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I'm A Psychotherapist & Here's The Biggest Mistake I See People Make With Self-Care

When I feel down or need to escape negative emotions, I blare your music or craft. 

For many people, overthinking leads to feeling crappy and doing things to cause an emotional hangover. I've found a different way: when my mind starts going crazy, I try not think about anything at all for five minutes or BLAST THE MUSIC—it short-circuits the vicious cycle between overthinking and feeling crappy. Not only does this feel better than wallowing in self-pity; it's also been great for reigniting my creativity and this is how I practice SELF CARE! 

A lack of self-care is often mistaken for the kind of self-soothing that isn't sustainable over time. When drinking “just one” leads to a pattern of excess, it's not really taking care—it's harming yourself.

Why self-soothing is different from other forms of self-care.

All of us have ways to soothe ourselves—getting a drink at our favorite juice bar or taking time off from work.

While self-soothing may help us feel better in the short term, it does not move us forward or correct whatever situation caused our initial distress. Or if it does, we often end up with a worse hangover—emotionally, physically and/or financially—than before we started indulging ourselves.

This can look like spending a lot of time talking about our problems, trying to entertain anxious thoughts instead of letting them go, or engaging in analysis paralysis—focusing on worst-case scenarios and feeling that we have no control over what happens next.

Self-care involves finding meaning in life and doing things that support our growth; self-soothing, on the other hand, is about being mindful of how we feel. Psychologist Jonathan Marshall likens this difference to Tibetan Buddhist concepts of compassion toward oneself (self-compassion) versus cherishing oneself like a prized possession (self-cherishing).

I see self-compassion as a way to take care of oneself by acknowledging one's own current state and wanting to make it better. The root of what we call self-care. 

Self-cherishing is a distortion of our normally well-intended selfishness, in that it takes the natural desire to care for oneself and turns it into an unhealthy obsession. “I deserve that $5,000 handbag! So I'm going to take a loan out”… this is an unhealthy form of self cherising if it can cause you hardship. 

To sum up, self-cherishing (or extreme self-soothing) can be rendered egocentric and myopic if it fails to take into account one's long term best interests. You don't want to bankrupt yourself emotionally or financially.

The following are ways to practice real self-care.

Self-care is personal. It's important to learn what works best for you, and not try to force yourself into doing anything else.

A new client tells me that she's not going to meditate for two hours, as though I'd suggest such a thing.

Some employees complain that corporate wellness programs are just another deadline on their to-do lists and make them feel even more overworked.

The problem with blindly copying any kind of self-care is that it runs the risk of making you feel worse. In today's Instagram age, it's easy to believe that a gorgeous bubble bath or trendy unicorn latte would be an instant fix—but the truth is more complex than just treating yourself. If you don’t enjoy taking bubble baths or drinking lattes, this probably isn't a good choice for you.

For an introvert, it could be tending to their plants or reading a book; for an extroverted person, it might mean going out with friends. Experimenting and finding solutions that align with your lifestyle—whatever that may be! —is the key.

Don't feel pressured to make your self-care routine Instagram worthy.

Self-care doesn't just happen on retreats.

Retreats can offer a much-needed pause, but we have to come back with some intention in mind—otherwise it's not as effective.

Any time-limited retreat has to be considered in terms of what I call “the ‘And then what?'” question. Sure, you could lose weight or learn to meditate for a week because it is facilitated by your current situation—but that won't last forever.

To make sure that these gains and new habits are permanent, we must have a strategy for integrating them into real life. Otherwise, burnout may result—as people escape to retreats or come back home to wait out the next wave of self-neglect.

Self-care is proactive.

While most of us think about self-care as an emotional response to something we've done or been through, the real value lies in its ability to provide the foundation for our lives.

Because of this, self-care can sometimes seem less glamorous than we might expect. After all, it's about more mundane tasks like doing laundry, keeping the toilet clean and making sure that our bellies are full—just like anyone else's would be! But there is nothing wrong with treating ourselves well in these simple ways: after all—”taking care of yourself” isn't just for fancy people; everyone needs to do it at some point or another

Owning our inner demons means learning to manage anxieties, traumas, and insecurities: skills that are hard-won. We don't have time for them in school or training programs; we develop these around the dinner table with family and at work as we navigate relationships within teams. And we need to PRACTICE it! 

