Two Self-Care Traps

By January 6, 2014 20 Comments

Last week, I shared 5 reflection questions for the new year:

1. What have you always believed about yourself that life is showing you might not be true?

2. Where do you complicate life by turning outward for advice or information instead of trusting the answer within?

3. What’s scary and what’s thrilling about trusting yourself more immediately and more often?

4. What kinds of self-care truly feel like self-care to you (and not like a self-care to-do list)?

5. Where in your life might less (less effort, work, time, perfection, research, activity, etc.) actually be enough?

This Thursday, I’m hosting a free call. I’ll guide you in finding your answers to these questions, tell some juicy stories about how these topics are showing up in my life right now, and share what I’m learning along the way. You are invited! You can attend live or get the recording afterward by signing up HERE.

Today, I want to explore one of the questions: What kinds of self-care truly feel like self-care to you (and not like a self-care to-do list)?

I loved Ellen’s honesty when she posted on Facebook about this question: “People say ‘take care of yourself’ and I’m never sure what to do.”

No wonder. We’ve been left impoverished in our notion of self-care. Women’s magazines tell us self-care means getting a manicure, taking a bubble bath, or making time for exercise. Nothing wrong with any of those, but they constitute a rather narrow definition, one that doesn’t resonate for many of us.

This is the first self-care trap we can fall into: taking our cues from what the culture tells us self-care is supposed to look like. I’ve done this one. Several years ago, wondering why I felt so drained much of the time, I noticed that many of the things I’d slotted as rejuvenating down-time in my calendar weren’t really really rejuvenating for me: they were things the culture told me were supposed to be “fun” or “nourishing.” Going to a party? That was supposed to be a good complement to a work day, something “for me” – but was it really? Well, it depended a lot on the nature of the party and who was there, but most of the time, the answer was no. Getting a manicure? Not really rejuvenating, in any way, shape or form for me.

I like psychologist Christine Meinecke‘s definition of self care as “behaviors that balance the effects of emotional and physical stressors.”

What activities truly “balance the effects of the emotional and physical stressors” in your life?

Self-care might be listening to your favorite music on the way to work. It might be reclaiming  a lost love like cooking or painting or singing in a choir. It might be making a little more time for friends — the friends that actually make you feel de-stressed, happy, more like yourself. It might be talking with a therapist or coach to process what’s happening in your life. In response to Ellen’s post, one woman said that one of her favorite forms of self-care is taking five minutes to read the New York Times. To me, the core criteria is: does this thing leave me more relaxed, more refreshed, more rejuvenated, more joyful or connected to myself than I felt before?

The second trap of self-care is ending up with a self-care to do list. There are all those things we do to help build the lives we want for ourselves, but that aren’t stress relievers in themselves — things like tracking expenses, or getting mammograms, or or taking time to chop all those vegetables on sunday so we have nourishing food for the week.

If you want to make a career change and need to do a bunch of intensive night school classes in a subject that scares the heck out of you to do it, is taking those classes “self-care”? In some sense, yes, because you are prioritizing your goals and doing it “for yourself'” – but in the sense we’re talking about here, no – it’s a stressor not a balancer of stressors!

I encourage you to hold these kinds of “building the life I want for myself” activities in a separate category than self-care. Maybe come up with a separate name for them like “life-maintenance” or “life-care”  something — your ideas for good terms for this welcome in the comments, please!  These are things we do to set up the lives we want. The size of this list needs to stay manageable (strike off things that are coming from your inner perfectionist or inner critic) and make sure you balance this list with truly yummy self-care – things that change your state in the moments you do them.

Join the discussion in the comments: What do you think constitutes real self-care for you? What has your journey with self-care been like so far?






Join the discussion 20 Comments

  • Laurel says:

    Great post! Self care for me includes taking a walk, sitting in a patch of warm sunshine, watching an art tutorial video on YouTube, taking a short nap, or reading a novel. It doesn’t include things like getting my hair and nails done, going shopping, massages, or bubble baths. You make a great point, that we all need to know what works for us, and that it’s okay if our self care activities don’t match up with anybody else’s.

