Self-Care Isn’t Working

When you believe that you’re broken, all the bubble baths in the world won’t fix you

Book, cup of tea, candles, and decorative flower next to a bathtub.
Book, cup of tea, candles, and decorative flower next to a bathtub.
Photo: Maddi Bazzocco/Unsplash

As a life coach, I’m seeing it daily: Clients who’ve been doing all the self-care are coming to me feeling totally burned out, anxious, and not at all nourished by the things they’re doing to feel better. Self-care seems to have stopped working.

The pandemic has played a big part in this, no doubt, but there’s a deeper reality here. We’re told, either implicitly or explicitly, that if we engage in certain acts of self-care, we’ll be fine and feel good. And if we don’t, then we’re the problem. But some self-care never truly works. It’s the kind that’s driven by a need to meet the standards laid out by white supremacy, capitalism, and the patriarchy. The kind laid on a foundation of perfectionism, workaholism, and “positive vibes only.” It’s what I call “dirty” self-care — the kind that comes from a place of believing you’re broken and need to be whipped into shape or changed into something else. When we engage in these acts of self-care, we’re trying to “fix” ourselves rather than nourish ourselves.

I’m going to break down four different categories of “dirty” self-care, what they look like, and why they don’t really help us. A few notes: 1) My goal isn’t to make you feel bad for doing any of these things, which we’re all driven to do by the society we live in. 2) The issue is not so much the acts themselves but the reasoning behind them and the energy that is brought to them. It’s possible for any act of self-care that falls on this list to be really nourishing and important and feel good. 3) After discussing the four types of “dirty” self-care, I’ll offer you another type of self-care that I hope will reinforce that you are already whole, perfect, worthy, and enough. Too much of what we call self-care undermines that idea instead.

Shame-driven self-care

This includes attempts to fix yourself to fit unrealistic cultural expectations. For example, you might be “eating healthy” to try to lose weight or “meditating” because you want to “fix” your anxiety or going on a cleaning binge because, deep down, you think you’re a slob.

The energy behind these acts feels punishing and shameful. There may be an element of self-optimization — you’re only engaging in them so that you can work harder, do more, be more efficient, or be praised.

Band-Aid self-care

This is when you purchase items like face masks, bath products, or anything else that promises to soothe you in the moment. Of course, these things can bring you calm, pleasure, and even joy. They can be part of a nourishing self-care routine. But too often, they’re just Band-Aids we’re applying to the gaping wounds inflicted on us by these systems. We all know that a bubble bath isn’t gonna fix white supremacy.

The energy behind Band-Aid self-care is harried. You’re going for the quickest fix possible. You’re not going very deep — rather than figuring out how to leave a toxic job, you’re saying, “I’m going to buy myself a new toy to distract myself from my toxic job.”

Rebellious self-care

Ah, this used to be my go-to. These are acts of self-care that say, “Fuck you, I deserve this thing.” Drinking a bottle of wine. Blowing too much money on online shopping. Overindulgence in any form.

The energy feels like an angry toddler lashing out. It’s thinking, “Goddammit, I’ve been working so hard and trying so hard, and nothing seems to matter, so fuck it, I’m going to go all-in on this thing because what’s the point anyways?”

Numbing-out self-care

This is when you want to escape the reality of our often-cruel, diminishing, and unfair world. It might look like 10 hours of Netflix or mindless scrolling. The energy here is a disconnect. You want to leave your body and heart and zone out, letting a type of media or substance wash over you so you don’t really have to think anymore.

The reality is that all the self-care in the world won’t fix our unfair systems. Political acts, voting, volunteering, and donating will. Fighting for and participating in our democracy will. Self-care isn’t supposed to fix anything. That doesn’t mean it isn’t vital.

That’s where nourishing self-care comes in. These are joyful acts of self-care that don’t have a “point.” Acts that involve play. Acts that are predicated on making you feel good because you deserve to feel good, not because you need to improve anything about yourself.

How can you start getting there? Here are some questions to ask yourself right before you decide to engage in an act of self-care:

  • What was I doing in the moment right before I decided to do this?
  • Why do I want to do this thing? Is the goal of this is to nourish me as I am or punish me for not being something or someone else?
  • Does it feel like play or does it feel like work?
  • Will this help my future self? (This is a good one when we come up against “shoulds” in self-care. Sometimes the should is shame-based, and sometimes it really would be a good idea to do the dishes and work out because it will make future you feel taken care of.)
  • Does this meet or serve one of my core values?
  • Is this tied to productivity or improving or fixing myself?
  • Is there a way I can make this simpler or easier? (I ask this sometimes when I’m dreading meditation because I feel like I have to do like 30 minutes of it. I let myself do five or 10 instead.)

Once you’ve answered the questions for yourself, you can make a better decision on whether to move forward.

It took me 40 years to understand this, but self-care that’s done for you and you alone, that comes from a belief that you deserve care and joy and play and movement and good food and self-compassion — well, it stops feeling like an obligation or a letdown or a shield. Try out this idea around self-care: It gets to feel good. Because you are good. It’s as simple as that.

Teaching awakening + healing through vulnerability + self-compassion. Finding hope in a messy world. Author of the Sunday Soother. http://catherinedandrews.com

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