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Why Your Self-Care Isn’t Working

Five obstacles standing in the way of your self-care practice.

Self-care is surging in popularity. Self-care was even the most popular app theme last in 2018. You may think it’s just a trend, but the steady increase in popularity over recent years appears to show no signs of slowing down. As a mental health therapist, educator, and advocate I have to admit that more people have been asking me about self-care in my office, classroom, and in my personal life as well. But why?

Well to start, we are finally recognizing that paying attention to our needs can be used to promote well-being. Neglecting personal care can cause increases in anxiety, distractibility, anger, and fatigue. You may also experience decreases in sleep, relationship satisfaction, self-esteemempathy, and compassion. Ongoing exposure to stress without proper self-care can put you at risk for serious consequences such as depression and heart disease. As people weigh the costs and benefits, more and more are turning to the practice of caring for themselves.

Yet, it isn’t common to be met with dismay when a well-intended effort just doesn’t seem to work. This is when I have found people turning to me for expert advice. I’ve noticed that when people independently approach me about self-care, it’s not because they’re curious about why self-care popular, it’s because they’re part of the wave of individuals who have put effort into tending to their needs. However, with eager hearts and open minds, these individuals have hit a wall with their personal practice. Before discouragement stalls your progress, consider if these five reasons may have served as obstacles in your self-care.

It’s Easier Said Than Done

Forget the notion that self-care is easy. Self-care can be tricky, especially if you’re just beginning to rise to the notion that it is essential. On the other hand, it is easy to forget to take care of yourself, particularly before your loved ones.  In situations you are low on energy and short on time, you may be especially likely to give up your own needs for the sake of someone else.  Over time this can be dangerous. Also, when caring for others, it is helpful to demonstrate the importance of taking care of yourself to set an example and deter them from self-neglect as well. If someone you know is stranded on the side of the road because their car ran out of gas, do you empty your gas tank for them? Instead, you would likely use what you have to help that person get gas for their tank. Although kind, giving up all of your gas to help someone else creates a new problem altogether. Instead, the more effective way would be to fill your tank so you can better help someone fill theirs.

One and Done

After years of self-neglect, you may be so eager and hungry for self-care that you begin to form unrealistic expectations. However, self-care isn’t a magic pill. There is not a single form of self-care that will have lasting effects with a sole effort. Nevertheless, your determination may have you eagerly anticipating a tremendous effect. What do you notice from the following statements?

I ate a healthy meal but I didn’t lose weight.

I studied for an exam, but I didn’t pass the test.

I submitted a job application, but I haven’t found a job yet.

I took a music class, but I still can’t play the instrument.

Hopefully you’re beginning to hear a peculiar theme. None of these statements are rational. While the former aspect can all potentially be contributors to the effect, making a clear connection from one to the other would be jumping to a conclusion. Self-care is a practice that warrants active attention to strengthen your well-being. Further, self-care is not a singular skill. Instead, self-care includes a wide variety of tasks tailored to meet your diverse needs. Instead of hanging onto a sole method, remember that as your needs vary your methods should differ as well.

Copy & Paste

Although there may be similarities between self-care strategies, self-care is subjective and tends to vary from person to person. There are some forms of self-care that may be beneficial to all, such as getting adequate sleep and hydration. Even for universally beneficial strategies, the need in terms of quantity or quality may differ. You may hear someone rave about their newfound method that has had a clear effect on their wellness and happiness and think to yourself, “Ah-ha! This must be what I’m missing!” It’s possible that it may, but it’s also possible that the effect could not be the same, or may be missing altogether. While it’s beneficial to get inspiration from others, remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to self-care.

Even when you do find a method that works for you, keep in mind that your own needs vary as well. Even if you’re successfully sifting outside influence, you may be overusing an approach for yourself without clear a clear connection. Let’s say you have learned that going for a run in the morning helps you to clear your mind and jump-start your day. As a bonus, perhaps you’ve noticed a boost in your energy and have begun to feel stronger. It would seem as though running is then an excellent strategy, but bear in mind that context matters. If you notice yourself coming down with a cold, your present needs may be better with the added time in bed resting rather than expending your energy. Self-care should begin with a reflection of your needs so you are able to tailor your intention accordingly.

You’re Working Against the Clock

When the importance of self-care sinks in, the decision to shift focus inward usually follows soon after. While this intention is wonderful, it may neglect the consideration of where you are in your journey. You may start to monitor from that moment in time, but the clock has been ticking all along. Be mindful that you’re likely retraining yourself. Imagine trying to learn a new language. Sure, it may have been easier to be taught that language as a child, but with patience and dedication it’s still possible as an adult.

The timing of your self-care can also make a difference. As a preventative measure, self-care helps you to consider and implement strategies prior to being faced with challenges. As a coping skill, self-care helps you to recognize when a new need calls for your attention. As an ongoing process, self-care becomes easier, more routine, and has a lasting effect on your well-being. All three types are essential to balance. For example, if you are lacking preventative self-care, you are more likely to become overwhelmed in moments of intense stressors. On the other hand, preventative self-care can help to keep you at an equilibrium, so you are better equipped to use coping skills as stressors arise. All too often we wait for a reason to implement self-care, when the truly self-loving method is to nurture an ongoing practice.

Self-Care is Just the Beginning

Self-care is just one fraction of the broader concept of self-love. Self-love includes, but is not limited to, recognizing your self-worth, being kind toward yourself, and fostering your self-growth throughout the course of your life. If your self-care strategies are not sticking, it may be because you are lacking the foundation of self-love. You may be missing aspects of awareness, kindness, and respect that are crucial to foster self-care. Imagine this as an interpersonal relationship instead. Let’s say you are in a romantic relationship with someone who, with the intention of showing care, treats you to a nice dinner every week. While a considerate effort is continuously made, is this enough to build a healthy relationship? The ideas that come to mind that are missing, may actually be the missing pieces to your self-care. To complete the puzzle, consider self-care as importance actions to honor your wellness that must be held together with kindness, respect, and compassion.

The Self-Love Workbook is a helpful tool to assist you in expanding your self-care practice into a self-loving practice.

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