By Helen Fronshtein, PsyD

How many times per day do we hear the following: “How are you? Hope you’re doing well.” Or “Take care of yourself!” “Take good care!”  “Stay well!” We probably hear it--or ourselves say it--so often that we no longer interpret it as anything more than a social nicety.

Social convention aside, if you consider the content of these messages, you’ll notice that others commonly bid you farewell by insisting--not asking--that you take care of or be good to yourself. Must be an important message if it bears that much repeating (or reminding)! OK, got it. But does anyone ever tell you how or what doing so entails?

Caring for your self involves many things. And sometimes, more is less and less is more. But I get ahead of myself.  Let’s start with the basics.

I’m happy to risk sounding the Master of the Obvious in listing these self care fundamentals: eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, sleeping enough, spiritual or religious practice, balancing work and play, and being financially responsible. Some self care activities are less obvious, like developing awareness about your individual patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving, as well using these insights to make adjustments to the way you look after yourself.

I want to be clear that these are not discrete items on a checklist or fixed endpoints. Self-care activities are complex and interdependent--they impact one another. If you eat and exercise regularly, your sleep is likely to be more regulated. If you are nourishing and restoring yourself adequately, your mood will thank you and you’ll have increased energy. And so on. You get the picture.

One other important aspect of self care that may appear less obvious--and consequently receive less attention--is what’s commonly referred to as boundaries, or put more simply, “staying in your lane.” What does this mean?

“Staying in your lane” means doing your part, and only your part. Paradoxically, doing more may actually leave you with less. Consider this typical situation: you complete assigned tasks on a shared work project ahead of schedule, and, without discussing it with your team, take charge of tasks assigned to a co-worker. You’ve done a lot, so where is that sense of accomplishment? That job well-done feeling you expected? Why don’t you feel good?

Think about it. You’ve done more than you should have, so perhaps you’re tired and depleted—this is the “less.” You may also feel resentful because you did more than others on a shared project, a decision you made unilaterally. And you didn’t consider your colleagues, who may well have less-than-happy feelings about this. You did not “stay in your lane.”

In moving into your co-worker’s lane, that person also gets less: the lost opportunity to contribute to the project and experience the sense of accomplishment consequent to a job well done. Moreover, perhaps your co-worker feels criticized or devalued, not held in high esteem. He or she may also feel irritated and annoyed by your appropriation of their role; esteem for you is diminished. Voila! Neither of you feel good.

The above is an experience frequently discussed by folks in my psychotherapy practice. I work with adults from many walks of life who often struggle to understand how doing more, which they expect should make them feel good--really good--curiously leaves them feeling frustrated.

I commonly hear some version of the following sentiment: “Ugh, what is the point to all of this? No matter how much I do I still don’t feel good about myself.” These laments suggest that someone has veered so far out of his or her lane that the lane no longer exists; it has become unclear who is responsible for what tasks.

As with the work project I mentioned earlier, all relationships in every area of your life require defining a lane, and this is often a collaborative experience. The assigned tasks on a work project are the defined lanes initially negotiated, and to which all have agreed. Self-care entails defining your lane, as well as not crossing out of it or merging into that of someone else.

I love driving and so please indulge me for a moment in keeping with the driving metaphor here. Think of appropriating your co-workers’ tasks without explicit agreement as merging into another traffic lane without using blinkers to alert your fellow motorists. I think it’s easy to see how things can go awry there--and quickly!

So, the next time a friend, for example, bids you farewell with a “take care of yourself!” or greets with a “hope you are well!” remember that one of the things they are saying is “stay in your lane!”

Helen Fronshtein, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and fourth-year psychoanalytic candidate at the William Alanson White Institute. She is an adjunct assistant professor at Teachers College Columbia University and clinical faculty in the Beth Israel Medical Center Psychiatry Residency Program. Her private practice is in the Greenwich Village area of New York City where she conducts individual and couples psychotherapy in both English and Russian languages.

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