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When Self-Care Hurts More Than It Helps

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When I first started struggling with my mental health, I learned the importance of self-care. My doctors, therapists, friends and family all told me how vital self-care would be in my healing process, and I agreed.

At first, my self-care was mostly the stuff you see on Instagram or TV — the long baths, indulgent treats, massages, shopping for things I didn’t necessarily need… you get the idea. I even went as far as to start promising that I would do one fun thing for myself every day. I had never really done things for myself before, so this was revolutionary.

On the other hand, it took me a lot longer to get the hang of the true self-care tasks that are often tedious and unenjoyable, but absolutely necessary. I slowly started to get the absolute bare minimum down: sleeping enough, eating enough and having a bit of a routine. Things like doing the dishes or laundry, sending that email I’d been dreading or other chores are still a struggle.

But over time, I realized that self-care wasn’t what I needed to heal — it was self-love. I believe self-care is a vital part of self-love, but I was using self-care as a bandaid solution to a wound that could only be healed by trying to learn to love myself. I thought if I went through the motions of caring for myself — eating a meal, taking a shower, buying a latte — I could somehow convince myself I was truly taking good care of myself. It didn’t matter that inside I still hated myself because my actions could say otherwise — would someone who didn’t love themselves be trying to take such good care of themselves?!

The thing is, knowing how to take care of myself and partake in self-care activities, doesn’t make up for the fact that I haven’t shown myself enough self-love. Self-love is hard. It’s confusing and messy and a lot of internal work. It makes self-care look like a walk in the park. I can’t continue to heal unless I learn to work on loving myself, and continue with the self-care.

That being said, self-care can sometimes feel like so much effort, and there are plenty of times where I just don’t bother because I’m too exhausted or worn down. In those moments, I find myself feeling worse because I didn’t have it in me to self-care, which only amplifies the need for it. When I would finally get around to self-care, it was sometimes a distraction from my thoughts, an action I felt I could do to make everything all better. It didn’t force me to think about what was really wrong and allow myself to feel bad and work through it.

Taking care of yourself isn’t so different from a parent taking care of a child, and when we talk about the kinds of needs children need fulfilled by their parents, we talk about physical needs and emotional needs. In her book, “Running on Empty,” Jonice Webb discusses the detrimental impacts of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), which is essentially when a child has their physical needs met but not their emotional ones. The child isn’t abused, and they have everything they physically need provided for them (food, shelter, clothing), but they aren’t being emotionally taken care of.

By only prioritizing self-care, and neglecting to try self love, I was doing the same thing to myself. I was convincing myself that all my needs were being met because I was going above and beyond to make myself feel good through treats and rest and bubble baths, but I wasn’t getting to the true root of the problem. Going through the motions of someone who cares about themselves didn’t make me actually care about myself, and didn’t make me feel I was deserving of love — my own or anyone else’s.

Sometimes, self-care and self-love can feel like they’re opposites too. There are times when I’m forcing myself to do self-care activities (mostly chores), when really I should be showing myself more love and compassion, and being OK with not doing those things. In those moments, I’m doing a self-care activity, but I’m often beating myself up in my head, telling myself that if I don’t do this thing to take care of myself that I’m lazy or I’m not trying hard enough. At the same time, self-care becomes a great excuse to not have to do the work of self-love. If I’m too busy with a self-care activity, I don’t have to love myself and tend to the wounds inside, which can be much scarier. Self-care became the biggest hindrance to self-love.

It’s absolutely vital that we learn to strike a balance between self-care and self-love. The first step is recognizing that they are completely different but both equally important to our well being, regardless of whether we have a mental illness or not. Having self-love will allow me to forgive myself when I don’t have it in me to self-care, and self-care will allow me to continue to do the things I need to do to live my life.

While I don’t think I’m even close to mastering self-care, I do think it’s time to shift focus a bit to self-love, because we are all deserving of love, especially from ourselves. Loving yourself is one of the most powerful things you can do, and yet it’s something so many of us struggle with. So ask yourself, what is it you truly need? To feel safe, to feel secure, to feel seen, to feel like you’re enough? And love yourself enough to go get it.

Getty image by MangoStar_Studio

Originally published: January 25, 2020
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