6 Reasons Traditional Self-Care Practices Don’t Work

Self-care is everywhere. You’ve likely been told how important it is for your work, how it fosters innovation, creativity, and problem-solving. We’re sure you’ve been told it reduces stress.

All of these statements are true. Self-care really does have amazing benefits, when it is done right. The problem? How we’re told to do self-care is all wrong!

Do you try to fit in self-care but it’s become just another thing you can’t find time for, and feel like you’re failing at?

Or maybe you do self-care: You eat vegetables, you have baths, you walk your dog, you drink some wine…. but you just don’t feel….. replenished.

The problem here isn’t YOU. The raw deal is that you’ve been given the wrong messages about how to practice self care. Here are 6 reasons why our current approaches don’t work:

1. We aren’t taught how to do self-care

We get taught lots of things in our career…. but rarely how to do effective self-care.

At best, when self-care is taught, it generally includes being given a menu of activities to do. (We call this a “checklist approach” to self-care). At worst, your training might not even have mentioned self-care, implied it was for people who are weak, or actively undermined your ability to practice it. No wonder we all feel like we struggle with self-care! No one has taught us how to properly do it! You’ve been left to figure it out alone – and that’s hard to do when you’re a busy professional.

One particular thing we don’t seem to be taught: How do we find time for self-care anyway?! When people are asked why they don’t engage in more self-care, the number 1 challenge is finding time. Not only do we need to be taught what to do, we need to learn how to find time to do it!

2. A checklist approach to self-care doesn’t allow us all to be different.

Providing people with a menu of self-care activities can be helpful when you’re stuck and not sure what to do to take care of yourself. But they are unhelpful when they are given as a prescription or sure-fire recipe for self-care. Long lists of things we “should” be doing often just leave us feeling like it’s one more thing we have to do.

Because people are different, self-care must be different too! One person’s most enjoyable, replenishing, and favourite activity might be stressful for another person! Our self-care choices must match who we are and what is important to us – or they will be draining, not replenishing.

3. Soothing and self-care are not the same thing.

Okay, so those checklist approaches? They tend to offer a lot of the same ideas: go for a walk, soak in a bubble bath, drink a glass of wine, meditate, watch TV. Those are great things to do (especially if you enjoy them!), but it’s important to understand why we are doing them. Traditional approaches to self-care advise you to engage in these activities because they will be immediately calming and allow you to release some of the stress of your day. That is, because they soothe a distressed mood.

Soothing is great, and we love a long bubble bath. But soothing is not all self-care has to offer. The purpose of self-care is to replenish your personal and professional selves. To fill your jar back up so you have the energy, joy, and meaning to live your best life and do your best work. Although watching TV can be relaxing, and take your mind off of a bad day, watching TV might not always make you feel replenished or help look after YOU. Sometimes a long bubble bath is exactly what we need. Other times, it’s just not going to be enough.

In more complicated words: Although self-care can include soothing, soothing alone is not enough for us to fully take care of ourselves.

4. Self-care doesn’t always feel good.

Lots of activities are not enjoyable – but they might still be good self-care choices.

Because we tend to mistake soothing for self-care, or think we can follow a checklist approach to self-care, we often expect that self-care should always feel good in the moment. Worse, if it doesn’t feel good, we mistakenly conclude that it can’t be self-care. Not true!

One aspect of self-care that Jorden is always working on is not overextending herself by saying yes to too many things. A lot of you can probably relate to this! Over time, Jorden has learned her personal limits for how much she can take on at once – and it’s a looooooot less than she used to think. The result? She has to be ruthless at prioritizing, and this often involves saying no to really exciting new opportunities. Does saying no – especially to people she genuinely likes and cares about – feel good? Absolutely not! It sucks not to do everything you want to do. But is it self-care? Absolutely! Setting boundaries leaves time for Jorden to enjoy her work and have time for her other priorities, including time with her family and alone to pursue her hobbies and interests. Paying our bills, taking our medications, setting boundaries… these are all examples of activities that don’t necessarily feel amazing to do – but they are all important for self-care.

5. Sustainable self-care cannot be grounded in a fear of negative consequences.

Pursuing a self-care activity because you “should” is just a recipe failure. Look after youself by doing the things you really, really want to do

Picture this: It’s 6:30am on January 1st. You have dragged yourself out of bed (possibly after a very late night), put your sleepy body into running shoes and workout clothes and are now facing the challenge of finding motivation to get on your treadmill (or even worse: Drive in the dark and cold to a gym) instead of going back to sleep. Even less motivating: Your entire family is still in bed and will be for a while. “I have to do this,” you tell yourself, “I need to [lose weight, be more fit, fight aging, whatever].” You manage to run that day, and maybe for a few more days. Or even a few weeks! But eventually you sleep instead of facing the treadmill and the new goal is abandoned. Every time you pass your treadmill, gathering dust, you feel like a failure. “Why can’t I get it together?!” you ask yourself.

Sound familiar? We all have self-care plans that have fallen by the wayside, for lots of reasons. But one reason is that we often choose self-care activities because we think we have to do them. Or we’re pursuing them to avoid something, rather than gain something. It’s a lot different to decide to exercise because you’re punishing your body for it’s size than it is to decide to exercise because you love the way your body feels when it’s moving. And one is much more motivating than the other: Can you guess which one? (The second!)

And spoiler alert: You never have to pursue a self-care activity because you “should” – that’s just a recipe for feeling like a failure, because chances are you won’t sustain it! Pursuing what you want to is so much more rewarding (and doable!)

6. It’s really hard to do self-care without the support of like-minded others.

It’s very hard to engage in regular, replenishing, and effective self-care when you are swimming upstream against a culture that doesn’t support it. The stress this conflict in values creates can be exhausting. It can lead lots of people to conclude work-life balance just isn’t possible. They give up trying and join the culture of overwork. We’re wired to get along with the people around us – even when adopting their habits isn’t in our best interests.

Traditional self-care doesn’t talk about how to overcome this. We need to work on changing unhelpful work cultures. But in the meantime, we need to nail our own self-care habit – and that requires finding your local tribe of self-care supporters (no matter how small) to help you do it.

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