Is that self-care or self-sabotage + How to figure out

Is your self-care actually self-sabotage? Are you using self-care as an excuse to avoid doing hard things or as a reason to do things you know aren't healthy? #self-care #self-love #habits #goalsetting

It’s been a rough few days – overcast weather, doctors appointments, tough conversations – so I decide it’s time to devote a day self-care. I narrow my eyes, take a deep breath, and leannnnn into it. Next stop: Selfcareville, Population: me.

Showers? WHO NEEDS ‘EM.
Carbs? Let’s eat all of them. Preferably topped with melted cheese.
Netflix is on, my sweatpants are on, and the oven is on because I’m making my second pan of pizza rolls.

Also: I don’t need to clean up the kitchen BECAUSE SELF-CARE.

Now, if you’re keeping score, reader, exactly none of these behaviors make me feel better. None of them make up for the overcast weather or the challenges of the last few days. Honestly, I’m using the pizza rolls and Netflix to numb out and avoid doing tough, life-improving things I need to do.

Which leads me to this Potentially Unpopular Opinion: The term 'self-care' has given us a sneaky, clever umbrella term to huddle under while we engage in some of our least-healthy tendencies. Click To Tweet

Watching a three hours of Parks And Rec after an exhausting work day? Self-care!

Tuning out of our bickering children so we can watch Instagram Stories for 20 minutes? Self-care!

Skipping the gym so we can lay in bed for an extra hour? Self-care!

And sometimes these are the things we really need to do take care of ourselves and recharge our batteries. Sometimes the only thing that’s going to cure what ails me is a comfy pair of sweats and some processed carbs.

But if I’m not careful, I can convince myself that not-particularly-healthy, not-particularly-beneficial behavior qualifies as “self-care.”

Self-care looks different from day to day

After a week of hermitting at home, writing for 12 hours a day, my self-care might look like going to my friend’s enormous Galentine’s Party or my husband’s big work shindig. Look at these humans I can talk to! Lo, my voice box has a purpose!

Another week – one where I have seven meetings and we’re hosting out-of-town friends – those same parties would be absolute torture. My self-care would look like sitting in a coffee shop by myself, reading a book, and avoiding eye contact with everyone.

Self-care (obviously) looks different from person to person

If you’re a human who uses the internet, you’ve seen the same three images tagged #selfcare all over social media.

1. Legs folded onto yoga mat
2. A picturesque smoothie bowl
3. Two knees in a bubble bath

And if you’ve seen those same images 47,081 times, it’s easy to internalize the idea that if those types of self-care work for Perfect Internet People, they will work for you, too.

This is your loving reminder that one person’s self-care is another person’s boring torture. Just because Instagram Ashlee with 1.2 million followers recharges with sunrise runs, doesn’t mean they’ll recharge you.

Sure, your self-care might look like candles and journaling. But it might also look like a boxing class, cleaning out your fridge, or unfriending people on Facebook.

Two questions to see if you’re practicing self-care or self-sabotage

How do you actually feel after you finish doing this?

When you watch four episodes of Queer Eye back to back – do you emerge feeling refreshed and recharged? Like you’re ready to revamp your wardrobe and cook healthier?

Or do you feel groggy and weirdly tired from laying on the sofa for nearly four hours?

When you eat smoothies for two meals a day, do you feel alive and light and ready to take on the world? Or drained, cranky, and constantly hungry?
It seems painfully obvious, but many of us fail to consider if our ‘self-care’ actually, ya know, makes us feel good. Click To TweetNext time you do something you’re categorizing as self-care – skipping a party, eating a specific food, drinking with friends after work – take a hot minute to ask yourself “Did that feel good? Do I feel recharged?”

The answer might surprise you.

How will this affect your Future Self?

A bit of Real Talk you might not want to hear: self-care doesn’t always feel amazing in the moment. Sometimes it feels boring, intimidating, or even painful.

