The Big Problem with Self-Care


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I bet you feel burned out right now.

Overworked, underpaid, anxious, stretched too thin.

All of those fun things!

I also bet you’re frustrated you can’t lose weight the way you’d hoped, you wish you had more energy to get your job done, and you wish you could be a better partner and parent.

You’re struggling, and you wish you could just get your sh** together.

Have no fear, self-care is here!

The solution to all of our problems can be found with your credit card: a better skin-care routine. A more optimized schedule. A new journal. $75 sushi delivery. A 2-hour massage. A vacation to a tropical island.

Treat. Yo. Self!

There’s just one question: does self-care actually help us the way we think?

Anne Helen Peterson would argue hell no!!

What is Faux Self-Care?

In her book, Can’t Even, Peterson puts it perfectly:

"You don’t fix burnout by going on vacation. You don’t fix it through “life hacks,” like inbox zero, or by using a meditation app for five minutes in the morning, or doing Sunday meal prep for the entire family, or starting a bullet journal. You don’t fix it by reading a book on how to “unfu*k yourself.”
You don’t fix it with vacation, or an adult coloring book, or “anxiety baking,” or the Pomodoro Technique, or overnight f***ing oats.”

We’re all desperate for self-care, but we’re looking in all the wrong places. This is the junk-food version of self-care, and it’s leaving us empty and disappointed.

Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, psychiatrist and author of Real Self-Care, presents a pretty damn compelling critique of consumptive self care too. As she explains, “faux self-care” usually comes in one of three alluring flavors:

  • Escape: We just need a massage! Or a 10-day meditation retreat! Or a yoga class! Or a vacation to Bali! Or bottomless mimosas at brunch! Insidiously, “according to [wellness dogma], when you don’t find time for these ‘solutions,’ it’s your fault for not keeping up with one more task on your to-do list.”
  • Achievement: We just need to dedicate ourselves even MORE to work! Or to work harder in the gym! Or make sure our kids are more successful! And then our problems will be solved. “Life can feel like a series of races, each of which must be won in order to prove our worth. In this context, faux self-care becomes another activity to excel at, an endeavor to be conquered just like everything else in life.”
  • Optimization: We just need to be more optimized! More efficient! THEN we’ll solve burnout. This solution “promises us that someday we can reach a pinnacle of productivity and efficiency such that our life will finally feel like it’s fully under our control. But the problem is that we never actually arrive, because we haven’t been taught the critical step of identifying the principles.”

As Dr Lakshmin correctly points out, none of these self-care tactics or purchases are inherently bad. Heck most of these things are fun, might make us more successful or financially secure, and many can provide joy.

The problem is that none of them address the root cause of our burnout:

We think a Yoga retreat will provide us with the hard reset we need, but it doesn’t address the fact that we are overworked at work and do 95% of the caregiver load for our entire household.

We convince ourselves that if we were just a BIT more optimized or efficient or successful, then all of our problems would be solved.

We chase these strategies, and either feel guilty when we can’t execute them, or get depressed when they don’t magically fix everything.

So, what are we supposed to do instead?

If we’re actually going to take care of ourselves, it’s not going to come from an Instagram ad for scented candles or bath bombs.

The system is broken on the outside, which means the only meaningful work we can do is on the inside.

Let's Talk about Well-Being

Why are we trying all these different self-care strategies? Simply put, we hope they will make us feel less bad, and more good.

Dr. Lakshmin explains two different approaches to well being:

  1. Hedonic well-being focuses on the feeling states of happiness and pleasure (think of the 3 fake self-care coping mechanisms above).
  2. Eudaimonic well-being emphasizes personal growth, acceptance of your authentic self, and connection to meaning.

Although there’s a time and place for Hedonic well-being (purely focusing on pleasure), long-term wellness is going to require way more of the second one.

I realize “Eudaimonic well-being” sounds a bit woo-woo, but it really just means “being honest about your needs, accepting your current life situation, and working within those boundaries without guilt.”