Questions to ask yourself so you can be sure your self-care practices are genuine.

1. Can you acknowledge your feelings and thoughts?

We sometimes lie to ourselves so that we can feel strong or normal, but the truth is that being human means feeling all sorts of things—both good and bad.

It can be helpful to acknowledge what's going on, simply and matter-of-factly. For example: “(You said something hurtful) made me feel sad (because I'm worried that you're no longer interested in our friendship), and I think this is why.”

Taking ownership can be a very empowering experience.

2. What do you need to stop the cycle of negative thoughts?

It is important to experiment with these strategies and see what works best for you. For some people, playing a video game might be soothing, but for others it may not—walking or getting a massage might help them feel better instead. 

For some people, it might be a walk or running. For others, it could be reading or an electronic activity such as texting or emailing. Essentially what is important is that the behavior should stop us from ruminating—that is thinking obsessively about something over and over again—when we do it during our break time

The most important thing we need to know is whether or not our speed is excessive, and we apply the brakes if it is.

I encourage my clients to “ground” themselves by shuffling their feet on the floor and getting back into their bodies rather than being lost in thought. I have them take three deep breaths after that, resetting our fear center (amygdala).

3. What do you need to do in order to feel replenished?

Whenever my clients begin to feel overwhelmed, frazzled, or depressed about their lives—and invariably they do—I ask them: What can you do today that will improve the quality of your life RIGHT NOW?

It can be any of the three categories:

  • Something that brings you joy: What makes your heart smile or gives you purpose? It could be gardening, hugging your dog, reading a great book.
  • Something that brings order to your life: If you notice a pattern of chaotic behavior in yourself, it might help to impose some sort of structure on your surroundings. For example, if there's clutter all over the house and nothing seems to be organized or clean—this could reflect how disorganized and messy you feel inside. Start with one small task at home (e.g., cleaning out the fridge) then build momentum by tackling bigger projects such as organizing closets or filing cabinets
  • Something that brings you a sense of pleasure or accomplishment: This could be something you already know, and want to improve upon, or it may be an entirely new skill-anything from Spanish lessons to learning how cook your grandmother's favorite dishes.

4. How can you encourage yourself to keep doing this?

When we treat ourselves, our brains are flooded with dopamine, creating a sense of reward that makes us want to continue.

I encourage my clients to have a list of their favorite tiny rewards. These are not extravagant, sign-of-the times items (like the latest handbag or bingeing on chocolate), but rather well deserved treats for doing something nice for themselves like: a walk, reading a book, or quiet time. 

4. When are you most aware that you need to breathe mindfully?

Mindful breathing, which takes only three minutes a day, helps us stay grounded when we've gotten caught up in thinking about something for too long and then making an unwise decision because we're not connected with our own wisdom.

You don't learn to save money only when you're in debt, and you don't practice breathing properly just when your anxiety is at its peak. So I always tell my clients: if there's time to go the bathroom during a break—which every human has—there's also time to breathe correctly.

When they laugh, it's a sign that they are really committed to something. I find that when I'm getting a facial or massage and am not distracted by my phone, those are the times when I commit myself to practicing deep breathing for longer periods of time.

Schedule time for self-care.

When we're under pressure, what do we tend to focus on first?

Avoiding procrastination can be as simple as scheduling your work into the calendar rather than waiting until crunch time. Keep it simple, and don't overcomplicate things—it's easy to get carried away by big plans that are difficult or impossible to achieve in a short period of time. Remember: baby steps create momentum!

The views expressed in this article are those of one expert. They do not necessarily represent the opinions or complete picture of the topic at hand, nor does their expression constitute an endorsement from randiandjesspodcast as a whole. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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The 5 Biggest Self-Care Mistakes That Makes Self-Care Not Helpful