Why "Treating Yourself" Is Such an American Idea

As the daughter of immigrants, I thought self-care was a luxury only rich families could afford.

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It all started with frozen yogurt. I was on the phone with my mom and she told me that she had a bad day. She felt so angry and frustrated that she decided to take a walk during her lunch break and bought herself some frozen yogurt. 

She felt so great after—relieved. This small act meant her day wasn't so bad after all.

"Aren't you proud of me?" she asked.

I felt so proud of her. What seems like an everyday gesture actually means a lot when you come from an immigrant family like mine—a family that doesn't talk about self-care. 

"I always got the sense that treating yourself was something reserved for families with less to worry about."

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My parents immigrated from Guatemala to the United States to create a better life for their kids. They worked any—and all jobs—they could find: My mom used to clean houses. My dad was a butcher. 

When they first arrived in the States, they lived in a tiny apartment with two kids. A lot of my extended family also worked odd jobs and lived in less-than-ideal arrangements in search of something better.

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As with many stories about immigrant families, sacrifice was necessary. Now that the second- and third-generation kids are growing up, we hear these stories a lot. What we don't hear is how they kept it all together. How they managed to stay sane in the face of all these challenges.

I was born in the U.S., so I've absorbed a lot of the American cultural practices surrounding indulgence. When my mom told me about her frozen yogurt, I said: "That's what we call a treat yourself moment."

I've never heard an equivalent phrase in Spanish. The emphasis was always on hard work and on creating a good livelihood. Even the second-generation kids grew up with this message: We are supposed to make good money so we can support our parents, who sacrificed so much for us when they first came to the States.

That means focusing on work and not much else. Sure, we get together for family events and birthday parties. But I rarely hear about anyone doing something special for themselves. I always got the sense that treating yourself was expensive and a waste of time—something reserved for families in better financial situations with less to worry about.

Most weekends, my mom spends her time cleaning the house or running errands. It took me some time to realize that I followed in her shoes—I tend to make myself busy whenever I find myself with free time. I didn't know how to relax. I rarely celebrated my accomplishments and always felt I needed to work harder, to do more.

"self-care shouldn't just be for those with financial stability."

In a lot of ways, this work ethic has helped me reach some of my goals. But in other ways, it's been damaging. I started to realize that my work suffered when I didn't take the time to relax and disconnect. I never felt like I was working hard enough because I just kept setting the bar higher.

My mental health started to suffer. I was constantly worried that I wasn't good enough, that I was a failure. I felt depressed and anxious. I realized that I needed to focus more on taking time for myself–and let go of the pressure to be working really, really hard all the time.

I think back to my parents' situation. Yes, it's impossible to take some time for yourself when you are raising two children and struggling to make ends meet. It's difficult to think about taking a vacation or requesting a mental health day when you need to clean someone's apartment to make money to survive.

But self-care shouldn't just be for those with financial stability.

I want to break the cycle of equating caring for myself as a luxury. I am making an effort to schedule more social activities, to light a candle each night and settle into bed to read for just a little bit before drifting off to sleep. Small things. 

And just recently, I took my mom out on a Friday night to enjoy a dinner and drinks at a rooftop bar. It's something we could both stand to do more often.

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