How to Tell When Self-Care Is Doing You More Harm Than Good
“Self-care” has caught on as the buzzy new term for activities that draw focus to our own well-being. When we fail to respond to our own needs, we become anxious, overtired, and in desperate need of reconnecting with a safe space in the world. As the importance of mindfulness becomes more apparent, it makes sense that a term like “self-care” resonates with so many. But according to some health and wellness professionals, what we refer to as self-care can take the form of procrastination, conflict avoidance, and risk aversion — indulgent tendencies that can limit our success and happiness in the long term. So is it ever possible to have too much self-care? And how do we tell the difference between self-indulgence and real self-care? We asked the experts to weigh in.
good self-care will fulfill a healthy intention
Good self-care is all about the intention behind the action. When the action we take distracts from the intended outcome, what we’re doing isn’t self-care anymore. “There are two clear ways in which self-care can have the opposite of its intended effect and cause harm instead of good,” Natasha Boote, a holistic wellness coach and yoga instructor, explains. “The first is when self-care becomes an excuse. In situations like these, the idea of self-care is used as a tool by which to indulge in the things we want to do or to avoid other necessary activities.” Boote cites drinking an entire bottle of wine on a weeknight because you’re stressed as a perfect example. “Overindulging in anything, but especially alcohol, can rarely be seen as a form of [authentic] self-care because it has detrimental effects on your physical health.”
Boote continues, “The second way that self-care can cause more harm than good is by adding, instead of detracting, from stress. It’s easy to think that you’re not doing something right if you don’t meditate, take a salt bath every night, do yoga, meal prep for the entire week, go to bed at 9pm, attend SoulCycle every day, paint a clay mask on your face, and write down 10 reasons you’re grateful each night before bed. Through this lens, self-care is its own full-time job… Self- care isn’t something to achieve.” In other words, if the idea of cramming enough “self-care” into our daily rituals is stressing us out, we’re missing the point.
good self-care will embrace your reality
Julie Burton, a wellness writer and founder of a Minneapolis writing and wellness coworking space, points out that healthy self-care won’t feel like a punishment or a ritual to endure as a means to an ego-centric end. Burton says, “Self-care is not avoidance. It is not escaping a tough relationship, demanding job, or difficult children by ignoring those challenges and turning to shopping, drinking, eating, pills, or sex.” And if we’re using methods we typically see as “self-care” — like a long bath, a mani-pedi, or a soothing massage — as a form of escapism, we’ve lost the plot again. It can become especially tempting to think that we need these pampering rituals to make ourselves feel cared for, even if we have to go into debt or skip bill payments to afford to do them.
“Self-care is facing your reality and believing in yourself and your ability to handle what is on your plate,” Burton affirms. That means that healthy self-care is going to look different at different points of your life, depending on our financial and family situation. And on the flip side, it’s important to remember that budget-friendly “self-care” options (such as reading a guilty pleasure novel you’ve borrowed from the library or skipping that pricy barre workout for a YouTube tutorial at home) can connect us to ourselves just as effectively as luxury self-care experiences.
Good Self-Care Will Result in Feeling Balanced
Research is beginning to understand the effect that social isolation and technology has on millennials’ tendency to feel anxiety. That means that when we’re practicing self-care the right way, we’re finding ways to set boundaries in our relationships but we aren’t isolating ourselves indefinitely. If our definition of “self-care” means sitting out every social interaction, we’re doing ourselves a disservice (yes, even the introverts among us).
Dr. Lauren Appio, a psychiatrist who practices out of Manhattan, put it this way: “We’re doing self-care well when we choose self-care activities that leave us feeling restored. Spending time with people who care about us, for example, not only relaxes us but may help us feel more capable as we face the stresses of our lives.” If a midnight-TV binge leaves us bleary-eyed and less likely to engage with others, we might just be creating situations that will make our circumstances feel more stressful, and our bodies less cared for.
But the point isn’t that self-care shouldn’t feel good. Crafting, gardening, and even home organization can be healthy self-care if our enjoyment of the activity is the process and not the outcome. “Self-care activities that get us in touch with our creativity and sense of playfulness also reduce feelings of fear and dread,” according to Dr. Appio. Whatever form self-maintenance takes, the action will ideally be something we can repeat and build into a ritual. A habitual process that focuses on our state of mind and well-being opens up space to decompress and access the way we feel. It can also serve a function similar to meditation, connecting us to the world around us. While the simple habit of brushing our teeth and washing our faces might not strike us as something to look forward to, little moments like that are the foundation of real self-care.
Establishing self-care routines can keep us grounded, content, and compassionate toward others. But learning to recognize self-care habits that aren’t serving us well — and discarding them accordingly — is equally important. There’s nothing wrong with a splurge now and then, but call it what it is. Boote says that drawing these distinctions is just the next step in realizing our needs and desires. She concludes, “Be honest with yourself and ask the real question: Is this assisting me to better myself and reenter a state of balance? If yes, proceed; if no, just know that you’re using the concept of self-care to self-serve.”
How do you engage in self-care? Let us know on Twitter @BritandCo!
(Photo via Getty)