I have one more important term to throw at you: “Dialectical thinking,” which just means holding two conflicting thoughts in our head at the same time.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, said it best:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.

Here’s how this works for us:

“The system is broken, the deck is stacked against me, my life is a mess” AND “working on myself is a worthy endeavor and I’m capable of making progress.”

So let’s get to work on these things with real self-care.

4 Principles of Real Self-care

In order to start making changes that stick, we need the right kind of self-care.

If faux-self care is prescribed from the outside (buying stuff), real self-care comes from within (doing work on ourselves).

If faux self-care is a noun describing an activity or product, real self-care is a verb describing our internal decision making process.

(This is just like changing our definition of hope from a noun to a verb.”)

Dr. Lakshmin points out 4 rules for real self-care:

  1. Learn to set boundaries with others (and yourself). “This often means balancing the needs of people close to you, like your partner’s preference or your children’s needs, with your own desires and needs. In this process, you must learn to stop being controlled by feelings of guilt, which are inevitable but can be managed.” This means developing the ability to say no (tough for us people pleasers). In other words, guilt shouldn’t be your compass for decision-making.
  2. Turn up your Inner-Friend. Have a conversation with yourself the way you’d talk to a best friend who is struggling. Self-compassion for the win! “Practicing real self-care means looking honestly and unflinchingly at what you need (and what you want) and giving yourself permission to have it.” This means toning down the inner-critic and turning up the inner-friend. “This is hard, life is messy right now, and it’s okay to have needs.” This includes caregivers and moms!
  3. Bring in what matters most to you. “Real self-care brings you closer to the most authentic version of yourself. It’s a process of getting to know yourself—your real self—including your core values, beliefs, and desires.” This could be through therapy, journaling, and conversations with friends. It requires uncomfortable work, and taking the time to process what’s actually happening in our lives. Remember, we’re already trapped in Pandora’s box with the monsters - cramming down our feelings doesn’t work.
  4. Do what you can to enact change for others! Real self-care is about making yourself bigger and standing up for your needs. When you start to take care of yourself, it’s possible this can give support or courage to others too. If you have the capacity, this can include helping other people who are hurting, speaking up for yourself at work or in your relationships, and making decisions that align with your personal values.

I’ll conclude with the quote from Real Self-Care that jumped out at me:

“To practice real self-care, you must be willing to make yourself vulnerable
— whether that means having uncomfortable conversations to set boundaries or making the clear and deliberate choice to prioritize one aspect of your life over another.”

As a life-long conflict-avoidant people pleaser, this is something I certainly struggle with:

What can we do today?

“Okay Steve, where does this leave me? I’m still burned out and frustrated! HALP!”

I got you, my dear rebel friend. Along with having some grace for yourself and remembering that this stuff is hard, here are a few practical steps you can start to take today:

Step one: Start to dive into your personal values and needs as a human. Have an honest conversation with yourself whether or not you’ve actively enforced boundaries in your life that respect those values or needs. Acceptance of reality is required.

Step two: Give yourself compassion when you realize you haven't put boundaries in place or stood up for your values or needs in the past. If you’ve never given yourself permission to include your own personal feelings, that’s okay. This stuff is hard!

Step three: Begin the process of putting boundaries in place in your life. This might include more conversations with friends, your partner, and/or therapy. It’s time to be your biggest advocate and be honest with what you’re willing to tolerate, what you need, and learn to say “no.” Start small. Remember guilt shouldn’t be a compass for the decisions you make!

So, treat yo’ self!... to self-compassion for having uncomfortable conversations, establishing boundaries, and speaking up for yourself!

And then you can go get a massage or buy expensive sushi.

-Steve

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Hi there. I'm Steve.

I founded Nerd Fitness way back in 2009. Wherever you are coming from, I’m glad you are here. Every week, I send out a short email that’s guaranteed to make you live a tiny bit better, think a little deeper, and overcome the obstacles that get in the way.

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