epic tale. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite. Rather, this is a story of how I, an ordinary twenty-something, experienced turmoil, realization, and transformation as I learned how to reclaim my health.
Bloat, fatigue, brain fog, acne, and stress. Typical for someone in their twenties, right? This was my approach to health. Fresh out of college, I set my sights to building a career. Like many twenty-somethings, I worked around the clock as my physical and mental needs took a backseat. The juice cleanses and deprivation diets worked – until they didn’t. I was the most anxious I’d been. Trying to cope with the stress, I found myself enthralled with quick fixes and ways to dissociate. I was caught in a cycle of sugar, caffeine, crash, and eventually burnout. Ring any bells?
Over time, this manifested through digestive and inflammatory skin issues. Though my symptoms were common, I longed to escape from this vicious cycle and for a more comprehensive approach to health, nutrition, and dealing with posterior blepharitis.
It Works Until It Doesn’t
Posterior blepharitis is a chronic condition of the eyelids caused by a disorder of oil producing glands in the inner eyelid. In other words, my eyelids were swollen and eyes chronically dry. Have you ever experienced a headache from staring at a screen for too long? Imagine that, but 24/7. Normal activities, like working on my laptop or spending an evening with friends, became a burden from the discomfort. The cherry on top? It can lead to these beautiful flare ups called styes and chalazions. Though blepharitis is commonly linked to hygiene (cute, right?), after countless tests, my doctors concluded that wasn’t the case for me.
When my doctor told me there was no cure for blepharitis, I pictured myself relying on antibiotics, steroid shots, and surgery (I’ve had 2) for the rest of my life. This worried me, considering the low severity level of blepharitis in the grand scheme of illness. Is it really worth the injections, operations, and depleting my gut-microbiome every time I took antibiotics? Sure, this kept things at bay, but I knew this was a band-aid fix to a bigger wound.
For over a year, I closely followed doctors’ recommendations but saw no improvements. Though I was hopeful for an alternative solution as I went from one practitioner to the next, I started to feel like my symptoms were excuses. ‘Why am I wasting my doctor’s time?’ I thought. Frustrated and confused, I began to hate my body for not working as it should, ridiculing every aspect of myself as my inner dialogue wreaked havoc. I was a stranger in my own body. All the while, the stress-related symptoms continued to fester: the cystic acne, bloat, lightheadedness, fatigue – and now, rashes.
It’s Not Your Fault
Have you ever put off minor health concerns, because they were, well, minor? Or perhaps, the thought of navigating the healthcare system seemed more burdensome than the issue itself? We’ve all been there. And it’s not your fault. The U.S. healthcare system makes it easier to treat a problem rather than prevent it. It’s more a ‘disease management system’ than a ‘heath care’ system. The U.S. spends more on healthcare than any other country and yet, has worse health outcomes. Instead of paying for drugs and intervention, why don’t we focus on preventative care? Cue the rise of wellness, a $4.2 trillion global industry that grew at a historic 12.8% rate from 2015 to 2017.
Evidently, the world is taking a more preventative approach to health. After all, millenials love wellness. But how much #selfcare makes me selfish? Have I been using #treatyourself as an excuse to overindulge? Does #bodypostivity mean I should feel ashamed for wanting to change an aspect about myself?
These were the thoughts I grappled with while dealing with blepharitis. After experiencing some setbacks, suddenly the desire to improve my blepharitis – to improve my health – became an unwarranted thought. My mental health took a hit as my inner voice told me that I was selfish and vain, all for wanting to feel at home in my own skin (or eyes, rather). I was gaslighting myself, questioning my own thoughts, feelings, and invalidating my health concerns.
But the truth is, taking care of yourself does not make you selfish, regardless of how small your problem may seem. Rather, it enables you to put your best foot forward. Your health directly impacts your output in a world that needs you.
