IWD: The Exhausted Woman’s Guide to Self-Care

Written by Ophelia
8 mins read
Published on Mar 13, 2024

TLDR: Ladies, if you are feeling constantly tired, you’re not the only one. I dare say it is a gender-wide phenomenon. This article looks into why we are perpetually exhausted and proposes the undermentioned—tending to our own needs. If you are a man who wants to understand how you can support the women in your life, this article is for you.

A woman is….

Take a moment to close your eyes and let your imagination run wild on her. Fill in every attribute of this ideal woman — what makes her desirable. 

How she looks (make sure you imagine her from head to toe). How she carries herself. 

Throw in how you would expect this perfect woman to behave in various settings: in private and in public.

What would she do when she’s alone, when she’s with others? What must she have to be successful? 

I’m sure by now you would have constructed the woman society wants. 

She’s so perfect. So out of reach. 

But have you thought of what goes on inside this pretty shell? Her emotions, thoughts, principles and values? How about her struggles?

Women are told that if we became like that perfect Barbie, we would be loved, desired, and receive good things. Yet in our tedious quest to become like her, we are gaslighted (largely by our inner critics) into misery and confusion. 

All those measuring against that ideal woman we fixate on just lead us into the abyss of disappointment. We fall short of expectations every single time. And each time, we tell ourselves we’ll try better. Never enough.

Before I was an individual, I was a caregiving woman first.

Apart from the perpetual benchmarking and its restlessness, women’s mental labour and cognitive load have been researched to be greater in domestic life. 

As a householder and a wife, I experienced times when my mind was in constant vigilance of noticing the disarrays in my home and feeling the strong need to restore its tidy slate.

Girls are raised to be lifelong caregivers ever since they can understand the notion of social roles (think: playing house with dolls). They learnt that extensive labour is the norm through observation and direct experience. 

What the girls are also learning is they have to place others’ needs before fulfilling theirs. All the emotions and thoughts they experience would have to catch up later. Sometimes, that never happens. So the emotions get repressed, unprocessed, waiting to erupt.

The huge mismatch of who girls can be, will be and should be

Ironically, girls were educated to achieve whatever we put our minds to — just like boys. We can lead this nation; we can reach the apex, make breakthroughs in frontiers.

The sky’s the limit. Nothing can stop us. 

Enter the monthly cramps. For some of us, the uterus hurts so much we can’t function for half a day if the body is kind. Forget about doing anything. Pain becomes a Dhamma teacher of endurance.

And as young working women, when we are not settling down past the age of 30, there is a glaring “personal problem” we have to address. Some parents are not happy that our careers take priority. 

Tick tock tick tock. Your youth is slipping. Your eggs are wilting.

There comes a time when parents and concerned relatives ask, “when are you getting married? when are you going to have children for us?” 

The respectful question they should’ve asked was, “Are you ready (to bear the costs, labour and responsibility of raising screaming babies into functioning adults for the next 30 years of your life)?”

It is frustrating that we were raised to make an impact on our society; yet we are problematic if we don’t play the scripted narratives of as wives and mothers. Our society pressures women to internalise,

‘You don’t count unless you become a wife and a mother. Take a break from your career. Have a baby.’

Isn’t the dissonance confusing?

It seems to me that to exist as a woman is to embody and to normalise ‘not being enough.’ 

How can a woman not be tired after experiencing the female predicament as caregivers and being in the endless cycle of not being enough?

We don’t get to choose which battle to fight. Aware of heavy expectations, we are overwhelmed by this exhaustion closing in on all fronts. 

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To make things worse, if we open up to older women about this exhaustion, they reinforce that helplessness of sacrificing ourselves to achieve ‘greater good’:

“You’re tired? So am I. This is how things are. There’s nothing we can do about it.” 

How helpless. Someone save these poor things.

I want to tell you: there is something we can do and it starts with recognising you are exhausted. 

You don’t need anyone’s permission to rest.

Because sometimes, not even we permit ourselves to rest.

If only we’d listen closely to what our bodies are trying to tell us. A sneeze. Sniffles. Body aches. These are the initial symptoms we tend to ignore.

“I can still tahan (Singlish: to endure) – my family/ community/ work needs me. Just a little while more. I can take a break afterwards.“

It doesn’t take much for a physical illness and a medical certificate to pause our paid work. But sickness is hardly a reason for women to excuse themselves from their unpaid domestic labour.

In our present society of dual-income earners in families, women have been over-exhausting themselves because the norms at home simply have not caught up. Even with a progressive guy around, some still feel pressured that we’re not doing enough because of deeply ingrained mindsets from our mothers’ generation.

Will we ever know the limits of our bodies?

When we have exhausted our inner fuel and the tank is dry, our bodies halt our engines — through ageing, sickness and death. Most of the time, we are fortunate enough to read the early notification for vehicle repair. 

Some of us don’t understand until it’s all too late. 

We can learn how to rest before it’s too late. 

The Buddha considers an old man, a sick man and a corpse as ‘divine messengers, by virtue that they can deliver lessons on impermanence and human mortality if we are willing to examine them closely. 

Every time we brush past a hunchbacked granny in a bus, or hear a lady cough, it’s the Dhamma nudging us to take a deep inhale and to expel our worries now, when we can rest. 

Right here. Right now. 

After that respiteful breath, we can tuck ourselves in bed earlier tonight. We can space out. Decompress. Others can help themselves. Breathe.

