If self-care is so good for us, why is it so hard to do?
Self-care is easy, right? Just sleep, eat good food, exercise, meditate and have hobbies. The conclusions are in and, surprise! All of those things are good for us – and they’re free. So what’s the problem?
None of these things are rocket-science. Doctors and therapists recommend them, but for some reason they can feel like impossible aspirations. And in some ways, jumping in and trying them can be upsetting – not soothing at all.
Self-Care and Guilt
One reason self-care can feel dangerous is the well-intentioned first step – adding self-care activities to our long list of “shoulds.” Lists can be helpful, but if you have a list of shoulds, it’s probably less of a productivity hack than a painful source of guilt.
The voice of the shoulds is a bully who sprinkles your day with thoughts like, “I should be a director by now,” or “I should have made homemade brownies for the class like that other mom instead of buying them at the grocery store.”
At one in the morning, when you’re still trying to clear out your inbox, you might think, “I should be getting more sleep.” Or you see a post from that fitness instructor on Facebook and feel a stab of guilt.
If actually doing the self-care activities has never made it to the top of your priority list, maybe it’s time to take a deeper look at how you feel about yourself in the first place?
Self-Love and Self-Care: Which Comes First?
Guilt is a horrible motivator, so it’s not likely that beating yourself up is going to help you get closer to that healthy lifestyle you’re imagining for yourself. Self-love, on the other hand, is a great motivator. But what if really loving yourself isn’t easy for you?
That brings me to something else – something deeply off-putting about basic self-care that makes it feel strangely dangerous. I believe it has to do with the “SELF” itself. Do we love it or… not? And how does that figure in when we’re talking about just doing the self-care things?
Let’s look at two basic self-care activities therapists and doctors recommend, and why they can feel so hard to do – meditation and exercise.
Meditation looks relaxing in all of the stock photos. It may even make you a talented rock-stacker? (Apparently?) But guided or unguided, meditation can put you into unfiltered contact with the stream of thoughts running through your mind.
For me, it was a fire hose I wasn’t ready for. There was nothing serene about what was going on in there. If you’re struggling like I was, those thoughts can often be hard to face – especially if you don’t know how to deal with them yet.
Exercise can be hard because you come into unfiltered contact with your body. If you’ve been ignoring your body for a while, and especially if you’ve been hating it, exercise is not just physical. It can feel like torture on a psychological level.
I remember the first time I did yoga again in my forties after gaining quite a bit of weight. In previous decades, I was dangerously thin and a I loved yoga, so I knew how it was all supposed to work. I was being really careful, starting off with easy beginner classes. My hips were stiff, which was to be expected. What I wasn’t ready for was my first child’s pose. As I sunk down into this “relaxing” pose, I … well, I couldn’t sink down at all. There was a belly there and not a small one. I didn’t even think of doing yoga again for about a year after that. I couldn’t face it.
Self-Compassion: the Bridge to Self-Love
These types of obstacles are real and can be painful. When something is painful, we run away from it. But when we run away from something that’s fundamentally good for us, we need to learn the skills to move out of our fight-or-flight, lizard brain and into our uniquely human one. In those moments, we can choose to ignore or run from the uncomfortable feeling or work through it with self-compassion.
If you’re in conflict with another person who’s hurt you, compassion can be the thread that pulls the relationship back together. You know the person, their true intentions. You understand why they may have done what they did and you can reach a level of trust that makes it possible to move forward. It’s not easy between two people, and it’s even harder when it’s a battle going on inside of ourselves. But it’s the only way to be whole again.
When we try to meditate and hit that wall of thought or exercise only to find our bodies sore and long forgotten, we come into contact with things we might have neglected and hurt ourselves – and it can make us angry with ourselves.
How to Choose Self-Compassion
When I came to this impasse within myself, I had a choice: wrap it back up and leave it be or fix it. I set out to fix it because I didn’t want to hate myself anymore. It was causing serious damage to my body and my mind. After a lot of work, I can now engage in these self-care activities and reap the benefits, but it’s still an ongoing process. Also, I didn’t get here alone. Here’s how I did it:
To ease back into meditation, I started using smartphone apps. The guided elements were helpful, but having a real teacher helped me get past the worst of it. You can find affordable meditation teaching in a number of ways. Some health insurance providers offer free classes to members. If you have a Shambala center near you, you can learn a non-religious, Buddhist approach to meditation. Some churches also teach centering prayer.
If you don’t have anything like that in your town, there are online teachers like Susan Piver with classes and communities like her Open Heart Project where you can participate no matter where you are in the world.
It’s so much easier to face your fire hose of thoughts when you’re not alone doing it.
I didn’t revisit exercise until I after I was diagnosed with an eating disorder and began learning intuitive eating. As part of the program, I started thinking of exercise as “movement to feel good.” It’s number nine of the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating. It completely helped me re-frame exercise. For some, competition can be fun, but I was hyper-competitive with myself – beating myself into submission to beat a time, stretch further, lose inches, etc.
Moving to feel good is literally all about feeling good in your body when you move. I do weights and yoga, but hiking around the many trails here in Los Angeles is my favorite thing in the world.
I still challenge myself to take on steeper hills or to beat a time, but before I try, I seriously ask myself, “Am I feeling up to this today?” If I don’t feel a surge of energy at the thought of pushing harder, I don’t push. That means some days I take a gentler path. A few times, I did push and I paid for it!
I took an Intuitive Eating class through my healthcare provider. If yours doesn’t offer it, you can search for a therapist who works with the intuitive eating method. If that’s not in the budget right now, I highly recommend the book, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works. There’s an online community with great resources as well.
You’re Not Alone
Self-love sounds like a no-brainer, but for some of us, it’s far from easy. If you’ve experienced abuse from childhood, a partner, a co-worker or a religious community, your sense of self probably needs some extra TLC from a good therapist.
Don’t let “what’s wrong with you if you’re not doing it” posts on social media get you down. If you’re following someone who makes you feel guilty about self-care, maybe unfollow them for now. We’re each on our own journey. If you follow PlayGrounding on Facebook or Instagram, I promise my only hope is to make you think or make you laugh, which I hear can be good for you.