In Nigeria, it seemed frivolous to focus on mental well-being, but now I know taking care of myself is part of being like strong, high-achieving women I admire.
Over the past couple of years, it seems the world has discovered and embraced the concept of “self care.” It took me some time to catch on, and I’m beginning to understand why.
I grew up in Nigeria, where my friends and I never heard anything about self-care in the sense of mental health. The British are known for having stiff upper lips and Nigerians, well, we might as well be the zipped lips emoji because we just have shut lips about anything related to how we’re feeling inside — especially when it comes to anxiety, depression, stress, or what it might take to tackle these things.
In the community I grew up in, I got the message that mental health has no gradations, in-betweens or nuance — you’re either sane or insane.
My family lived among other university professor families, on a vast campus that had its own academic staff housing, schools, hospitals, shops and more. It was an idyllic upbringing by most standards. We had large front yards, went to some of the best schools and our parents were academic professionals who taught or worked at the university.
Our community was rocked when the teenage son of a neighbor died suddenly, without illness or cause. For a young man to die in his home, on our walled campus, behind the huge gates that were literal and figurative protection, really rocked our otherwise quiet and structured world. I remember the adults visibly shaken by the news and I remember the stories, spoken in hushed tones that the young man was found dead inside his room with the doors bolted from the inside and the windows shut. I remember rumored causes of his death as either poisoning or a spell. There was hardly any mention of a possible suicide because the topic was so taboo.
It was nothing new that nobody talked about how to cope with our emotions, or what might make people feel better. The expectation in that world was not that we would soothe and take care of ourselves, but that we would all remain strong and carry on.
This was true even in my household. I come from a family of high-achieving women with decades-long marriages and multiple children. I was fortunate to not have to look beyond my own family for women with multiple degrees, who wield power and influence at work and in their households: balancing work and home life with style and grace like the magical fairies and pixies in the story books I read. My mother has worked every day of my life and was somehow present for daily homework, catechism classes on the weekend and homemade birthday cakes for me or my other four siblings. Nigerian women rarely take time off and you rarely hear complaints about anything related to the stress of juggling careers, marriages and children. I was raised to consider it a cultural badge of honor to be adept at multitasking, improvising, juggling and all around togetherness. I remember when I was nine years old and my mom told me to always have my own money. I had no idea what that meant at that age because I wasn’t allowed to have money beyond the few coins in my piggy bank but I never forgot those words. Those examples and lessons have inspired and guided me as an adult but watching my mother balance so much with ease and grace gave me the impression that it is all easy and devoid of stress.
I fed myself the narrative that admitting to stress, anxiety or situational depression was selfish and weak.
I was well into my 30s before I realized that self-care was even a thing. It was many years into my professional life before I realized that sick days can be used as mental health days and time off for self-care is an important aspect of healthy living and work/life balance. My earliest recollection of anxiety was graduate school. I had some bouts with attention deficits, insomnia, accelerated heart rate and stress but I didn’t have a name for the tightness in my throat. In addition to graduate school, I worked at a full-time, fast-paced Capitol Hill job so I chucked it up to the cost of being busy and achieving. After all, I’m a Nigerian woman and we can balance and juggle multiple tasks at one time, can’t we? Besides, I don’t have children or a spouse so what claims do I have to feeling overwhelmed at the basic tasks I was meant to accomplish? Academic excellence and professional achievement are a given expectation in Nigerian households so the very least I could do was tackle a full time job and graduate school at the same time. After all, my own mother got a PhD after she already had three children, so what claims do I have to stress?
Funny, my gynecologist was the first person who ever spoke to me about mental health and self-care. It started with a simple question about my stress levels when I told him wasn’t sleeping well because of cramps. That was when I first began to accept that I need to give myself some time to address my mental well-being as a regular part and parcel of the things I do for my physical health. It’s also helpful that Oprah gave us the ultimate self-care phrase turned favorite hashtag, “living my best life”. Now, I have less and less guilt about taking a sick day as a mental health day when I start to feel the effects of anxiety and stress.
A big part of my transformation has been learning to practice self-care activities daily and keeping my thoughts and feelings drenched in care by using daily verbal affirmations. I also found a good therapist, on the recommendation of a friend who had just gone through a divorce. My therapist works mainly with women of color and she has helped me to identify patterns of codependence and overachieving behaviors that trigger stress and anxiety. I also make time to play tennis, understanding now that the endorphins from a good workout can leave me feeling more centered throughout the day. When I spend time with friends instead of using an evening or weekend to get ahead at work, I not only enjoy it, but I know I’m doing something to nurture my spirit and care for myself.
Recently, I told my mom that I go to therapy regularly. Her first reaction, similar to most mothers, I assume, was to ask why I didn’t come to her with any issues. I explained that it was less about a serious incident or any “issue” in particular and more about self-care. This revelation led us to a larger discussion about Nigerian attitudes towards mental health. Mom said there were many psychiatrists and psychologists in our campus community but similar to what I thought, they treated people with severe mental issues or diseases. She explained that culturally, Nigerians rely on extended family and friends for support to assist with life’s situations, so self-care activities, such as seeking professional therapy is largely a foreign, countercultural concept, adding that most Nigerians think in terms of community versus self, so self-care in the sense of “self-focus” isn’t something that necessarily comes naturally. Nonetheless, she agreed it is important and we talked about simple self-care practices, for example, challenging negative thoughts, lighting an aromatic candle for relaxation, and therapy when needed!
It was bonding to share this “aha” moment with my mother and to realize that taking care of myself isn’t a sign of weakness. Although it’s not something I was raised with, it’s connecting me to my culture by helping me on the road to becoming more like the strong, powerful women I’ve always admired.
Omonigho “Moni” Ufomata is a public-policy professional who resides in Washington, D.C.