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Women in the United States have less leisure time than men — about five hours less per week in homes without children, according to a 2013 survey from the Pew Research Center. When there are kids under 18 at home, the gap narrows to three hours, but that’s only because both sexes have less free time once children enter the picture.

We tend to think of leisure as a luxury. When time gets tight, it’s usually the first thing to go. But having enough downtime is actually a necessity for optimal coping and thriving. In fact, lack of adequate time for rest, relaxation and personal interests may be one reason that U.S. women report feeling more stressed than their male counterparts.

Recently, I had an opportunity to chat about this issue with Chicago psychotherapist Cherilynn Veland, MSW, author of Stop Giving It Away: How to Stop Self-Sacrificing and Start Claiming Your Space, Power and Happiness. Here’s what she told me about why women need me-time and how they can squeeze it into a jam-packed schedule.

When it comes to staying healthy, people talk a lot about diet, exercise and sleep. But should me-time be part of the conversation as well?

Cherilynn Veland: Absolutely. Emotional well-being is closely tied to physical well-being. If we aren’t taking time to rest, relax, reenergize and restore, bad things will happen eventually. Chronic stress increases the risk for a wide range of psychological and physical health conditions, including anxiety, depression, heart disease, digestive disorders and sleep problems.

Beyond that, when we don’t take time to nurture ourselves and indulge personal interests, it’s easy to lose touch with who we are in the world. We can become consumed by the constant press to do life rather than experience life. I can’t tell you how many women I have worked with who only realize this after hitting a brick wall.

Why is that? We all know women who take superb care of their families, friends, jobs and communities but don’t show the same commitment to themselves.

Veland: As women, we’ve been socialized to think about and care for others first. That can be a good thing in moderation. But taken to the point of self-neglect, it can lead to feeling overwhelmed, resentful and stressed out — and that’s not helpful for either ourselves or those around us.

It’s also common for women to think, “If I can just check a few more things off my to-do list, then I can relax.” When we’re in our teens and early twenties, that approach may work, because the list may be finite. But as we get older and our lives grow more complicated, the list often doesn’t have an end, and we may never get around to taking that time for ourselves.

But isn’t it easy to feel selfish when you’re, say, working on a craft project or training for a 5K instead of staying late again at work or running another family errand?

Veland: Feeling selfish in such situations is caused by unearned guilt. We may believe, usually without even being aware of it, that doing for others should always come first. It’s important to recognize and counter this belief. Tell yourself, “I feel guilt, but I can see that it’s unearned. So I’m going to do something for myself anyway. Life isn’t all about me, but it is about me too.”

Some women worry that the pendulum will swing too far in the other direction, and they will become narcissistic. But true narcissists are completely self-focused and lack any empathy for others. If you start out as a people-pleaser who thinks more about others than yourself, you can learn life balance and self-care skills. You’ll never become a narcissist, however, no matter how hard you try.

The guilt will lessen over time as you begin to feel stronger and better about taking care of yourself. So push through and have faith that you’ll get to the other side.

Even women who buy into the importance of me-time may struggle to fit it into their busy schedules. Do you have any advice?

Veland: Sure! Here are a few of my favorite tips:

  • In my book, I recommend something I call the Conscious Calendar. I advise going through your calendar for the upcoming week every Sunday night. Put me-time and other self-care activities, such as exercise and 15-minute rest breaks, on the calendar first, before you fill in your other activities. Otherwise, all the “have-tos” and “shoulds” in your life will just shove those “want-tos” out of the way, like a bully would to the smallest kid in the lunch line.
  • Set reminder alarms on your phone for me-time and self-care. Then don’t ignore the alarms. Honor these appointments with yourself just like you keep other appointments in your calendar.
  • Don’t try to just wait until you feel like you need me-time. We women have been conditioned to disconnect from our needs, so by the time you’re feeling that way, you may already be running on empty. If you aren’t totally comfortable with me-time at first, fake it until you actually start to enjoy this and crave it.
  • If you’re still feeling selfish, remind yourself that me-time keeps you motivated and rested enough to care better for others. In other words, taking care of yourself is actually unselfish, because it makes you a better caregiver and nurturer the rest of the time. This can be a powerful antidote to the unearned guilt and fears that come from worrying about being selfish.

Linda Wasmer Andrews writes about health, happiness and the intersection of the two. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter. Read more from her blog:
How Admiring the Sunset Changes You for the Better
Meditation Can Make You Calmer, Kinder, Smarter
Ultimate Napping: A How-To Guide

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