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When Self-Care Doesn't "Work"


“Have you tried meditation?” “You really should do yoga.” “Journaling always helps me.” All of these are tried, true, and well-researched healing modalities. But self-care doesn’t look the same for everyone. What serves you at one point in life might be counterproductive later on. Sometimes, practices that some people swear by can be potentially damaging to someone else. This can’t be emphasized enough: If something makes you hurt worse, the problem isn’t you.

Self-care isn’t self-improvement. Self-improvement is about changing who you are. Self-care is about restoring yourself, being who you are. Self-care does make you a less stressed, healthier person. But there’s a tipping point, a shift in attitude, where any hobby or practice can shift from simple pleasure to trying to get somewhere. Sometimes, taking care of yourself mean navigating that balance.

Self-care doesn’t usually have an agenda, although planning and executing a project can be nurturing as long as it enlivens, rather than drains you. I love doing interior decorating, but I wouldn’t if I had to rely on it for income!

To be truly nurturing, self-care has to touch us physically and emotionally. It enlivens us spiritually. It’s healing in the same way that a drink of cold water is healing when you’re hot and thirsty. Immersion in a really good book, while not obviously physical, is a form of self-care. I love the feeling of a fat, hardback book in my hands when I’m curled up in bed at night. It gives the pleasure of reading a tactile quality that my tablet doesn’t.

People with trauma histories need to offer themselves time — and gentleness — as they experiment with different practices. The last thing they need is to feel they’ve failed at self-care! Trauma, in particular early trauma, can throw a monkey wrench into typical self-care paradigms. If you learned very early on (and for good reason) to distrust people who touch your body, going for massage might be anything but relaxing.

Meditation: Mindfulness meditation’s a great example of a powerful, stress-reducing practice…But it can be counter-productive for some people. Meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” You sit down, close your eyes, and notice whatever arises: Thoughts, emotions, body sensations. Emotions arise, and they fade. According to a study out of Harvard, most emotions last about 90 seconds. Not a big deal, right? Sitting with a feeling until it passes can dial down the reactivity that perpetuates difficult emotions.

But what if mindfulness meditation triggers panic attacks? What if staying with meditation is retraumatizing? Pulling down the fences of distraction all at once can be a pretty big ask. We need our defenses. There are other means to a meditative end. Looking out the window for a few minutes and simply observing what you see, or doing absorbing handwork like sewing, carpentry, or gardening can function in a similar way. The key is to engage your attention in such a way that you know you’ve let yourself off the hook.

There are times to power through. The key is to know yourself. If powering through is a way you habitually drive yourself, giving yourself permission to stop doing a challenging practice might be a radical form of self-care.

Yoga and Dance: Maybe a practice simply isn’t engaging. For years, I was puzzled as to why yoga wasn’t very helpful for me emotionally. I’d been doing yoga since I was a teenager, and a ton of evidence out there told me that I should be getting more out of it. The same thing applied to dance — I’ve loved to dance ever since I discovered improvisational dance, again, as a teenager. Friends have told me how the simply moving to music is a revolutionary way of helping them to befriend their bodies.

The teenage me did love to dance, and she really liked yoga. But she was also being abused by a much older man, and he had introduced me to a group that did improvisational dance.He played the expert on anything I was interested in, as a way of dominating me. He was all over my interest in yoga, too.

I didn’t just learn yoga: I learned shut-down yoga. The practice that was designed to awaken the spirit within the body was, for me, a mechanical exercise. I only realized later that I disconnected from my emotions while I practiced. I also lost out because I was using yoga as a self-improvement project, trying to “fix” my body. I’ve learned to take yoga very slowly, and I’ve let go of using it to improve my butt. Feeling the connection between the slightest twist or stretch and whispers of emotion opens up a new, tender feeling within my heart and body.

Journaling: Because I’m a writer, people sometimes assume I have a robust journaling practice. At times, I have. At other times, though, my writerly chops have gotten in the way. In order to heal, we need to push ourselves a bit. We need to discover new things. I’m so good with language that I can keep telling myself what I already know, lost in the momentum of words. And I can be ridiculously introspective; drilling down inside my psyche can lead to endless branches of speculation and a sense of being hopelessly effed up.

Self-care, by contrast, takes us to places where we feel new again.

Self-empathy: An important — and often, difficult — part of developing robust self-care is self-empathy. Saying “I shouldn’t be so hard on myself” isn’t empathy! Empathy means understanding that what you feel has a reason — feelings aren’t anything we should or shouldn’t experience — they just are, and they don’t take kindly to being scolded.

I remind myself that everything I’ve ever done, said, or believed made sense given my life history and what I was capable of at the time. There are plenty of things I regret. But coming to see that even the worst things I’ve done were an understandable attempt to make life work has made a real difference.

It can take a long time to develop good self-care. An attitude of experimentation is very helpful. Everything we try offers information about what’s uniquely good for us, and there’s no such thing as failure.

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