  • U. Granger says:

    I found that self-care todo lists can be useful : I tend to give up on healthy self-care practices when stressed out (in particular sport, internet disconnecting, varied meals, social life). “Forcing” myself to do them greatly relieves me, it counteracts the productivity forces I can set on myself.

  • Lisa Zahn says:

    I love these questions and have signed up for the call. I just sat down and did some early morning journaling with your questions, which is wonderful self care for me. I’m going to do a blog post with my answers, because I write over there abut radical self care that goes way beyond bubble baths and manicures and your questions will be so helpful for my readers and clients too! I will definitely track back to your post and give you the credit!

    My self care practices that truly feel like self care include:
    Drinking tea every morning
    Writing in my journal
    Answering questions like this
    Eating lots of colorful fruits and vegetables in tasty ways
    Spending time with my husband
    Camping, walking, being outdoors
    Drinking coffee or more tea in the afternoon
    Volunteering and being in community at a retreat center each month
    Simple meal planning so that cooking for my family doesn’t overwhelm me

    It’s nice to make a list of things that truly feed and balance me.

  • cathy says:

    wow – great post – love this more realistic and practical way to look at things.

  • Rosemary Davis says:

    I to enjoyed the article, in this new season of my life. On break from classes and a few days off from work, my time is spent with spending time talking with God. Playing worship music all night, this gives me peace. God has taught me to bring all my cares to Him, I found out He knows me best, you may say I’m religious, however I call it relational. This is my time for strategic plans for my life,as well as those I pray for. I rise in the morning, come down stairs, quietly, start writing God a letter stating how grateful I am. This relationship keeps me centered.
    Rosemary Davis

  • Tara,
    I find many people I work with often disguise harmful habits as self care. For example, when we turn to unhealthy “comfort” foods as a way to seek balance and a moment of pleasure or escape. Yes, that brownie or margarita may ‘feel’ like self care in the moment, but when the initial ‘feel-good’ moment is gone, we’ve often contributed to the state of being less-nourished and more depleted in the long run.

    For me, part of self care is remembering my desire to be abundantly healthy until my last days in this body. It’s a artful balance living in the moment and looking towards the future at the same time. Buddhist teachings would probably argue that the future is irrelevant, but I’m not sure true self care can exist without some sort of connection to an envisioned future. What do you think?

    For me, I try to remind myself that self-care not only needs to “balance the effects of emotional and physical stressors”, it needs to support my long-term goals and desires as well. Sometimes, self care is simply sitting with the feeling of needing self care, and not responding to the urge to self medicate.

    Great questions. Can’t wait for the call.

  • Alicia says:

    I’ve recently called it “Me Time”. The past couple of years have crystallized this concept for me because I was diagnosed with breast cancer and went through quite a lot. My recovery process included learning how to Not feel guilty for needing extra rest, letting my two teenagers take on more responsibility, and to indulge my senses by connecting with nature with walks in the park or beach, or wherever. It is absolutely true, Me Time did not necessarily mean taking that yoga class, which ultimately wound up adding to my list of “have to get there on time and do well” kind of stress. Not that yoga is a bad thing, but… Me Time includes watching old movies, journaling, petting my dog, and listening to my favorite classical music without interruption. It’s quite liberating to do these things without feeling guilty, as though I should be doing something else. That the regenerative time contributes toward other areas of my life was a revelation to me, after years of often putting myself in last place because being a mom, wife, and business owner left me quite fragmented at times.

  • Susan says:

    For me self-care is listening and taking care of my Inner Child – tho lately she has to threaten a meltdown for me to hear. So today we are going to Wawa, get a lge coffee w/ half&half and change from $2.00, & I’ll nurse for 2 days. {May not seem like much…. -laid off 2+yrs ago, had 2 pt jobs (laid off from them), EUC/99 wks ended the end of Nov. = no income, had 2 interviews & still didn’t get the job wh/ starts Mar 1st.,}.

    Today I will call to ask what I can do better at my next job interview, etc. I will start Spring House Cleaning – as I’ll be working then & won’t have the time to do it. Time to do a major downsizing! I will work on crocheting a hat & mittens. I will look into starting an online bus. I might have that cathartic crying jag & thank my tears for washing more negativety out of me.

