Why Self Care Doesn’t Work

The concept of Self Care has hit the big time. It’s on everyone’s To Do list – or rather, everyone’s “I Should Do” list – and on the cover of every women’s magazine. There are blogs devoted to it. Memes abound. 

While Self Care sounds nice on first blush, I’m noticing a trend – when people mention Self Care, it is generally followed by a sigh, or a steely look of determination. The sub-text is, “if only I could…” or, “I gotta mash this in somewhere, maybe after I finish my taxes.”

First, here are the 3 most problematic myths I see wrapped up in today’s Self Care:

  1. Self Care is an appointment. It’s time out from normal daily life. We assign it to 2:00 on Thursday – and if something “more important” (or simply more on fire) comes up at 2:00 on Thursday, we’ll just postpone Self Care until the fires are out (if that ever happens).
  2. Self Care is for sale. It’s a massage, a spa treatment, a fancy salad, an indulgence we give ourselves (or can’t). The media/advertisers have co-opted the term and are using it to sell something – namely, the concept that “I’m not enough.” We need to do something/get something/be something different in order to be ok. It takes resources to have Self Care. No wonder there’s never enough of it to make an impact. 
  3. Self Care is an add-on. It’s an appendage to a schedule or lifestyle that, at the moment, may be inherently UNhealthy or UNcaring. At its worst, the add-on perpetuates our tolerance of intolerable conditions. We push push push through our lives, and at the end of the month, or the project, or the pay cycle, we take a deep breath and pat ourselves on the back – but then we plunge back in at our usual break-neck pace. Add-ons don’t change the underlying structure that’s effectively creating imbalance and disease. 

And there’s a hidden double whammy in here: there’s an implication that if we’re NOT “practicing Self Care,” we must not really care about ourselves. So then we feel guilty because we can’t fit it in, or frustrated because we can’t afford it. The truth is, it’s precisely when we are feeling overwhelmed, time-pinched, or out of money that we most NEED true self-caring. So that’s an important sign that today’s “Self Care” is missing the target.

Of course, I’m not advocating for a LACK of caring for ourselves. Caring for ourselves is essential. Caring for our fearless body, our busy little mind, our tender spirit – these are requirements if we are going to live a fruitful life.

Yet for our caring to be truly effective – meaning, for it to replenish us and reverse the depletion that is epidemic among so many people today – it has to be woven into the very fabric of our day. It can’t be an optional add-on when we have some extra cash or time. 

The good news is, caring for ourselves is absolutely doable. It DOES take focus and attention, but it’s doable. In fact, it’s slightly addictive, once we get started… 🙂 

The challenge is to allocate our focus in very intentional ways. It may require that we re-think the way we typically do things. We may have to disappoint some people, or ourselves. We may need to disrupt the status quo that is slowly but surely depleting us.

Here are 5 ideas to help us truly care for ourselves this year:

  1. Practice the medicine of subtraction. Make a list of a few simple things that would make you feel more nourished if you STOPPED doing them. Some possibilities: Checking email or social media feeds every 30 minutes. Comparing yourself to others. Saying yes when you mean no. Skipping lunch. Engaging in predictable conflict with someone who baits you. Taking on other people’s poor planning as your emergency. Practicing perfectionism. (Add your ideas in the comments below.) Now choose one that is the most doable for you, and see what happens when you stop. (I didn’t say this would be easy – but I guarantee it’s worth the effort!)
  2. Get enough sleep. This one really must come at the top of our To Do list, not as the prize when we’ve done everything else on the list. Have a firm Lights Out time. If you aren’t caring for yourself every night in this way, depletion is the inevitable outcome. 
  3. Notice your mind’s tone of voice when it’s talking to you – and talk back. Our brain is naturally geared to focus on the negative, in ourselves and others, in its effort to protect us from danger. As you eavesdrop on the tone your mind uses with you, ask yourself: “Would I tolerate someone else using that tone of voice with me? Would I talk to my child that way?”  If the answer is “NO!” then a shift is needed. Chances are, that bully voice is afraid – afraid of missing out on something, or of not being enough. Verbalize out loud a gentle response to the mind that acknowledges what is really going on and puts you back in an empowered place – “Honey, I know you’re worried right now, but I’m handling this. Thank you for trying to look out for me. You can take a break now.” Practice.
  4. Find a tribe. This is what our ancestors had figured out, and what our modern conveniences threaten to rob us of. Find a group of people you click with, a group of folks who have similar values and priorities to you, and spend more time with them. Yes, this will take time. Find a movement class you really like, or join a book club focused on a topic that lights you up. Consider joining my Embodied Ayurveda class for a sweet community committed to caring for ourselves. Let a wave of communal intention carry you. Surrounding yourself with others who care for you makes self-caring SO much easier and more fun.
  5. Make quiet time a rock solid part of your day. 5 minutes is a perfect place to start. Sit in your bathroom if that’s the only place you can reliably hide undisturbed. It’s in the quiet that we have a chance of hearing our own needs. It’s in the quiet that we can notice the leading edge of depletion, so we can DO something about it. Make quiet a priority.

Now, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also get massages and give ourselves joyful treats. By all means, let’s do that too! 

AND let’s make sure we are truly and deeply caring for ourselves in the very structure of our day, in the way we talk to ourselves, in the expectations we hold for ourselves. Let’s create an inner environment of deep self caring that permeates every waking moment. 

You really are a profound, priceless treasure. Let that truth be the baseline, not the add-on.

2 thoughts on “Why Self Care Doesn’t Work

  1. Katrina Piehler says:

    Oh my gosh Ivy, you’ve captured and expressed so powerfully in this post exactly what I’ve been thinking about and want to write about myself! I particularly loved the way you identified and described the problematic myths. And your empowering self care ideas are spot on! Thank you so much for writing so clearly about this much needed topic right now. ~Katrina

    • Ivy Ingram says:

      I’m so glad this spoke to you, Katrina! Yes, I think many of us in the helping professions, like you, can see our work getting reduced by the phrase “self care” into tiny boxes that limit the impact of the support we offer. I’m so glad you’re out there doing what you do! Much love to you….

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