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Self-Care Isn’t Everything

Does self-care ever feel like an imposition to you? A burden? A band-aid? Or just another thing to make you feel bad about yourself?

Perhaps it doesn’t always feel this way. Taking care of ourselves is helpful in many circumstances, but it can be hard to connect with sometimes.

Guess what? You’re not alone.

If you have done any google searches for tips on self-care, I am sure you have learned all about the importance of self-care and ideas for implementing self-care. So, I won’t go there (although, of course, I support all that too).

This little space in the blogosphere is for those who are feeling stressed out by the idea of self-care. For moments when it does not feel like an act of self-love and makes us feel worse. It’s for moments when self-care feels hopeless or like too much of a reach.

Like when you are feeling shitty and someone tells you to relax in a hot bath and you can’t help but picture yourself as a slouched, glistening whale.  We’re not talking about cute glittering porpoises. Oh, no. Between your mood and the whole bathtub thing, you feel like a cross between the Grinch and a whale.

We’ve ALL been there.

To be honest, self-care isn’t everything.

I KNOW, I know. That might be the last thing you thought a therapist would say but bear with me for a minute.

Self-care is great preventative wellness. In therapy, I do work with clients on how to use self-care while we address larger challenges. It is an awesome tool. However, I often see it promoted in contexts whereby the advice itself is indicative of a bit of a disconnect.

How many of us have had employers who actively pushed self-care, yet refused to address low pay, long hours, little time off, or a toxic work environment? As if it’s now on us to take accountability for their not having a system to support the humans behind the work. Being told to do more self-care in this context is a chore, an extension of work. There’s little motivation, and these efforts become ineffective in that context. So it feels fruitless.

Or, how many of us have gone through a trauma and have experienced people telling us to be sure to eat and get good sleep? Yes, the basics get thrown off in the context of trauma and it is helpful to be asked about these things. However, it can feel a little patronizing to be told to be better about self-care in this context. It might feel like helplessness at something that should be automatic. Despite good intentions, it can add insult to injury.

And don’t even get me started on the -ISMs. So many of us hold identities, both visible and invisible, that have been historically marginalized. Our efforts to thrive in the context of racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, xenophobia, audism, you-name-it is more than self-care, it’s survival. If you are operating in this framework of survival, you might feel pretty stressed. And what do we like to tell people to do when they are stressed? Practice self-care. This is a catch-22.

Unfortunately, self-care, in and of itself, will not address horrible work situations, trauma, or issues like racism or sexism. It can be an important part of the solution, however, there are times when it is not the actual problem or solution.

Our task then is to figure out how to leverage it.

If you feel like the idea of self-care is getting under your skin in some way, don’t push it. Perhaps this is for a good reason. Get curious about it.

Lying off the pressure, we can ask ourselves openly, “What do I need or want, right now?” If it’s a healthy and safe option that brings you even an inkling of joy – do it. That joy will feed into more positive feelings.

In other times, just letting yourself off the hook is all the self-care you need. You may actually be doing enough. Be kind and gentle with yourself. Perhaps all you need is to acknowledge that you are actually doing a great job with the resources you have right now. That’s all any of us can do.

If you are feeling totally stuck in the bandaid-catch-22 situation, acknowledge that this is really tough. Yes, do as much as you can for yourself to recharge yourself. You’re gonna need it. However, do it as a way to cope until you can find a more viable path for yourself. In this context, self-care is the stepping stone, not the path. But finding the new path is still important.

Free yourself from any expectation that it will solve these bigger challenges. Use self-care just for you. Being clear on the boundaries of what to expect from self-care makes those activities a lot more effective.

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gif of Natalia Amari shaking her hair

Natalia Amari, lcsw

On a mission to help others overcome trauma and reclaim their personal power.


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