    And I will answer ?’s like here, reread my answer & ??. =>¡<=

  • Lisa Zahn says:

    Good for you, finding this out and working through it. Your story is especially meaningful. We are often asked ” what if…?” but only some have lived it. Giving up the guilty feelings is something I’ve been working on for several years too. Choosing to live out of Joy and abundance and true intention is so much better than living from that place of guilt and shame.

  • Rhonda Felicity says:

    I loved your post Tara – especially the part about consciously separating the “life maintenance” items from the “self-care” acts. In the past I found myself blurring the two categories, so (since I am a card-carrying list-maker) I created a folder on my computer called “LMM – Life Maintenance Mode”, where I can capture and organize all those necessary but energy and time sucking “to-do’s” to stay on top of them.
    In the Self-Care department, I was thinking about how we women so easily see ourselves as “caretakers” – of others (children, aging parents, close friends…) but rarely do we allow ourselves the luxury of “Self-caretaking”. For me, anything having to do with art or design feeds my self-care …off to the art store today I go!

  • Rachel Smith says:

    Thank you Tara! Great thoughts. Self care for me is reading a book under the covers in a completely silent room:)
    I just wrote an article for Maternal Goddess on Self Care for New Moms: Nourishing the “You” in You- very similar topic. Stay tuned in Jan/early Feb at MaternalGoddess.org!

  • Sharon Barrington says:

    Really insightful post,Tara. It’s so true that many of the things that our culture wants us to believe are “self-care” are not for many people. A good part of 2013 I was in major pain from an old back injury which flared up.I recently found a wonderful acupuncturist who is helping me get better. Having a treatment by the acupuncturist is truly self-care for me. I feel lighter and more in my body after a
    session. Going for a long walk out in nature, being away from urban environments with lots of people, reading an engrossing non-fiction book,going to an art gallery or museum, making jewelry, knitting something for someone I love, watching “Downton Abbey” with my husband, petting and talking with my cat, doing simple yoga poses – these are all self-care for me.

  • DonnaDavis says:

    Collage! Collage! Collage!
    Going through all those old “art” papers, printmaking scraps, calendars, books, magazines, greeting cards that I’ve hoarded until I had time and well…finally just doing it!
    The whole candy store of colours, textures, images–yum!
    And in the form of “greeting” or “post” cards and sometimes journal pages–quick “products” where I give myself the luxury to experiment with materials and methods…compositions–combinations that can make non-sense!
    Decorative cards. Bricolage! Recyclage! Not always (or even ever) to be interpreted.
    When I was doing my Master’s Degree, I turned my collage practice into an academic project.
    Cannibalizing myself on the one hand, dishing out my soul on the other, with lemon sauce even, for the validation of my professor, by analyzing and interpreting. Until I felt like a phony, ashamed, a silly poseur, a cheat.

    “That looks like…fun.” YES!IT IS FUN!!!

    Oh it’s only a paper moon,
    floating over a cardboard sea,
    but it wouldn’t be make-believe
    if I believed in me!


  • pilar says:

    Wonderful post!! Oh Me time…it is sooo important. For me it means reading, reading, and more reading. I never catch up and I feel like everything I read is important, I love learning. Relaxing anywhere with a good magazine, book or website such as yours, is what calms me and feeds my soul. Look forward to the responses to your insightful soul filled questions.

  • Robin says:

    After reading your post last week about this, I was motivated to ruminate on it on my blog as well. A reader there commented that “short” term self-care for her was manicures, “long” term self-care included forcing herself to work-out. I liked the distinction she made between long and short term solutions. Too, though, I like the constructs you suggest, Tara, more of self-maintenance or improvement versus joyful, effortless, rejuvenation.

  • Tammy says:

    Y O G A

  • Julie says:

    Great post. I love the distinction between true self care and those to do items that help create the life. I call the latter “personal development” tasks. I recently realized that I default to them when I have free time and have been making an effort to make time for more soul-feeding activities – exercise, reading, wine with a great girlfriend.

  • Valerie Van S says:

    Like the post! Self care to me is anything that makes my self feel cared for. Skipping dishes, when I really don’t want to. Reading in bed, or a long walk. Or sitting with a cup of tea on a rock near a lake close by. You really got me thinking!

  • Billy says:

    Very good article. I will be dealing with some of these
    issues as well..

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