Going to the dentist, seeing a therapist, cutting out that super delicious food that gives you a stomachache – these are not the things Instagram hashtags are made of. But your Future Self will thank you.

Those fun things we’re coyly lumping under the heading of self-care – endless social media scrolling, two pints of Ben & Jerry’s, avoiding the friend who lovingly calls us on our shit – these are of no benefit to our Future Selves. In fact, I’d wager they’re actually detrimental.

True self-care probably doesn’t involve flaking out. It’s not consuming things that make us feel like rubbish. It doesn’t include looking at a screen till our eyes fall out.

This is not to say we need to exist solely diets of kale and documentaries. This is not my call to arms to give up Netflix. But self-care means caring for ourselves. It means looking after our wellbeing the way a parent or best friend would.

Yes, it means candles and bubble baths and understanding when we need a treat or a night in. It also means holding ourselves accountable and nudging ourselves to do hard things.

But I want to hear from you! Have you ever fallen into the trap of self-care that’s actually self-sabotage? If you’ve gotten past that, tell us how in the comments so we can learn from you!

P.S. If you’re someone who buys things they don’t need under the heading of “self-care,” this will help!

Photo by Andre Benz on Unsplash

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  1. Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

    I love the way you put it – that self-care doesn’t always feel amazing in the moment! I think it’s an important point we have to remember to remind us that self-care does not always mean forgoing your work for a night of Netflix. Sometimes it takes time and commitment. 🙂

    Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

  2. DH

    Self-care! Phrase that I keep in the same file as “blessed” and “mindfulness” ?

    • DH

      But don’t get me wrong. I want those carbs. All of them.

  3. Kamina

    Nailed it with the point that self-care doesn’t always feel that amazing. I have some chronic mental health stuff and I always tell people that managing it is reallllly boring. It’s like, exercise every damn day, sleep regularly, DON’T eat all those delicious unhealthy things, don’t drink alcohol, take meds, feel things, practise mindfulness (how boring is mindfulness!?!) and just wait around a lot to feel better.

    I keep a list of things I hate doing, but that always make me feel better after doing them. It includes tedious things like waxing my eyebrows and cleaning the bathroom.

    Having said that. One of my favourite self-care things is to put on a jazz record and bop around a lot while mixing a cocktail. (It’s a home alone activity.) When we lived in an apartment with a bath I would then drink it in the bath. That WAS fun.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yesss! Sometimes self-care is so, SO boring! And it might look so unsexy to the people in your life! (I also love dancing around the house by myself to music)

    • Stacey

      OMG. I love tidy brows and a clean bathroom too! They both just feel so GOOD! I’m glad for this reminder self care for everyone isn’t a smoothie bowl. I love your idea of keeping a list of things you hate, but feel good after doing… I’m going to start keeping my own list.

  4. Ellen

    Brilliant post, spot on. Last night I was feeling kind of run down, tired and a bit low so decided to watch a favourite show on Netflix to chill out. The first episode absolutely did that, but after the end of the third episode I was feeling all kinds of rubbish. I eventually got myself on my yoga mat (which is what I knew all along I needed to do) for a slow practice. It’s definitely not easy to practice true self care, but I’m gradually learning to get better at really listening to what I need.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Good for you! Pulling yourself away isn’t easy!

  5. Justina

    I came across this quote by Brianna Wiest recently and it really put self care in perspective for me. “True self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake, it is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from.”
    I’ve discovered that the most important form of self care I practice is saying “no”. My new years goal was to not get myself involved in any big projects this year (even if they are fun), because my plate is already full of things I love and adding more would stress me out.
    A self destructive habit I am trying to kick is eating junk food as a way to cope with a stressful day. It makes me feel worse and I would rather be eating veggie soup.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      I love that quote – and such a good reminder!

  6. Anonymous

    I love this post!!! So true!

