Let’s Pump the Brakes on the Self-Care Frenzy

Are we putting too much pressure on ourselves?

Posted Mar 31, 2020

It goes without saying that, over the past few weeks, our lives have been massively disrupted. We've been working from home, homeschooling our children, practicing social distancing, virtually checking in on relatives, cleaning and disinfecting, and even sanitizing our groceries. We've had to adapt to a new normal that is not only emotionally but logistically challenging. And this is nothing compared to the risks faced by essential employees who don't have the luxury to stay home.

And in the midst of all of this, I keep reading article after article with all these long lists of tips for self-care. No matter where I look, there's copious advice on how to take advantage of the extra time we supposedly now have to become superhuman versions of ourselves: Bored at home? Freaking out about social distancing? Well, it's time to master a whole new cuisine! Read all those books you've been meaning to read for the past 10 years! Set up virtual hangouts with every friend you've ever had! Build an indoor playground for your children! Become a master zen meditator! Get in the best shape of your life! Do it all! Now!

But most of us are simply too exhausted for this. We don't have the physical or emotional bandwidth. Let's face it: Most of us have woken up to a new reality in which we have landed second jobs we never even applied for! We're drowning in infinite to-do lists. We barely have time to think. Sometimes, even having 10 minutes to take a shower can feel like a luxury.

So, in this context, the more we try to engage in complex self-care routines, the more it backfires: We get overwhelmed and stressed, which, in turn, gives us less bandwidth for self-care, thus creating more stress. Far from becoming superhumans, we're at risk of ending up deflated, disconnected, and depressed.

So, let's stop putting this ridiculous amount of pressure on ourselves! Let's pump the brakes on this self-care frenzy. Let's not try to reinvent ourselves! Let's focus on the here and now, on being more present. Let's get off the hamster wheel of self-care.

Quite frankly, I'd be happy if by the "end of this," my family, friends, co-workers, and myself are healthy and safe. That's my goal. And maybe, when I'm having one of those moments in which I get a little ambitious, I can hope I learn a couple of things about myself and the world. But quite frankly, that's it. I will not be a superhuman. And neither will most of us.

For the record, I'm not saying this as a tired and overworked mom, therapist, and entrepreneur who's handling way too many responsibilities at the time and having a rough day. I'm saying this as an expert in human behavior and emotions. I'm making this plea as someone who knows from my experiences as a therapist and researcher that the more we overextend ourselves, the further down we crash.

So, here's what I propose. Let's use a technique from cognitive behavioral therapy called "behavioral activation" that is utilized to help people with depression find more joy and purpose in their lives. It consists of identifying and practicing activities that provide reinforcements on a regular schedule, as a way to lift the mood and provide a sense of consistency.

The key is to identify a few goals that are clear, measurable, and attainable. For example, doing a 10-minute workout three times a week. Or cooking a new dish once a week. Or reading one book this month. As you can see, it's also important to set up a frequency and timeline. Sometimes, it can be particularly helpful to specify the exact day and time. Say, doing a 20-minute workout on Mondays and Wednesdays at 5 p.m. Or cooking a meal on Saturdays. That way, it's easy to stay on track.

Note that none of these goals is likely to turn you into a superhuman. But, they are also not going to flood you with a constant sense of falling behind. Rather, they can provide consistent positive reinforcement, which is exactly what we all need in times like this!

There are two reasons for this. First, consistency and predictability help lower uncertainty, and the less uncertain we feel, the lower our anxiety gets. Second, having a regular "dopamine rush" can boost our mood in more consistent and long-lasting ways than when we "binge" on an activity. So, having simple, clear, repetitive activities is a powerful way of lowering anxiety and bringing in more joy.

And who knows. Perhaps this emotional balance is at the core of what it's like to be a superhuman, after all!