How your childhood affects your self-care


[Image description: Silhouettes of an adult and a child flying a triangular rainbow-colored kite with three tails. The sky is orange-yellow with the sun near the horizon. Image obtained from]

Hi everyone. Happy 2018! Before we begin today’s post: If you are in Seattle, there is a World Dance Party this Friday, January 12th, 6:03pm to 9:07pm at Southeast Senior Center!! Learn a bunch of cultural dances (Tahitian, Filipino, West African, Guatemalan, and other dances), and eat. It’s free and family-friendly. Bring a dish to share (And if you can fill that dish with food, even better!). This event has never failed to restore my faith in humanity.

I don’t write much about self-care, because to be honest I kind of suck at it. For example, it is Sunday night, and I am at my office working on this blog post. I just ate a peanut-butter cookie. That was my dinner. Then, the motion-activated office light turned off, so I stood up and waved my arms around to turn it back on…and got exhausted. Because I don’t exercise. Except maybe when a grant application is due and a colleague drives around the block and I run up to deliver the proposal package.

The worst part, though, is that when I do have some downtime, I can never relax. I get a weird sense of anxiety and guilt, like I need to be doing something productive instead of letting work pile up. I’m sure many of you can relate. So I brought this up to my executive coach. “I can’t relax!” I said, “My brain does not ever rest! It is always analyzing stuff and worrying! Even when I take a day off or am on vacation, it is constantly thinking about work!” I was expecting her to give advice like “You should do meditation to calm your brain, maybe use a mindfulness app, and can you please pay the last invoice?” Instead, she asked this question, “Growing up, did you your parents ever take a vacation?”

Our ensuing conversation explored the theme of childhood and how it affects one’s self-care practices. My parents, for examples, always worked ridiculous hours. They delivered newspapers for the Seattle Times, and on Sundays they woke up at 4am to roll up the papers. They washed dishes at restaurants during the day, and my mother would also sew backpacks late into the night. We moved to Memphis, where they owned a convenience-store/gas-station. They would be there from 7am until 11pm each day (On Sundays, they had a break, only working to 7pm).

They expected me to help out at the store three or four times a week after school. It was horrible. So boring and there was always a chance that we would get robbed; or worse, kids at my high school might see me. So I lied to my parents. A lot. “I have a report to finish.” Or “I need to get my mandatory volunteer hours in.” Or “I broke my femur.” I was able to get out of 50% of the days I was expected to work. I would stay home and watch TV or play video games.

In the back of my mind though, there was always this constant nagging feeling of guilt. It felt awful. My parents were working all day, never taking a break, and there I was, lying to them and being completely useless. I didn’t cook. I didn’t clean. I just bummed around like a piece of human garbage with severe acne.

Somehow, this has transferred into my adulthood, including the acne. Whenever I have any down time, whenever I try to relax, there is always this subtle but pervasive feeling of guilt, a feeling that I don’t deserve to rest when others are working. This explains why I haven’t been able to relax, especially of late; when there’s so much out there for us all to do, so many people suffering, to take even one day off feels like a luxury that I never earned.

In this climate, when work seems especially daunting, we all need to do a better job taking care of ourselves and one another. We need us all to be in this for the long run. While organizations have a responsibility to create what my colleagues Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman call a culture of “we-care,” I also think it would be helpful for us to individually examine how our childhood upbringing may be playing a role in our behaviors and thought patterns as adults. Especially if you find it difficult to relax, here are some questions, stemming from the conversation I had with my executive coach, to help you think through this. Reflect on them, maybe go through them with your team:

What messages, direct and indirect, did you receive from your parents or other adults growing up regarding self-care? Did their words and behavior signal that it’s OK to relax and recharge, or that you’re failing to meet expectations if you do so? Did you ever get to see your parents take a vacation? How did they behave? My parents’ rare “vacations” were always trip back to Vietnam, and they included a ton of familial obligations such as distributing medicines and gifts to various relatives in different cities. I now realize that they never been on a purely relaxing vacation, and because of that, neither have I.

How has your cultural upbringing influenced your philosophy around self-care? Some of us come from cultures that tell us “Work hard, play hard,” while some of us grew up hearing “Work hard, then work harder.” There are also cultures that have different messages for different genders; for example, telling men that they should relax, while expecting women to clean and tidy or prepare food during down-time. What are the norms for self-care from your cultural heritage?

What responsibilities did you have during childhood, and how have they shaped you now? Did you have the standard chores like washing dishes or taking out the trash? Were you expected to take care of younger siblings or run family errands such as grocery shopping? Did you also have obligations to help with the family business or otherwise support your family financially? How did these responsibilities shape your thoughts and behaviors as an adult? 

Did you experience any trauma in your childhood that may be preventing effective self-care now? This is a deeply personal question, so be thoughtful if you are reflecting in a group setting. Some of you may have gone through childhood abuse, neglect, witnessed domestic violence, or forced to take on emotional responsibilities such as playing counselor to your parents, among other things that kids shouldn’t have to endure. These traumas, if unresolved, may significantly block your self-care and may require counseling to work through.

How do your childhood experiences affect the way you perceive other people’s self-care? Do they make you more patient? Less? A while ago I wrote “Your self-care may be holding you back and making people around you hate your guts.” I stand by my point, that the concept of self-care can be taken advantage of. But now I realize that after growing up and only seeing my parents and relatives working and never relaxing, and knowing first-hand that people often lie to avoid work, it does factor into my skepticism of others’ self-care practices.  