  7. The Widow Badass

    Hehehe! All of the above plus WINE!! Because SELF-CARE!!! Thanks for tackling this subject with humour and great advice.

  8. Heidi

    You hit the nail on the head when you say, “Now, if you’re keeping score, reader, exactly none of these behaviors make me feel better.” I have frequently bought coffees for myself or watched a lot of Netflix which doesn’t count as self-care because it didn’t make me feel better!

  9. Lorraine

    SO many people approach self care from a point of crisis i.e. they’re already at a point in their life where they have too many commitments, too much to do, feel overwhelmed, etc. For me self care is so often saying no to opportunities because I know I won’t be able to really commit, making sure the time in my schedule I have for cooking dinner and working out stays there, etc.

  10. Laura Griffin

    Ooof. This hit a little too close to home. I’m going for a hike tomorrow before work! Thanks for the Real Talk, Sarah 😉

  11. Manisha

    This year I’m thinking a lot about the word “spacious” and so when I act out self-care I consider if it will make my mind and life more spacious. One weekend I ended up working most of both days. Then the next week felt more spacious to me. I had time for my family and all the things I wanted and needed to do. Best of all I made significant progress on the project that had a big deadline. I relieved the stress. This last weekend I was a bit under the weather so my self-care was drinking my lemon tonic and reading all day. Both examples made me feel good. I realized that after I read your post. You offer me so many insights. Thank you!!

  12. Sarah Hogan

    Yes! Thank you!! I am a huge advocate of self-care, but we must be honest about what self-care looks like and why we need it. I feel like so many people use it as an excuse to get out of things they don’t want to do in the moment, even though that thing will probably help them long term. I feel the same way about the extroverted vs. introverted thing. As an introvert, I understand the desire to stay at home and the anxiousness that comes from going to a party with a bunch of people I don’t know. I also understand that getting out of my comfort zone every once and while is good for me and that staying home and avoiding those social situations isn’t always “self-care” because I could miss out on meeting a future friend. We must be careful about using buzzwords as excuses and turning something that seems helpful at the time into something that is actually harming us long term.

  13. Summer

    I had to giggle at “Perfect Internet People.” So true. I’m totally saying that from now on.

  14. Rita

    I understand your point, because I’m always doing things for my future self. But sometimes I’m just tired, and have to do things for myself now. It could be extra carbs, watching a movie, reading or sleeping. I have to recharge, before do exercises, menu planning, keeping a healthy diet. I don’t think that it’s self sabotage, it’s necessary to be able going toward my goals. The key is to find the balance taking care of myself in every time.

  15. Eme

    So true self care is so different to different people, great post!

    Eme |

  16. Lisa Fitts

    I always appreciate your perspective its so true and I think asking yourself the 2 questions are key!

  17. Heather

    Love this! I’m recovering from an injury which has meant being unable to do my normal exercise program. Convinced myself today that everything was a struggle, so just give up, and try to deal with my overflowing Inbox to try get rid of the feeling of being overwhelmed! I’ve sunk so far it’s almost getting to the stage that I’m afraid to go out of the house, though I did fight the urge to stay in bed and nap today!

  18. Lynn

    I really needed to read this. Lately, my “self care” when I’m stressed at work has been desserts, usually multiple. This (obviously) doesn’t make me feel any better, and usually ends up making me feel worse. I work from home and it can be very easy to end up just not moving from my desk all day. I think what’s really going to make me feel better is MOVING–taking walks and short yoga breaks.

  19. kristin

    this is such a great post. self care is not always the thing we want to do – it’s often the thing we need to do, even though it’s uncomfortable or difficult. there are absolutely times when i really do need to unwind and settle in with a face mask and Netflix – but other times, it’s about pushing out of my comfort zone to support my future self, who will thank me later. it’s not always easy to know which is which – the immediate gratification of avoidance is so nice! – but it’s good to call awareness so that people can start recognizing when they are indeed self-sabotaging.

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