I just hosted my first family Christmas, and amidst the turkey spatchcocking, attending my first Catholic Mass in over a decade with my grandma, and discovering one of the weirdest Christmas cartoons (why does Santa have hairy lips?!), I learned a very powerful lesson.

Now, this lesson is something that I’ve read about, thought about, and talked about many, many times in the past, but it had never really penetrated beyond an intellectual knowing; I still found myself resisting the idea in many ways emotionally, physically, and even spiritually. What’s the lesson? In a word: self-care.

I’m self-employed, which means that my work flow (and income) can vary from month to month. Usually, the ups and downs aren’t terribly significant, but one seeming constant has been that, every holiday season, I get crazy busy.

But not this year, for some reason. I had enough work to pay the bills but not oh-my-god-crazy amounts of it. For three days, I was dealing with a lot of anxiety and self-doubt, and I could feel myself on the verge of my habitual response whenever I’m stressed about finances: work myself into the ground with an attitude of panic and stress. Great plan, right?

Well, something shifted this year, and after my three days of wallowing in clownshit craziness, I decided to try something new: calming the eff down. I didn’t allow my fear to undercut my normal yoga and meditation routine, I didn’t use it as an excuse to eat crappy food and stay up too late, and I decided to use my newfound free time to put glitter on things.

No, seriously. I have this great set of Martha Stewart glitter that doesn’t get used nearly as often as it should, and I took full advantage of every color in the glitter rainbow this year. I glittered wreaths, I glittered little cardboard houses, I glittered gifts. And then I looked around the apartment for more things to glitter.

Amidst all the poofs of glitter that plumed into the air every time I got up from my crafting chair, I noticed something even more sparkly: a deep feeling of relaxation and general…okayness.

As a result, days before my family was slated to arrive, I was able to, rather leisurely, plan out a tasty menu, go grocery shopping, and cook in relaxed shifts, rather than cramming it all into one last-minute panic fest. And it was really, really enjoyable.

By the time my family walked through the door, I had Christmas lights and glitter gleaming from every corner of the apartment, delicious food smells were wafting through the Christmas-y air, and, more importantly, I was brimming with love and energy that I genuinely wanted to share with my family. I didn’t feel put out or resentful; I was just relaxed and happy to share my time with them.

Three days later, when my family loaded into the car and drove off, I was so filled with tenderness and love for all of them. I didn’t feel my usual resentful, exhausted self after family time, and I was so grateful for all of the little ways in which I’d connected with each of them: watching my little grandma at Mass and feeling her lean against me while we sat side by side in the pew (adorable), watching my mom get progressively more and more relaxed until she looked as if she would melt into the couch cushions, and discovering a dozen things I never knew that my aunt and I had in common.

This was the big learn for me, though: In the same way that taking care of myself prior to my family’s visit resulted in not only a much more enjoyable experience for me, but also in what my mom called “a magical Christmas” for my family, this same practice of self-care will likely yield juicy benefits when applied to my work life.

Sounds pretty obvious, I’m sure, but I have spent so much of my life unlearning the idea that work has to be an arduous chore in order for it to “count,” and that if you’re not striving and driving yourself into an early grave then you’re probably slacking, that it’s easy to forget that forcing myself to just “push through it” with work doesn’t give me any better results than if I were to run myself ragged and “push through it” while my family was visiting.

It’s so clear that in the latter situation, I’m following a recipe for a cranky, dysfunctional time with my family, but it’s sometimes harder for me to see the equally direct relationship between my work performance and self-care.

In this culture, we often look up to the driven, dogged businesspeople who burn the midnight oil and other cliches of stress and exhaustion, because it seems like a requirement for success. But this Christmas, I finally learned that, in order to bring my best self to my work–the self that can intuit and manifest creative solutions to problems, the self that knows how and wants to treat everyone with compassion–I have to take care of that self.

I have to prioritize treating my body to yoga; carving out time for meditation; and going out for hikes on nice days (even when I’m tempted to just watch a movie), because I always feel great when I spend time in the woods.

Forcing myself to work late night after night, skipping meals so I can finish projects, and working myself up into a state of high stress–sure, I can still get projects done on time in that state, just like I could still slap food on the table for my family even if I was an anxious basket case leading up to their arrival. But do I believe for one second that the quality of that experience, the quality of my work, would be the same in both scenarios?

Not any more.

Here’s to 2015, a whole new year of beautiful opportunities for self-care, in both my personal and my work life. Care to join me?

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