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Why Does Self-Care Sometimes Feel So Hard?

These 6 common pitfalls could be holding you back.

Bruno Aguirre/Unsplash
Source: Bruno Aguirre/Unsplash

Not enough of us talk honestly about why self-care is so hard.

Be it getting to the gym, procuring healthy meals, keeping up with teeth-cleaning, check-ups, hair cuts, or simply getting to bed on-time, self-care can sometimes feel like a long list of "to-do's" that should make us feel good but instead feel burdensome.

Go to any wellness conference, or read any article, and it isn't hard to add a few more things to our list of how to be healthy. We all know what we need to do to be healthy and take care of ourselves, and if we are curious and motivated, chances are pretty good our list of what we need to do to stay healthy tends to grow, rather than shrink.

We understand how and when we should do these things, and even why they are important. But when push comes to shove, somehow we just can't get ourselves to the gym, into the kitchen, or to bed when we should.

Some days, you just don't feel like doing what it is you know you need to do.

So why is it that self-care is so darn hard sometimes? How does something that's supposed to feel good actually become so exhausting?

This is one of the most common hurdles I help people recognize and anticipate as they embark on improving their wellness and self-care. It's just not as easy as it sounds (or seems like it should be…). Understanding potential pitfalls can help you stay on track and ultimately outsmart them. Here are a few things to consider.

1. Negativity Bias. Knowing all that you should do to take care of yourself isn't the same as being able to do it, and it can skew your perspective, making it hard to see what you actually are doing that's healthy. What is called a negativity bias can be one of the most surprising potholes along the road to wellness. Turns out your thinking about wellness can make a big difference in your experience and participation in it in general. Thinking realistically about self-care can help you select the strategies that make the most sense to you.

2. Effort. Self-care takes work—be it getting your day behind you to get to bed on time, planning, shopping for, and preparing healthy meals, or keeping up with an exercise routine. When you are tired, and perhaps most in need of self-care, is exactly when exerting effort for anything can feel like an especially tall order—even if you know it will help you feel better on the other side. Acknowledging this reality can help you be realistic and gentle with yourself so that you can look for compromises and solutions that better fit with your energy level.

3. Shame. Believe it or not, self-care can be a magnet for shame. Be it shame about not doing the things you know you want or need to do, or the more insidious shame that quietly questions whether you actually deserve care and compassion in the first place, shame can be a toxic bedfellow to self-care and is a powerful accelerant of self-loathing.

We live in a society full of shame, and as social beings are deeply vulnerable to its undercurrents that dictate much of our behavior. However, like many dark and negative emotions, shame can't exist when held up to the rational examination of reality, or to what noted expert Brene Brown has called the daylight of awareness. Indeed, recognizing and naming shame is the fastest way to dismantle its impact on your life.

4. Confusing indulgence with self-care. Indulgence stops being self-care when you feel guilty or unhappy with yourself, and this threshold is different for everyone. One person's self-caring indulgence can be another's gateway to self-harm, depending on your relationship with the activity, your capacity for moderation, and the reality of its consequences.

Take, for example, eating dessert. For someone who maintains a healthy weight and body image, eating dessert is no big deal, whereas for someone struggling to shed unhealthy extra pounds, eating a dessert can be a dangerous threat to their hard-earned momentum. The trick to determining whether an indulgence is safe is to understand your relationship with an activity, be honest with yourself, and aim for moderation. Too much of a good thing is always too much.

Vladislav Muslakov for Unsplash
Source: Vladislav Muslakov for Unsplash

5. It's hard to make good decisions when we are tired. Get tired enough, and you will lose discipline and self-control. Out come Angry Birds, the fourth episode of your favorite Netflix series, more dessert, or some other habit-forming activity and substance. With your frontal lobe tired of making decisions, you are more vulnerable to distractions and impulsivity.

When it comes to rewarding activities that stimulate our brain's dopamine system, it can be especially hard to exercise moderation. And worse, our engagement doesn't always feel good. Seldom do we actually feel satisfied—one win at solitaire is never enough. Instead, we are often left chasing another win or left wanting for something else. This is the ultimate rabbit hole, and understanding its allure can help you make better choices and avoid falling in.

6. It's not hard to set yourself up to fail. We all do this. We set up expectations that might seem reasonable on a really good day, but just aren't possible when we are tired or extra stressed. We don't mean to set ourselves up for failure, of course, but we do when we allow our hopes to become our expectations. Predictable feelings of frustration, guilt, and shame can leave us without our optimal coping during the very times we need it most.

If you find yourself struggling to do the things you know you need to do, take note that you are likely overextended—and not at your best. Instead of adding to what is already feeling overwhelming, try to recognize the realities of your overwhelm and give yourself a break.

Can you ditch the shame and see how you can view what you are doing as a positive? Sometimes taking a new perspective can make the difference in helping you turn a corner and get back on track.

This post was originally published on my blog. It is reprinted with permission.

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