The importance of self-care is spoken about a lot these days. This is an important emphasis as we will need to build reserves of resiliency in the face of life's ups and downs. However, often we know about what we should be doing but we still get stuck at actually doing these things that we know would be good for us. This blog post’s aim is to drill a bit deeper at what some psychological reasons are that might get in the way of self-care and offer some suggestions to work with these.
Tuning in to our stress levels regularly throughout the day and making decisions to release some of that stress is good for our mental and physical health as well as for those around us. When we are unaware that our stress levels are near overflowing, we can easily lose our temper or withdraw inwardly/shut down without explanation which can cause people to think it's something to do with them rather than due to our accumulation of stress. We are more likely to be reactive and do something we regret than if we preemptively engaged in self-care.
One metaphor I find quite helpful is the notion of a “stress bucket”. The following image is from the University of New South Wales Counselling Service, but can be modified to fit your context. See more about this model here.
In this model, we conceive our current level of stress as water in a bucket where new stressful situations add water cumulatively to the bucket and self-care practices and other forms of coping act like release valves diminishing water levels. When we regularly check-in throughout our day we can be aware of when stress levels are rising and might use that information to guide choices: for example, decide to go to a yoga class after work instead of watching television to unwind because we know that the former does more to reduce the stress levels in our bucket than the latter. Or something small like take a few minutes during our walk home to pause and notice something of beauty. This inner attunement can also help us navigate our relationships, letting loved ones know before we shut down that we’re feeling a little depleted and stressed out. Letting them know it’s not their fault, but that we’re going to do a little self-care so I we can be more present with them later and act preventatively before we spill over.
It appears to me that we all have one or two people that we love currently or in our past that we wish could take better care of themselves. When we love someone we long for them to love themselves. And yet. And yet we might be that person to someone else.
Core beliefs and schemas as barriers to self-care
In Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) there is the notion that the mind is like an
onion: there are layers of beliefs ranging from the more superficial layers of thoughts that pop into our minds that are connected to assumptions which are connected to core beliefs about the ways we see ourselves, the world, and others. Our worldviews. In different individuals these core beliefs can either be stable, meaning they don’t change depending on mood or stress levels, and in other people they are more variable whereby when one is in a negative mood or stressed out the core beliefs might have a more negative valence but when the mood is more positive their beliefs might be more balanced and nuanced. Some examples of stable negative core beliefs are: "I'm not loveable"; "I'm not competent"; "others are untrustworthy"; "the world is a dangerous place"; "I can't rely on others".
For example, if a person is sitting in the lunchroom at work next to a colleague who doesn't speak to them but is reading news articles on their phone the whole time someone who has a core belief of “I’m not good enough” would be more likely to interpret this behaviour as “they think I’m boring", or “they don’t like me” rather than the equally plausible interpretation that they are just tired from not sleeping the night before and need some downtime. Core beliefs are generally formed between the ages of 0-5 years old and are dependent on how those around us responded to our needs and what was modelled. These beliefs tend to be difficult to change as they are unconscious and bias the way we perceive information in 3 ways. They bias what information we pay attention to, what memories stand out, and how we interpret ambiguous situations.
How core beliefs can be an obstacle to self-care
If deep down inside a person believes “I’m unworthy”, or “I’m not good enough”, or “I’m a failure” either in a stable way or in a variable way but they are in a stressed out mood, the last thing they might feel like doing at the end of the day is to give themselves some self-care. What I perceive in our culture of perfectionism, competition, and comparison is that most people in Western culture have a core belief about self that they are not good enough to some degree. Even those who appear confident may be overcompensating and acting the part. Interestingly, the very act of self-care can change these negative core beliefs… more on this later!
Another helpful theory to understand why self-care might not come naturally to some comes from Schema Theory. This model outlines some further clusters of unconscious belief systems based on unmet emotional needs in childhood. Two that may be especially relevant in this case are: self-sacrifice schema and subjugation schema, which mean that a person has a pattern of putting others’ needs first and sacrificing their well-being for the sake of others'. To read more about schemas see here. When schemas operate unconsciously, this can be another psychological barrier to self-care – the feeling that others’ needs must take precedence over our own at all times. This can sometimes show up in the concern that self-care is self-indulgent or selfish. Of course, there is a balance that needs to be had between attending to others’ and our own needs. But for some people attending to their our own needs induces guilt – and the roots of this may come from childhood and the messages that were received about whether it was okay to have emotional needs or to suppress them for others.
Fear of not doing enough as barrier to self-care
Often when teaching self-compassion or attempting to reduce a pattern of perfectionism there is an underlying fear that must be addressed. See what pops into your mind with the following question: “if I was kinder with myself and accepted myself more, what might happen?”
Because many of us (or our parents did) grew up in an educational system that used fear and punishment to motivate us to work hard and achieve, there can be a conditioned fear that if we soften with ourselves, we might slack off, become lazy, and accomplish little. If we think back to only a few generations ago, teachers still hit students on the hand with a ruler and/or used a strap to discipline children. Behaviour was shaped through fear, shame, and punishment. Today parents and teachers have been instructed that positive reinforcement is more effective. So many of us have this long ingrained fear of not achieving and doing because this invokes shame or a feeling of being bad. Rationally we may know we need to recharge and replenish and cannot achieve continually and that pausing actually leads to more productive work, but yet this is not comfortable to this conditioned place within us.
In studies where self-compassion was taught to a group of procrastinators, they actually ended up being more productive than a control group which proceeded as usual with their strategies to manage their procrastination. Being kind to ourselves can lead to being more productive overall rather than less. This is a fear we can challenge with logic and/or acceptance meaning we can accept that it will accompany our self-care efforts but not necessarily believe its spell. I encourage an experimental attitude - to try it out and see what happens!
