Does Self-Care Stress You Out?

Follow these tips to make sure self-care is helping instead of harming you.

Posted Aug 31, 2020

Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash.
Source: Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash.

While the concept of self-care can in itself be problematic (see Leigh Stein's brilliant and disturbingly realistic satirical novel Self-Care), let’s start with the assumption that caring for the self is generally a good thing. The problem happens when our super-motivated brains put self-care in the same bucket as everything else in our lives. Oftentimes, I’ve heard from clients that when they try to integrate more soothing self-care into their lives, it ends up stressing them out even more. 

Imagine that your super-motivated brain looks like a manager with a clipboard, scheduling things, squeezing things in, and getting annoyed if and when you don’t get to it all. Many people have parts of their brains that are “managers” (a therapy concept from the Internal Family Systems modality), and indeed, we probably couldn’t keep up with our busy lives if our managers weren't keeping us on track. 

When managers take charge of our self-care, though, it can become a task that makes us anxious as we wonder if we're doing it right. Let's imagine a different character, perhaps more of a fairy godmother figure, who helps us figure out this part of our lives. This figure is loving, compassionate, and wants us to feel our best. Let's consider how to integrate self-care in light of this more relaxed lens. 

Don’t look at what other people are doing. 

Your manager probably notices that most people are doing self-care a certain way: salt baths, daily meditation, massages, journal prompts, etc. This is great, but it may not be what you want or need. Substances aside, what are the things that make you feel the most relaxed, blissed out, or alive? It could be a sweaty yoga class, but it could also be watching a comedy special on Netflix. It could be a walk in a park, or a deep dive into a biography of psychopath-expert Patricia Highsmith. Your fairy godmother will urge you to find the activities that make you feel whole and relaxed afterwards, regardless of what anyone else is doing. 

Ask yourself what you'd like to do most. 

Another aspect to consider is what you would like to spend more time doing. Your manager may tell you that you should be doing certain self-care activities to get something in return (e.g., meditating because the research shows that it lowers anxiety). But self-care should be enjoyable in the moment. What would make you feel more excited about your life? Perhaps you’d like to integrate more creativity by working on a short story, even if you've never written a page of fiction in your life. Perhaps you’d like to learn how to do something totally outside your realm of expertise, like take apart a radio or learn French. These wishes that come from deep inside, no matter how random or “not-me” they sound, should be listened to closely. 

Don’t force yourself to do it every day. 

A major obstacle people face is trying to instill daily self-care habits and rituals. This is great, but if you’re going to feel guilty for not getting to it every day (which you probably won’t, because you’re an imperfect human), then loosen that rule. Your manager can be rigid, and may tell you that if you don't get to your self-care enough, then you should feel guilty. But even doing something once a week—or once a month—will be beneficial. Imagine your fairy godmother giving you permission to go easy on yourself in this realm. 

It doesn't have to be expensive. 

Many traditional self-care activities, such as massages and beauty products, cost a lot. They can even make the idea of self-care seem prohibitive to those who don't have the funds. But true self-care doesn't have to cost a lot—or anything at all. Meditation is of course free. But there are other mindful activities that are free or low-cost, such as taking a walk, dancing to a favorite song, making your favorite tea, or taking a nap. Your manager may think these activities are too simple, or won't have enough of an effect. But be open to any ideas that your fairy-godmother may bring up. Likewise, the enjoyable activities we discussed earlier can also be low-cost. Writing may just necessitate a pen and notebook. Learning French may mean downloading Duolingo if you have a smartphone. 

What are your thoughts about self-care? Do you have any further tips or tricks? What does self-care mean to you? Does the idea of a manager and fairy godmother resonate with you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.