What Does It Really Mean To "Focus On Yourself"?

photographed by Ashley Armitage.
One of the cardinal rules of breakups is that after a relationship ends, both parties are just supposed to "focus on themselves," as if turning away from the heartbreak and person who caused it will solve all of your problems.
Most of the time, "focusing on yourself" just means that someone is not going to engage in more relationships or put the energy into dating again, says Esther Boykin, LMFT, a relationship therapist in Washington D.C. This can be a helpful step for people who feel like there are parts of themselves that they lost or haven't given enough attention to while in a relationship, she says. So, how do you begin to focus on yourself? Is it a matter of deleting all your dating apps and becoming a hermit? Do you have to spend time journaling until you figure your life out? Not really, and focusing on yourself is easier than it sounds.
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To start, you've got to separate your life into quadrants: your relationships, overall physical wellbeing, mental state (including emotional health and anything that stimulates you intellectually), and community or spirit, Boykin says. Then, think about which areas of life are going really well, and which ones need extra support, she says. "If people are a little more intentional about choosing an area of focus, it isn't overwhelming," she says. From there, you can take tangible steps to improve or foster the quadrants that you feel need it the most.
For example, maybe you've always wanted to learn a foreign language, or take a pottery class, but never had the time in a relationship. Or perhaps you want to expand your circle and make time for friends and family. Or maybe all you ever do is go out to drinks with your friends, and you want to do something more creative, like start a book club or spend time in nature. If any of those things make you feel good, then amazing — you're focusing on yourself. "Self care doesn't have to be doing things by yourself, and even 'focusing on me,'" Boykin says.
Even people in relationships can benefit from focusing on themselves, because it's easy to get caught up in your partner's needs when you're in a relationship, Boykin says. "Especially if people move into the stage of the relationship where your day-to-day routine is intwined with someone else," she says. "You stop thinking about, Well, what new things do I want to learn or do for myself?" Figure out how to have a balance and create structure in your life so you can have time alone and connect with others, she says. It's kind of like the oxygen mask metaphor: You have to take care of yourself first before you can take care of others.
Throughout this process, it's important to remember that "very rarely is a thing you need the opposite of what you have," Boykin says. In other words, the solution to your dating problems might not be to swear off dating. Or if a relationship ended badly, that doesn't mean that you should never be in a relationship ever again. To that same point, if you're someone who enjoys being alone, you don't have to go out and be social, and vice versa. "Create more time for whichever of those experiences gives you the most energy or makes you feel the most nourished or nurtured in your life," she says.
In other words: do you, whoever that is.
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