We can come first. 

We can’t talk about taking care of ourselves and others without referring to Sedaka Sutta I — The Acrobat, where the Buddha expounded the delicately interrelated dynamics of care:

“Monks, the establishing of mindfulness is to be practiced with the thought, ‘I’ll watch after myself.’ The establishing of mindfulness is to be practiced with the thought, ‘I’ll watch after others.’ 

When watching after yourself, you watch after others. When watching after others, you watch after yourself.”

Extracted from Sedaka Sutta I (SN 47:19)

Ever since I’d read this sutta, I clung onto the very last sentence for my dear life. 

That sentence felt like a complete validation of the female exhaustion by the Buddha. As long as I kept looking out for other people’s well-being, I was “helping” myself, regardless of how burnt-out I was.

Had I rubbed my eyes out of its tunnel vision, the whole of Sedaka Sutta would make sense. It points to the balm for my chronic exhaustion: “Watching after yourself, you watch after others” comes first.

According to the discourse, taking care of oneself involves the development, cultivation and practice of mindfulness. When we are mindful of our internal states, desires, and needs, we can recalibrate the mind by applying the right effort. In return, we extend our care to others by hurting them less.

For instance, once you are aware you are tired, the skillful action would be to take a break. Otherwise, we might hurl insults at our loved ones without intending so. 

Here’s another example: when you feel resentful that “it’s me again” for dishwashing, remember to practice relinquishment (cāga) and non-self (anatta). Sounding out your frustration to your partner gently later is a skillful alternative to shaking up a resentful bottle of figurative coke and erupting onto your emotional casualties.

Furthermore, in Andrew Olendzi’s translation notes of the same sutta, holding ourselves accountable for our well-being ties in closely with our discussion here:

The story is telling us that ultimately we are responsible for our own balance, and would be foolish to direct our attention to others while neglecting our own inner focus. And yet others are directly affected by how well we do this.

We will learn that we can’t rely on others (re: most men) to fill our cups. Even after hearing the Buddha’s teachings, which largely expound on self-awareness, we fall prey to the habit of sending our minds outwards to plug someone else’s gap. 

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With mindfulness, we can always leash our minds back to “What is helpful right now? What do I need?”

Let the wise and compassionate mind guide you to your version of rest. If you fight the wisdom, try to bring the mind back to your needs. Really trust the body and mind to recalibrate. 

I mention your version because there are as many as seven types of rest we need. Counter to our intuition, daily physical movements help release the angst built up in our systems to complete the stress response cycle. Intentional breathing — such as box-breathing — helps to regulate our calm within.

On tough days, we can benefit from giving space to emotions and thoughts: allowing them to come into a non-judgmental awareness. 

Once they’ve arisen, let them cease. If they arise again, let them visit again like a guest in your house. After you have treated them to tea, let them leave gently when you want to rest.

Sometimes, we may require more material help to create that space: journalling, creative expression in art media and crafts, or even gardening. In loving-kindness and compassion, we meet ourselves where we are. 

Here, we don’t need to be someone we are not. We are enough.

The allegory of treating your emotions and thoughts like guests fits in with the Buddha’s teaching of “watching after others.” When we meet others where they are with the same loving-kindness and compassion, regardless of their shapes and quirks, we are practising the same muscle that interacts with our emotions and intrusive thoughts.

When we hold sympathetic joy and equanimity for others, we learn to practice celebrating our small wins and recognising our limits. To take care of others with patience and respect, we know how to offer these antidotes to ourselves, especially when our inner critics are shooting harsh remarks. 

Eventually, we will recognise that we are not so different from others, in terms of how we suffer, why we suffer and how we can heal. Even with our individual bag of conditions, there is fundamental humanity in each of us (think: leaves of the same plant). Therefore, when watching after others, you watch after yourself.

At the end of the day, know that you are not alone.

It is high time for our exhausted community to normalise asking for help. Women are great givers but few hardly receive. 

If there are too many things on your plate, get more plates! I’m quite sure that there will be support where you are seeking. 

For receiving support to become a norm, at least in the household, we would have to trust that teamwork works. Let the progressive men step up. The results may be imperfect but we have someone shouldering the load with us.

For the guys still reading, habitualise checking in on how you can off-load your partner/mother/sister’s domestic responsibilities. Chances are, they are trying too hard to do it all by themselves.

In a conducive and supportive home, we women have the headspace to learn how to attune our needs. Thereafter, we can hone the awareness of applying our efforts in moderation. 

Likewise, as taught by the Buddha in Soṇa Sutta (AN 6:55), to play a lute beautifully, we start with tuning the strings to the right pitch.

Not too taut. Not too loose. 

Sabbe satta sukhi attanang pariharantu. May all beings take care of themselves.

Wise Steps:

  • Begin by asking yourself: What do I need right now? What will be helpful to meet those needs?
  • Prioritise meeting your needs by scheduling mandatory rest days. Fill it with exercise, solitude, reflection, social interactions, and engaging activities according to your preferences. Everyone has her own version of rest.
  • Know when to ask for help and trust the support you receive.

Author: Ophelia

Ophelia is a huge proponent of therapy as a means of finding out how we can grow. As an introvert, she inclines to lose herself in a good book, in the forest or in the silence of a conversation. Ophelia broods over little musings in life. She searches for ways of living in this effervescent world while very much attracted to its impermanence. Words are her way of connecting with people, at the start and at the end.

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