Get a massage. Watch that extra episode of Netflix. Go shopping. Treat yourself.
This is how the world around us defines “self-care.” We see these depictions of self-care all over the media, pushing us to dive deeper into consumerism as a “gift to ourselves.” But is this really self-care?
My wife and I recently went on our first cruise. While we loved the experience and the people we met, we were astonished by how many people we talked to didn’t want to think about their life at home.
We understood that peoples’ lives are hard. But their version of self-care was engaging in activities that distracted them from their life back home. They were unplugging, but they weren’t plugging in to something that gave them life.
This is the problem with self-care today: it’s defined by the activity, and not by the motivation.
When self-care is only about the activity, it can easily become the very thing that sabotages us on the way to our dreams. But when we get self-care right, it can nourish us and get us going on the path to joy.
When Self-Care is Self-Sabotage
In another article, I introduced the concept of the Negativity Cycle™. When we encounter a stressor, we have a negative thought, which produces a negative emotion we want to escape from, which then results in us engaging in a pleasure to escape feeling the negative emotion.
But in the cycle, this pattern of thoughts, emotions, and pleasures actually reinforces our stressors, and the more we repeat this pattern, the more we compound our negativity and hopelessness in the face of our difficult circumstances.
This is important to grasp because when many people define self-care by the activity, they oftentimes engage in self-care as a pleasure in a Negativity Cycle.
When you use self-care as an activity to escape negative emotion, you are actually engaging in self-sabotage. The motivation behind the self-care is key.
For instance, imagine coming home from a long day of work. You’re exhausted and tell yourself, “It’s a long day and I deserve a drink.” So you have two glasses of wine to escape feeling your exhaustion and to pause anxious thoughts about tomorrow.
But then, you wake up groggy the next day because drinking at night never works for you. You just self-sabotaged your next day because your “self-care” was an activity you were using to escape emotion.
Whenever we have negative emotions, the key is to feel those emotions.
Emotions are just a chemical reaction in the body. According to Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, it takes just 90 seconds for those chemicals to pass through our body. Anything beyond 90 seconds is us choosing to remain in the emotional loop.
If we can feel our emotions in our body for just 90 seconds, and make the choice to not distract from them, then we don’t have to self-sabotage ourselves.
Key Differences Between Self-Care and Self-Sabotage
It can be difficult to see if your self-care is actually sabotaging you. Your Netflix binges might be detaching you from your emotions, or your evening bath might be part of your habit of avoidance, which is self-sabotage.
Here’s the actual definition of self-care:
Self-care is the deliberate practice of paying attention to and taking care of your physical, mental, and emotional health.
With this definition in mind, lets point out a few key differences between self-care and self-sabotage. If you’re wondering whether your video games or evening television binges are actually self-care or self-sabotage, use these markers to determine that for yourself.
1. Self-care is engagement, not escape.
When my wife and I were on the cruise, we decided we didn’t just need to unplug. We needed to plug into something bigger. For us, this meant plugging into our faith and the hope we have in God.
So often, people escape their circumstances only to return to them the next week, feeling like they’re right back where they left. They unplugged, but they didn’t plug into anywhere else.
Escaping your stressful circumstances won’t do anything for you unless you choose to engage somewhere else. Escaping will actually reinforce the stressors in your life. But if you choose to engage in something else that is healthy for your physical, mental, and emotional faculties, then you’ll return to your circumstances with a renewed perspective.
2. Self-care is energizing, not numbing.
Similar to the point above, but with a slight difference: your self-care should give you energy.
When self-care is used as a pleasure to escape negative emotions, it typically further depletes a person. This was shown in the example with having wine at night. Having a drink after a long day’s worth might not give you energy.
Another example could be if you go on vacation, but decide to busy yourself and do all the things. Your overactivity might be a result of you trying to numb the pain of your stressful circumstances back home. But when you return home, you’re even more tired because you didn’t rest.
Good self-care should give you energy and not numb you to pain.
3. Self-care is essential, not indulgent.
This last point is critical. When self-care is defined by activity instead of motivation, it can come across as an indulgent luxury. You don’t need a massage. You don’t need to go shopping. You don’t need to go get ice cream.
But when self-care is taking care of and paying attention to your physical, mental, and emotional faculties, then self-care becomes essential. Without paying attention to yourself, you’ll burn out.
Good self-care is one of the most important things you can do in the midst of stressful circumstances.
The Unsexy Side of Self-Care
Correct self-care actually isn’t as sexy as the media’s version of self-care. Since self-care is paying attention to and taking care of yourself, then good self-care is doing actions that will take care of your future self, not just your present self.
Here are some examples of good self-care:
- If your stressful circumstance is your finances, and you have a habit of avoiding your financial situation, self-care for you would be setting a budget.
- If your stressful circumstance is your relationships, and you have a habit of isolating, self-care for you would be to get together with a friend.
- If your stressful circumstance is overwhelming work, and you have a habit of procrastination, self-care for you would be identifying daily priorities.
It might not look like a beach vacation or binging Netflix, but these actions take care of your present and future self. If your “self-care” resembles your pleasure (so for instance, if your pleasure is avoiding hard things, and your “self-care” looks like procrastinating hard work), then it’s actually self-sabotage.
Self-care is not an excuse to do whatever we want in the moment. It’s essential for paying attention to and taking care of ourselves by giving ourselves what we actually need (not what we want).
When you learn what self-care actually looks like, you can then use it to fill you with hope and joy in your stressful circumstances. It might not be sexy, but it’s just what you need.