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The Trouble with Self-Care

Self-care is a loaded concept.  What does it really mean? It’s one of those ubiquitous phrases that can summon up rich images of bubble baths and lithe yoginis.  Yet I would suggest many of us are not approaching self-care the way it was originally intended.

In my clinical practice I’ve seen so much shame around self-care.  Shame that people aren’t doing enough to take care of themselves and this shame further exacerbates the difficulty many of us have with taking care of ourselves.

Daily meditations, celery juice, kale salads, daily exercise, gratitude journals, 8 hours of blissful sleep, daily affirmations, elaborate skin routines, daily flossing, supplements, acupuncture, 2 liters of water, etc. etc. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had time and energy to devote to all of these things? Our culture around self-care sets us up for failure and it feels like a constantly moving target. If feels like we are never doing enough and we miss the mark because ultimately our ‘selves’ do not feel cared for. Our self-care goals often become entangled in a messy list of to do items.

I believe that self-care should start with self-acceptance. We should first work on being absolutely okay with where we are on our journey and recognize we are doing our best with the multitude of stresses and demands we face each day.  We can aim to expand our self-care tools but only when we have truly embraced where we are at with it all. The moment our pursuit of self-care causes shame is the moment it is no longer self-care.

When discussing self-care with patients I regularly hear people set unbelievably lofty self-care goals for themselves and when they don’t meet these goals they feel demoralized, discouraged and often give up.  Part of my role is to remind people to set small goals that are easily achievable.  Incorporating baby steps is more likely to build momentum and create lasting change and not create more shame or disappointment.

Ultimately self-care should be helpful. You should notice a palpable shift in the way you feel when you engage in self-care. It should not be done simply because someone else has suggested it or because you feel you should. We can’t do it all, so being deliberate and intentional about what we spend our time and energy on will ultimately help us feel like we are really taking care of ourselves.

In summary, I believe self-care is really more about how we do something rather than what we do. If we can approach our self-care pursuits with self-acceptance, baby steps, and ensuring that the activities we chose feel like they are truly helpful, we can meet ourselves where we are at and utilize self-care strategies the way they were intended; to truly care for ourselves.

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