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Self-Care Is Important: Why Is It So Hard to Practice?

Research shows why self-compassion is important—and why it's hard to act on.

Letitia* has two young children, a spouse, and a full-time job. A friend told her she needed to find a way to take some time for herself. “I laughed,” Letitia said. “I barely have time to go to the bathroom. It’s a production for me to take a shower. How in the world am I going to take time for myself?”

Angel* is working as a lawyer at a high-power firm. He works long hours, but also likes to spend time with his family. And he knows that he needs to get exercise to stay healthy. “I get up at four in the morning and go for a run,” he said. “I know I’m exchanging a good night’s sleep for exercise. But that way I get to see my wife and kids for a little while in the morning before I go to work.”

Tanya* loves her job. She also loves her parents. But now that her parents are elderly and need extra attention, she feels torn between the two: “I seem to spend all of my time either working or checking on my parents or taking them to doctor appointments. I’ve forgotten what it means to do something just for the fun of it.”

Self-care is finally getting the attention it deserves. In his book Emotional First Aid, my PT colleague Guy Winch writes about how important it is to take care of our emotions, and how hard that can be, because we often don’t know what that means. Brené Brown cites masses of research that shows the importance of self-care, including allowing ourselves to experience our feelings of vulnerability without shame. And yes, she says, feeling vulnerable is part of caring for yourself. And mindfulness experts suggest that we can feel better if we just take 10 minutes a day to practice self-kindness.

But for most of us, none of these things is simple or easy to fit into our days. So why is it that even though we know that it’s important to take care of ourselves, we can’t find the time or energy to do it? Why do we so often have trouble not just taking care of ourselves, but being kind to ourselves?

A major problem for many of us, of course, is time. We’re too busy with our very full, often very rich lives, and we simply don’t have time to pamper ourselves. Besides, with so many other things to do, self-care sometimes feels like an indulgence, or worse, a selfish act. Never mind that we all know, as the airlines tell us, you have to put on your own oxygen mask before you try to help someone else. As I wrote in an earlier post, it is especially important to take care of yourself when you have the responsibility of caring for someone else, whether it’s children, parents, or a sick spouse or partner. Part of the problem for Letitia, Angel, and Tanya was that they were having difficulty finding time to be compassionate to themselves.

But I’ve discovered over the years in my psychotherapy practice that there’s something else at work here.

To begin with, we have many different ways of defining self-care.

For example, you might think you’re taking care of yourself when you, like Angel, force yourself to get up early for a taxing physical workout, but someone else might feel that they’re taking care of themselves when they allow themselves to sleep in or have a lazy day watching movies in bed. Or you might think you’re being kind to yourself by avoiding all foods that give you pleasure or eating so few calories that you are basically starving. But someone else might feel that they’re being kind to themselves when they binge on a delicious, calorie-, carb-, fat-, and maybe sugar-filled goody.

You might feel that being self-compassionate is the same thing as being self-pitying, and you don’t want to indulge in self-pity. Or you might consider self-care to be selfish, self-centered, or even narcissistic.

Kristin Neff, Ph.D, a pioneer in self-compassion research, says that self-compassion involves self-kindness and self-awareness. This means recognizing and accepting negative feelings as well as positive ones. Another way to say this is that self-compassion means recognizing and accepting our own humanness—which means, by definition, that we are not perfect.

Neff puts it this way:

"The great angst of modern life is this: No matter how hard we try, no matter how successful we are, no matter how good a parent, worker, or spouse we are—it’s never enough. There is always someone richer, thinner, smarter, or more powerful than we are, someone who makes us feel like a failure in comparison."

Studies have found that taking a more compassionate approach to personal failure can actually motivate you to improve yourself. For example, researchers found that when individuals trying to lose weight were self-critical and highly demanding, they tended to gain weight; while when they practiced the kind of self-compassion described by Neff, they lost more weight than a control group of individuals who were not engaged in self-compassion practice.

Researchers have also found that self-compassion can reduce psychological symptoms and make it easier to deal with stressful situations.

So what’s the takeaway here? Genuine self-care involves recognizing and accepting your imperfections, while also finding ways to improve yourself—compassionately. It also often means making compromises and recognizing that no compromise is perfect. For instance, you might be torn between time with loved ones and time at work, or time for yourself and time caring for a loved one. Self-compassion involves managing the best that you can, without criticizing or punishing yourself for not doing things exactly the way you imagine you should be doing them.

123rf image 66478416 ammentorp
Source: 123rf image 66478416 ammentorp

Being kind to yourself could mean having a salad for lunch one day; but if you have nothing but salad for all of your meals, you may be hurting yourself instead of being compassionate. Similarly, self-compassion may mean staying home from work and spending the day in bed reading or watching TV shows. But sometimes self-compassion involves going to work even when you don’t feel like it.

Self-compassion, then, is all about balance, not perfection. And there are many ways to get to that balance: Mindfulness practices, psychotherapy, and conversations with friends, spouses, partners, colleagues, parents, and even your children can all help you gain perspective.

That is what happened for Angel, for instance. He spoke with his wife about his conflicts between running, sleeping, working, and being with her and their children in the morning. He was quite surprised when she asked him a question he hadn’t even thought of. “Are you feeling good about the way we’re living?” she asked. He realized he wasn’t. “Then let’s try to find some ways to change things so that you are feeling better about it.” He realized that asking himself if he felt good about something was an important key to self-compassion for him.

For Letitia and Tanya, conversations with others took them on a different path to self-compassion. Letitia’s mother suggested that her daughter make an arrangement with a friend to trade off one evening a week or one part of a weekend day for babysitting. “Every other week, one of us takes the other’s children. They get a wonderful play date, and we get time to ourselves. I never would have thought of that if I hadn’t talked with my mom, who’s kinder to me than I am to myself.”

And Tanya’s best friend encouraged her to speak to some of her relatives and even to some of her mother’s buddies about spending a little more time with her mother. Not everyone was responsive, but enough were that Tanya found some needed moments to take care of herself.

None of these solutions was earth-shattering, but as Tanya put it, “I never would have looked for a change if I hadn’t learned that it’s important to be compassionate to myself.”

The first step to genuine self-care, then, is to recognize that self-compassion is a crucial part of your emotional, psychological, and physical well-being.

*names and identifying info changed to protect privacy


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