In fact, being skilled at taking care of yourself may improve your capacity to care for others; if you're not fulfilled, you're only able to see other people through the filter of your own needs. And studies suggest that not taking care of ourselves is unhealthy for those who depend upon us. At the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, researchers found that greater levels of caregiver stress were associated with increased respiratory problems among the infants in their charge.

A friend who does a lot of pro bono work in addition to demanding full-time paying projects seemed to be in a debilitating cycle: She'd work till she collapsed, when she'd have to take a couple of weeks off to recuperate (during which time she lost both momentum and money), and then she'd fall back immediately into the same frenzied work routine. Because she is a brilliant woman, and kind, her family and friends often called on her expertise in matters professional and otherwise. Her appointment book looked like the diary of a Survivor contestant. Which, in a way, she was. But though she had won many hard-earned victories for other people, she herself was barely surviving. (Not incidentally, her house, quite literally, was falling down around her.) So she started to make exercise—which sometimes meant just a vigorous walk—a priority, planned her meals thoughtfully rather than eating on the run, turned off the telephone after 11 P.M. so she could get a full night's sleep, and settled in with a guy who happened to be terrific at fixing things, like leaky plumbing and loose shingles. Guess how all this affected her work: Because she is now more engaged and energetically enthusiastic, her projects are reaching (and therefore helping) more people than ever before.

I recently read about a kind of therapy advocating that when we're stressed or suffering, we put our hand over our heart or touch our cheek as we might touch the cheek of a child we love, and say simply, "I understand." In that moment, we're accomplishing one of our greatest responsibilities; without feeling loving-kindness and compassion for ourselves, we can never really know what they are.

It's the easy way to put yourself first. And it only takes a moment.

Advice for a Better You