The barrier of anxiety and not enough time
One of the features of anxiety or stress is that it creates a sense of urgency and the feeling like we don’t have enough time. This may or may not be true. It may be that you have committed to doing a lot to stay busy and being willing to say no might be one of your first steps to enable a regular self-care practice. Still here there may be underlying core beliefs that to be good enough you need to be accomplishing a lot or always on the go. Challenge these beliefs.
OK so how to work with these barriers?
Starting with an understanding that changing our core beliefs to be more balanced and nuanced takes time can allow us to be patient with the process. Remember, you've have these implicit beliefs since you were 5. Also, if we can accept that acting in a way that’s caring to ourselves will feel uncomfortable at first, this helps. Like any skill we practice, the more we do it, the less odd it’ll feel.
1. Fake it till you make it – this common tidbit of wisdom is actually really powerful for core beliefs. Even if you don’t feel like doing something caring for yourself, if you act as if you did, this behaviour over time can actually change the core belief.
In CBT the idea is that thoughts, emotions, behaviour, body sensations are all interconnected and all effect one another. Because of this, changing any one in this system, changes the other. Even if emotionally and physically we are tired and feeling low, to deliberately do something caring for ourselves can shift things. Cook yourself a healthy meal; warm a wet towel in the microwave and put it on your face; take a bath.In these instances practicing self-care has 2 prongs. The first is that the self-care is good for physical and emotional health. The second is that you are doing deep inner work to change your core beliefs. And because core beliefs effect every area of life, (relationships, work etc) the implications here are large.
2. Start small. As with anything we’re avoidant or fearful of, we are much more likely to be successful with starting a new behaviour if we practice small steps many times. Perfectionism and having too lofty goals can lead to procrastination and the feeling like its too hard to maintain self-care goals along with all our other commitments. Also, by taking small steps you can tackle smaller amounts of fear to face which makes it more likely you'll do it (this is called graduated exposure and really works!). As well you will be slowly putting your fears to the test out and see if you are any less productive or any other aversion you have to self-care. Be open, choose something small, do it regularly, and see what happens! There are little opportunities to be kind and caring to ourselves that offer themselves up all the time. For example, if you notice your self-talk has a harsh tone of voice, try repeating this same message in a gentler tone. A little goes a long way.
3. Use a schema flashcard. This is a technique from Schema Therapy. What it involves is preparing when you are not triggered for how you are likely to think/feel/behave when you are triggered. You write this down on a card and then can pull it out when you are not feeling like being kind to yourself for whatever reason (tired, sad, anxious, stressed out). It's as though your past self was preparing for your future self. Here’s an example of a schema flashcard.
4. Get a self-care buddy. Often we are more kind to our friends than we are to ourselves. If we decide with a friend to start up a self-care practice we can check in with them and also encourage one another. Would you tell your friend that self-care was self-indulgent? Then why do you hold yourself to a different standard? There are many online groups these days if you can’t find someone you know to commit to self-care with you in person.
5. If you have children, think about what you are modelling for them. Children learn through observation. If they see their parent taking care of themselves, they will be more likely to do so themselves when they’re adults. This thought might help you push through some of the discomfort of acting in a way that might make you feel guilty or self-indulgent. Sometimes feeling guilty when not being in self-sacrificing mode is a pattern we inherited from our parents. And they from their parents. With consciousness, you have choice. You can break the pattern and not pass it on to your kids.
6. Beware of subtle avoidance that might masquerade as thoughts like “I’ll do something for self-care tomorrow”, “I’m not in the mood today”, or “I’m too busy”. If you hear one of these types of thoughts pop into your head, pause and ask yourself if some deeper concern, fear, or discomfort is present. Subtle avoidance is common and can put off indefinitely what we value if we don’t catch it.
7. Make weekly SMART goals – Get concrete about when/where/how you will practice self-care in your week. SMART goals are an acronym that means Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-based. If you sit on a Sunday and plan out specific times that you might practice self-care into your week you are more likely to actually practice self-care. When the day/time pops up (set a reminder!), observe the subtle avoidance I mentioned above, and choose self-care anyway. Actually scheduling in self-care at the beginning can get the habit rolling. Remember it always takes more conscious thought when you’re setting up a routine than when it’s going.
8. Or don't plan it - but rather pause and check-in with your body as to how you are feeling from time-to-time throughout the day and use this inner attunement as information. Allow it to guide a decision as to whether to some time that day offer yourself a moment or two for some mindful self-compassion practice. Just placing a hand to your heart and imagining what a compassionate friend might tell you about your current situation or taking a few mindful breaths can go a long way. This amazing website www.self-compassion.org has many guided meditations and exercises to practice this skill. You can adapt the practices to fit your life.
In our culture we have a fear of one extreme so much that we move to the other extreme. We see people who are overly concerned about having their own needs met at the expense of others that can we can reactively swing to the other extreme. However, if we can find a middle path where we ensure that we are giving to others while also taking care of ourselves this enables us in the long-run to actually give more as it's more sustainable. Rather than expend all our energy and then crash, we can be more paced and consistent. Self-care and self-attunement is an honouring of ourselves and others we care about. It’s a practice where we can get creative, find ways of replenishing that uniquely fit us, and experiment to see for ourselves how it effects our lives. Slowly but surely in removing obstacles for self-care we can learn to be our own best friend, no less caring and loving to ourselves as we are to others. Or as Jack Kornfield said: "If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete."
Curious to learn more about the theories I’ve discussed here? I recommend these books:
For more on Schema Therapy: Tara Bennet-Goleman’s Emotional Alchemy
For more on Self-Compassion: Christohpher Germer’s Mindful Path to Self-Compassion