What messages are you passing on to the people around you, especially kids? Besides thinking about how our childhood and cultural upbringing affect our self-care practices, we should think about how our self-care practices and philosophies may be affecting the people around us, including our kids. I remember one day, my then-2-year-old son Viet walked into the bedroom at 8pm; he had been playing in the living room with his grandmother. My partner and I were both on our bed, each with a laptop. His eyes grew wide. He exclaimed, “Momma’s working? And Daddy’s working?” He looked crestfallen. “Viet’s not working?” He ran and got his educational toy laptop and climbed into bed so he could “work” too. That was the last time we brought our laptops to bed.

I hope you take some time this week to ponder through these questions, alone or with your team. Reflecting on how our childhood experiences affect how we act as adults is just one element, but an important one, in our ongoing efforts to be at our best as we work to better our world. 

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11 thoughts on “How your childhood affects your self-care

  1. TheGoldDigger

    And if you are the person who never takes vacation, please understand that is how you are but it does not make your subordinates bad if they do. It does not make them unloyal (even though I am not loyal to my employer- I owe my employer a solid, honest day’s work and nothing else) and unethical if they take their vacation. Vacation is part of their compensation. They have earned it. If you don’t want them to take it, then do not offer it.

  2. Barbara Morrow

    This is a very insightful column. I am often reminded of the hardy New England Calvinist ethic that I grew up with….plus parents who experienced the Great Depression and WWII. “Don’t be vulnerable; be strong. Hold on to your job at all costs. Work, work, work. Push your kids up ahead of you.” What worked for that generation or yours may not work for you.

  3. Lisa G

    Great article, as always, thank you! I hope you don’t mess up too many Sundays writing for us. Does it help to know that your sacrifices make my Monday mornings shine much more brightly? Or does that just encourage you to to sacrifice more personal time to get recognition and admiration from strangers? Seriously, though, I do wonder about my own inner tyrant — demanding perfectionism and churning up guilty feelings when I’m not working. Similar to you, a coach helped me see it has a lot to do with how my family of origin provided or withheld approval (love). In my 50s now, my sense of personal worthiness (inner and outer) and my judgment of others’ worthiness still relates to levels of productivity and service. Thanks again for exploring these deeper aspects of non-profit martyrdom!

  4. bethkanter

    OMG, this is so important. The messages your family gives you growing up are internalized so much so that you don’t realize what your’e doing. My Dad was a workaholic, very dedicated to his work delivering babies. So much so that he was working 7 days a week, all the time. He work a beeper in those days, we called the ruin the day machine. Because even on vacation or down time, the beeper would go off and he would be at work. He grew up very poor, got a full scholarship to college, but left for the war and went back under the GI bill for both undergrad and med school. He used to tell stories about how he lived on Campbell’s soup and worked really hard because he was the first in his family to go to college – his parents were immigrants. So, I know that is where I got my inattention to self-care. When he passed away a few years ago, it was a wake up call to think about what is important. I also experienced some health issues and that’s when I got on the self-care train .. and decided to write the book with Aliza. Self-care begins with self-awareness and it is important to understand how your values, habits, and behaviors have been shaped by your family, culture, and life. Thanks for the shoutout

  5. Sherrie Smith

    Yikes… talk about hitting home. I feel guilty if I’m “slacking” when there are things to be done. And there are ALWAYS things to be done. Then I run around constantly – I work full time in nonprofit, I run a second project in my spare time that takes up a lot of my time and mental space – and feel bad that my house is messy. I ‘should’ be cleaning it. I’m still awake for 2 more hours, why am I just sitting here?
    Relaxation feels like wasted time until I crash hard and reach “fuck it” phase. Or my brain stops working because it’s just spent.
    Nice food for thought.

  6. cpetersky

    Both my parents were school teachers, and my childhood had many summers with both parents home, during which we would go on long camping trips as a family. My brother and father would go fishing, and my mother would tell me to go play in the woods while she relaxed, so I spent a lot of solitary time frolicking in the forest.

    I have no difficulty taking time off, and when I do, I usually pick silent meditation retreats in wooded locations, or I go on long bicycle tours/backpacking trips. I never connected it to my childhood experiences.

  7. Rhiannon Orizaga

    Great post as usual. I just took a three week vacation to Paris, London, and Reikjavik and two years ago went to Greece & Create; both were life-changing. I’m lucky to have married someone who believes strongly in making it happen even when it feels like a financial risk (we’ve got the rich dad/poor dad mentalities).
    Vu, you deserve a real vacation, where you leave your laptop at home, turn your phone off, and just eat an ice cream and stare at the ocean with your loved ones. I promise to wait patiently for a blog post until you are back and settled in.

  8. Jeanine Maddox

    Wow. Childhood never leaves us. We never took vacations. It was considered a waste of money. Explains why I will only take a vacation if it is combined with something productive like client meetings or college visits.

  9. Adel Alamo

    Wow. This one really hits home for me in so many ways Vu. I, too had to work as a child at the family business. I, too never saw my family take a real vacation. I watched as my mother got up at the crack of dawn and worked well into the night, weekdays and weekends alike. There was seldom downtime. I was expected as the female in a Cuban family to cook and clean the house, as well as care for my younger brother, if I could not be at the business working. I never was allowed a moment’s rest. And I too, had to serve as a counselor for my mother since a very young age, putting her stress and feelings ahead of my own.

    This post was much needed and has been extremely eye opening. I had never really stopped to consider how this shaped my own work ethic and ideas around rest and self-care. The first step in fixing a problem is recognizing you have one, and you’ve definitely given me a lot to meditate on. Thank you for this.

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