Why is Self-Care So Hard?
Updated: Aug 22
Whenever I hear someone talk about self-care, I get a little uneasy. I think of long walks. Exercise. Bubble baths. Making myself a healthy meal. And sure, self-care can mean all of these things. But, sometimes, especially when I need them the most, I don’t want to do any of them.
While the term self-care can evoke images of pampering and relaxation and, well, feeling good. But that’s only a small part of what self-care is, and these ideas of self-care can keep us feeling stuck. Yeah, maybe I feel anxious or depressed – taking a bubble bath might just be the last thing I want to do.
So, yes, self-care can be hard. But why?
I hear it from clients fairly often, and I feel it in my own life: if I take time to do something for me, then I’m neglecting something else that will affect the people in my life negatively. However, just search “self-care” on the Internet (maybe you have!), and you’ll see argument after argument about how important self-care is. In my office, I use the example set by safety instructions on an airplane: always put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. It’s hard to benefit the people around you if you’re gasping for air. Check out this blog from The Growth Studio to read more about shifting your perspective regarding the difference between self-care and selfishness (yes, intentions matter!).
Additionally, I invite you to challenge the notion that my needs and your needs are always mutually exclusive; it might be helpful to not get overly attached to thinking about self-care as a way of meeting only your needs in any given moment. For example, for the father who loves playing the piano but feels guilty to go play for an hour because it means taking another hour away from his busy family may feel caught having to make a difficult choice. It’s easy to get tricked by false choices like this one. Sure, from time to time, he may just want to play the piano by himself, and that is okay. But could he also get some of the same needs met by teaching his son to play piano? Or doing something else creative with his family? In these cases, he might not have to make a choice between family and self-care at all.
Misery loves…well, not pleasure
As illustrated by my description of my reaction to the phrase self-care above, self-care is often conflated with pleasurable things. And, often, pleasurable things can indeed be great self-care. But when you’re feeling depressed or anxious, they may not sound so pleasurable. This is one of the main points of Mawiyah Patten’s article, “What Nobody Tells You About Self-Care.”
And, this may be one of the more difficult aspects of self-care. What do you do when the things that were once pleasurable now sound awful? Patten’s approach is simple: do them anyway. Easier said than done, right? But there is no easy solution. Often, our anxiety or depression may keep us from doing the things that will help us feel better, ultimately. So, we can only try our best to take care of ourselves.
One way I frame this for clients is that it’s okay to start small. By setting small, achievable goals in
terms of self-care, you can build momentum with your success. You can even start by simply reframing the things you are already doing. Brushing your teeth? That’s self-care. By bringing some awareness (“I’m doing this because I deserve to have clean teeth, which can help me feel good”), you can begin to shift your mindset, little by little. And, having brushed your teeth, you may feel competent to try another small act of self-care. With a little effort, you can begin to build a positive-feedback loop that will lead to a little more openness to do larger and larger acts of self-care.
Self-care doesn’t always look like self-care
In his book Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations, Dan Ariely argues that we don’t really understand pleasure. His point, basically, is that we most often think about the things that bring us immediate pleasure, yet much of what actually brings us good feelings in our life are quite the opposite. Sometimes the things that ultimately bring us the most pleasure don’t even sound pleasurable, and during the act of them, they may actually not be pleasurable at all. (You can hear Ariely talk about this on this podcast around the five-minute mark.)
For example, for some people, going to the gym may sound like torture – and being at the gym may feel a little like it, too. However, the satisfaction you may get from accomplishing some goals at the gym combined with the positive feelings that can come after (whether it’s from adrenaline or from overall improved functioning of your body) may end up being great self-care.
Patten makes a similar point, saying, “Self-care includes a lot of adult-ing, and activities you want to put off indefinitely. Self-care sometimes means making tough decisions which you fear others will judge. Self-care involves asking for help; it involves vulnerability; it involves being painfully honest with yourself and your loved ones about what you need.” For more information on this point, I definitely suggest reading her article.
Self-care is deceptive in its appearance, as the term has become loaded with ‘shoulds.’ Self-care should feel good. Self-care should be easy because it’s pleasurable. Self-care is something you should do.
But the reality is, self-care can be hard. Sometimes you won’t want to do it. Sometimes it can feel selfish. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel good, especially not right away.