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August 12, 2019
A few weeks before my wedding, I caught a nasty cold.
I remember marching into my therapy appointment — head pounding and body aching — furious that I was sick. I was frustrated that being sick was getting in the way of what I thought I had to do to feel beautiful and relaxed on my wedding day. Things like: run every day, tone my arms, double-down on my skin regimen, cook homemade meals, get a haircut, drink green juice, and meditate regularly. I was overcome with guilt that I didn’t have the energy to do any of it.
“I’m just so tired,” I blubbered to my therapist in between sobs.
“Why don’t you go get a massage after our session today?” my therapist said. “There’s a place nearby that offers great affordable massages. And then you can treat yourself to a nice home-cooked meal at the restaurant next door.”
“I don’t have time to do that!” I practically yelled at her. Had she not just heard me run through my entire to-do list? “I have to go for a run today. No excuses. I’m already behind schedule.”
“I’m not sure running is the best thing to do right now. I really think you need some rest,” she said calmly.
Even though she was right, I could not stomach the thought of slowing down. There was too much to do. It was hard for me to see that all of these activities I felt compelled to do for my “self-care” were making my stress levels worse, not better.
Here are 4 signs your self-care might be doing more harm than good:
Instead of listening to my body and taking rest when I needed it, I pushed myself to engage in all sorts of self-care activities I didn’t feel up to. According to Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D. LPCC-S, and Ohio-based Talkspace therapist, “Self-care is important and helpful for most individuals. However, if an individual begins to use self-care as an escape technique (for example, to remove feelings), then it could be an indicator that self-care might be serving a band-aid type function.” She also gives the example of socially prescribed forms of self-care like having a glass of wine at night. “In reality,” she said, “[having a glass of wine at night] may constitute a problematic pattern of using alcohol to cope with difficult and stressful life events.”
Similarly, Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, and Virginia-based licensed Talkspace therapist, finds that clients who use self-care as an avoidance tactic often show signs of avoidance coping or “rumination. In other words, these individuals engage in self-care to mask their true feelings.
As someone with an addictive personality, I have to watch out for when things as innocent as a green smoothie slip from “this feels good” to “I need this in order to feel good.” O’Neill finds that people can sometimes become so enamored with the idea of self-care that it starts to become a compulsive process that ends up defeating its original purpose. “Individuals may become so focused on the idea of self-care that they may lose sight of how the emphasis on self-care is coming at the expense of other aspects of well-being in their life,” she shared.
The “wellness industry is notorious for taking advantage of people’s insecurities and desires. The pressures around weddings are particularly problematic. Like many brides, I was shelling out hundreds to thousands of dollars trying to get myself “wedding-ready.” I bought everything from exercise classes to fancy hair moisturizers to sleep masks and five-day yoga retreats.
O’Neill helps her clients refocus their definition of self-care. “Self-care doesn’t have to cost money,” she said. “In fact, many of the things we do in the name of self-care aren’t necessarily the best forms of self-care.” Catchings offers the example of a weighted blanket, to illustrate how some companies provide false promises or skyrocket prices because they know consumers will pay a premium to feel better.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of using self-care to avoid discomfort because, by definition, self-care is meant to make you feel better. O’Neill argues there is value in learning to cope with discomfort instead of taking steps to remove or escape emotions (i.e. numbing out). “Coping with discomfort is a cornerstone of resilience,” she said, “and it is important that we demonstrate the ability to deal with daily life stress without trying to escape it.” By overriding my feelings and avoiding the discomfort of not being able to “do it all,” I had pushed myself to engage in what Catchings calls “self-care on steroids.” I was acting out of fear instead of doing things that truly nourished me.
With so much noise out there about what you should and shouldn’t do to support your wellbeing, it’s no wonder people find themselves overdoing it on the self-care front. The trick is to learn that self-care has less to do with “doing” and more to do with “being.” Not everything is a race to the finish line.