I'm A Psychologist & Here's The Biggest Mistake I See People Make With Self-Care
When I need to ground myself or get out of a funk, I cook or sing.
It short-circuits the vicious cycle between overthinking, feeling crappy, and then doing things that will cause an emotional hangover. It's also a great way to feel creative again and nourish myself. That is the self-care that works for me.
The problem is that what we sometimes call self-care is really self-soothing, and the long-term cost vastly outweighs the short-term benefit. When "Just one drink!" plummets down the rabbit hole of excessiveness, where your body, bank balance, and well-being pay the price, that isn't self-care.
The difference between self-soothing and self-care.
We all self-soothe. It gives us comfort and distracts us during difficult times, which can include things like taking a bubble bath, getting yourself a fancy drink at your favorite juice bar, or taking time off from work or child care.
Self-soothing, however, does not help us move forward or remedy the situation. Or, it may lead to an emotional, physical, or financial hangover. Just as with overdrinking alcohol, any escape behavior can be used in excess, from shopping to eating to sex. This can also look like entertaining our anxious thoughts or talking excessively about our problems, believing it'll make us feel better—when ultimately we're lost in ruminating, analysis paralysis, and living in the apocalypse.
Self-care, in contrast, is about finding meaning in life and doing things that support our growth. To understand the difference between self-care and self-soothing, psychologist Jonathan Marshall, Ph.D., likens it to the Tibetan Buddhist ideas of self-compassion and self-cherishing. To him, self-compassion is being aware of one's current conditions and wanting to make things better; this is the root of self-care. However, self-cherishing is "when you take it one step further, and you make yourself precious and separate from others, for instance by saying, 'I deserve that $30,000 handbag even if it means I'm busting my account.'"
Put simply, self-cherishing (or self-soothing) runs the risk of being egocentric and myopic, because "if you intend well for yourself or someone else, you don't do something that's going to bankrupt you."
What real self-care looks like.
Self-care has to work for you and with you.
"I am not going to meditate for two hours," a new client tells me, as though I'd prescribe that.
Another complains, "I'm so sick of whatever the corporate wellness program tells me to do. It's another thing on my to-do list, and I feel even more overstretched!"
The problem is, any kind of self-care that is blindly copied runs the risk of making you feel worse. In the Instagram age, it's easy to believe that a gorgeous Instagrammable bubble bath or a trendy unicorn latte may be the solution. But self-care goes deeper than that. For starters, you actually have to enjoy taking bubble baths or drinking the latte. It has to align with you.
For an introvert, it could be tending to their plants; for an extrovert, it could be hanging out with a group of friends. Experimenting and finding solutions that align with your lifestyle, personality, and goals is key.
If your self-care method happens to be Instagrammable—and you're an avid Instagrammer—great. If not, no biggie.
Self-care extends beyond going for that retreat.
Sometimes, a retreat can ground us or gift us with the time and space for a forced reset. But more importantly, we have to set an intention for how that will serve us. Otherwise, we run the risk of feeling miserable or lost in our heads, coming back feeling even worse. That can make us feel even more helpless.
Any retreat has to be considered in terms of what I call the "And then what?" question. Sure, you could lose weight, learn to meditate, or eat healthfully for a week because you are in a situation that facilitates that. We have to have a strategy to make sure that these gains and new habits actually integrate into real life. Otherwise, it's just the cycle of burnout, escaping to retreats, and coming back to reality to wait for the next burnout to happen.
Self-care isn't simply reactive.
Most of how we see self-care is a reaction to a disturbance in our emotional state. But self-care isn't just reactive; it's fundamentally about creating supportive foundations for our lives.
And therefore, self-care isn't always glamorous. It's about ensuring that our laundry is done, the toilet is clean, and our bellies are nourished. It's about being in control of our finances, taking care of our health and minds, and being a part of the community. It's also about owning our inner demons—anxieties, traumas, and insecurities. Or more accurately, what we call "adulting"—skills we don't learn overnight, that no one's taught us in school, that we will need to practice.
Questions to make sure you're practicing real self-care.
1. Can you acknowledge what's going on?
We lie to ourselves because it sometimes feels odd to say we have any kind of negative feelings—as though we are weak or alien. But to be human is to have emotions.
The simplest start is to simply acknowledge what's going on, in a matter-of-fact manner. Such as, "(Situation) is happening, and I feel (emotion), and I think (thought)."
You'll be surprised at how taking ownership is empowering.
2. What do you need to short-circuit the vicious cycle of feeling crappy or overthinking?
This could be self-soothing, and you discover this best by experimentation. Marshall says that for some people, it might be playing a video game, while for another, it might be body-based, such as going for a walk or getting a massage. For others, it might be a beer. Essentially, it should be something that stops us from obsessing, a "break from the disturbance." He notes, "Someone who could absorb into electronics may ruminate if they went for a walk."
The most important thing we need to know is that it isn't excessive, and we apply our brakes.
A thing I encourage my clients to do is to ground themselves, simply by shuffling their feet on the floor and getting back into their bodies rather than to be lost in their heads. Following this, take three deep breaths to reset the fear center in the brain.
3. What do you need to do to replenish you?
Here's when I invite my clients to ask themselves, What can I do to take the best care of myself right now?
It can be any of the three categories:
- Something that brings you joy: What makes your heart smile or gives you meaning and purpose? It could be gardening, hugging your dog, or reading your favorite book.
- Something that brings order to your life: Quite often, our environments mirror our frazzled mind. If so, you could start by tackling one part of your house that needs cleaning or organizing. Start small, and build momentum.
- Something that gives you a sense of mastery: This could be something you already know and could improve, or a skill you've always wanted to pick up, anything from another language to cooking to strength training.
4. How can you encourage yourself to keep doing this?
When we treat ourselves, dopamine floods into the synapses in our brain, and that sense of reward makes us want to do it over and over again. I encourage my clients to have a list of their favorite tiny rewards that don't involve buying a new handbag or scarfing down three bars of chocolate. Essentially, something that's a well-deserved treat after properly practicing self-care.
5. In what situations do you have no choice but to practice mindful breathing?
I emphasize mindful breathing (it takes only three minutes!) because it helps us to stay grounded. We've all been caught in the spiral of excessive thinking and then making unwise decisions because we're not connected with our own wisdom.
Just as you don't learn to save money only when you're in debt, you don't practice breathing only when you're feeling anxious or low. And so I always tell my clients, if you have time to go to the bathroom, you have time to practice breathing correctly. They laugh, and that's how they commit to it. For me, it's when I'm having a facial or a massage and have no phone to touch that I commit to practicing extra-long sessions of deep breathing.
To keep at it, schedule in self-care.
When we're frazzled, where do we start?
A simple tip is to schedule these activities into your calendar rather than to wait until crunch time. Keep it simple, and don't overcomplicate things—it's easy to be ambitious and want to do everything at once. Remember, baby steps create momentum, and lofty plans create overwhelm.
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.
She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.