Here are 5 tips that helped me shift my perspective from self-destructive to productive:
5 Tips on Becoming Your Own Biggest Health Advocate
Recognize the difference between self-care and self-indulgence
It’s important to recognize the fine line between self-care and self-indulgence—not as a way to label things are good or bad (which I highly advise against) but more so to bring awareness to the intention behind why we might be doing a particular action.
Self-care is used to refuel and nourish the body, while self-indulgence can be driven by avoidance of an underlying issue, as a means to escape and dissociate (and that’s completely okay!). But the reason why I bring up self-indulgence is to get you to think more critically.
For example, if you’re treating yourself to a cocktail after a long week of work, and your inner-dialogue is “I hated my week at work, therefore I’m drinking a cocktail,” I encourage you to take things a step further. Ask yourself the follow-up question, “Well why did I hate my work week?”.
By practicing this, it can help bring awareness to any underlying thoughts, helping you process them rather than avoid them. In more severe cases, avoidance or numbing behaviors can help explain emotional eating, retail therapy, binge-watching, and other behaviors.
If your health is at stake, be it mental or physical, this criteria should be a clear indicator for which side of the line you’re on.
Every inch counts
No, I’m not referring to your waistline or the foods on your plate. Inch-by-inch is an analogy for how small steps leading to bigger strides, like an inchworm, inching its way across a tree. You won’t see results the moment you decide to make a change. You might not even see them for a few months. It takes consistency over a long period of time to see sustained results. Remember to give yourself grace, patience, and treat yourself kindly along the way.
Celebrate the little wins
Got to bed a bit earlier? Ordered the vegetables over the fries? Good for you! Give yourself credit for the little wins. They’re what make up most of our lives, more so than the big wins. Just like how every inch counts, the same goes for every win.
Beware of perfectionism
Perfectionism comes from wanting control in an unpredictable world (hello, life). Though having structure is key to developing a healthy lifestyle, not everything is going to go as planned – and that’s okay. If you tend to put a lot of pressure on yourself, remember that it’s perfectly normal to veer off course. Rather than punishing yourself for eating that extra slice of cake, enjoy it while it lasts, and know that you’ll always have the opportunity to get back on track with your next move.
Respect your boundaries
How many times have you eaten something because you felt bad for declining? It’s your job to respect yourself, above everything, and anyone else. If you’re committed to a certain dietary plan or have a certain food preference – it’s okay to say no (unless it’s a treat from grandma!). If you know something doesn’t work for your digestion, don’t eat it. This is especially important if you have food intolerances or allergies.
The way I had been dealing with my posterior blepharitis was a microcosm for how I was dealing with my overall health. I was avoiding responsibility and neglecting the root cause.
Stress can cause hormone levels, like cortisol, to rise and affect the way oil glands produce, secrete, and clear any oil material, including the oil producing glands in the eyelid. After seeking professional counseling and making major lifestyle and dietary changes, I finally started to see results. This included:
- A balanced, nutrient-dense diet emphasizing foods rich omega-3’s (which can help improve blepharitis) to balance blood sugar, hormones, and reduce inflammation. Vitamin A and beta-carotene are also associated with eye health. I also ensured I was incorporating fat-soluble vitamins (D, K, E, and A) if not through my food, then through supplements.
- Creating a more balanced relationship with my career to reduce stress levels
- Developing a consistent morning and evening routine for daily maintenance
Most importantly, I learned what foods worked for my bio-individuality, and which food intolerances were causing the acne, rashes, bloating, and lightheadedness for me. Having this foundational knowledge was freeing. I felt like I had returned home.
This is for the ordinary twenty-somethings. The ones who put their health in the backseat while they figured out adulthood, dedicating themselves to normal adult things like career, adventure, relationships, and existential crises.
This is for the confused millennial, who’s frustrated with their health and tired of feeling stuck.
This is for the perfectionist, who beats themselves up for having a bite of cake, who’s self-defeating thoughts can turn the desire for something so fundamental, like your right to health, into a shameful, unwarranted thought.
I wrote this to say – taking care of yourself does not make you selfish. It’s what allows you to show up for yourself so that you can show up for the ones around you.