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How to Choose Self-Care Over Self-Sabotage

Making a 'self-care upgrade' may save your health and well-being


(Editor’s note: This essay is the second in a series from author and speaker Ken Druck, based on work in his book Courageous Aging, which is about how all people can make peace with, and find joy in, every stage of life.)

Self-care is the good and loving care we give to those we have the longest and closest relationships with over the course of a lifetime: ourselves.

Seven self-care practices are essential to our health and well-being. They are:

  1. Resting and Replenishing Our Energy
  2. Restoring Our Work-Life Balance, Motivation and Perspective
  3. Decompressing, Detoxifying and Disengaging from High-Stress Activities
  4. Processing Emotionally/Physically/Spiritually Challenging Events
  5. Validating/Appreciating Ourselves
  6. Allowing Ourselves to Receive, in Turn, Through Reciprocity
  7. Reconciling Life’s Unwelcome Terms, Tragedies and Traumas

Some of us know all this. We might even be professional caregivers. And yet, we struggle to put these things into practice. We have what I call Self-Care Deficit (SCD), a form of burnout that is becoming epidemic in a world of increasing demands, pressures, challenges and “time-saving” technology. SCD is the cause and culprit when it comes to untold stress, conflict, imbalance, illness, disruption and distress. It is a condition that leads to disappointment, resentment, unhappiness, helplessness, guilt, despair and failure. Basically, SCD is a form of benign self-neglect that stands directly in the way of our becoming the smarter, healthier, more enthusiastic versions of ourselves.

How to Create a Plan for Self-Care

To create a plan for self-care, start by writing down all the ways you could be taking better care of yourself. Check your level of resistance — and denial. Are you stubbornly waiting for a crisis to occur at home, work or in your relationships? Are you willing to take concrete steps to avert one? Self-care means humbling yourself to get the help and personal support you need — when you need it. It also means finding out why you’re resistant to change and why you don’t take better care of yourself, even when you know better.

Some of us struggle terribly when it comes to giving ourselves permission to do what’s in our best interest. We were either not in class when they were handing out self-care operating systems and software or we were taught that it’s not okay to take care of ourselves. When I give my Handbook of Self-Care programs to health-care professionals, first responders and caregivers, I talk about self-care as the Honor Code for Professional Caregivers (HCPC). We soon discover that those of us who struggle with taking time out for ourselves often are operating under one of the following pervasive, repressive and debilitating Self-Care Saboteurs.

The 7 Biggest Factors that Sabotage Self-Care Practices

Saboteur No. 1: Excuses, Excuses, Excuses  Excuses top the list of subtle but effective ways in which we justify procrastination, inaction and half-hearted “tried that!” attempts at self-care. Don’t get me wrong, there are genuinely good reasons we can’t take time out for ourselves, and you may spout some of them on a regular basis. But telling yourself and others, “I don’t have the time,” “What am I supposed to do about my kids?” “Do you want me to lose my job?” and (sarcastically) “I’m sure my husband would love it if I took time off when he’s working 14-hour shifts,” might be old, worn-out excuses and narratives. Drop the excuses — now. Take one minute to lie down on a yoga mat and stretch, walk the dog, listen to a song you love or simply do nothing. You may not be able to afford to do this, but you definitely cannot afford not to.

Saboteur No. 2: Being in a Relationship with a Controlling Person Whom We Fear The best, smartest and most loving among us sometimes mistakenly end up in hostile, or even abusive, relationships where any act of self-care or independence is considered a threat. Accused of being “selfish” and/or “spoiled,” we defer. Taking care of a controlling partner’s often excessive and unending needs and walking on eggshells all the time can cause us to ignore and disallow our own desires, feel helpless and even work our way into a depression.

Saboteur No. 3: Allowing Guilt, Shame, Fear and Embarrassment to Stand in Our Way Some of us are prone/predisposed to feeling guilty, as though we’re responsible for how other people feel. We automatically blame ourselves when things don’t go perfectly and shame ourselves for feeling good when they do. Embarrassment and guilt hold us back and keep us down when it comes to self-care.

Saboteur No. 4: Feelings of Undeservedness and Unworthiness Some of us don’t feel completely deserving or worthy of love, care, respect and/or affection. Taking time out just for ourselves is almost unthinkable. We’ve been brought up to believe that it is our job to tend to everyone else’s needs (I call this “Type E”), we deny ourselves the love, care, support and attention we need.

Saboteur No. 5: “Never-Enough” Perfectionism Having internalized the belief that “only being perfect is okay,” some of us mistakenly strive for perfection in everything from education, parenting and work to the way we look. We can never do enough for our parents, friends, spouses or bosses and, therefore, do not deserve to take time out to appreciate, replenish, reward, rebalance and/or love ourselves. “Do more, more, more!” is our mantra. Working ourselves into a state of exhaustion and allowing our tanks to run on “empty,” we become susceptible to burnout, depression, irritability and illness.

Saboteur No. 6: The Crippling Fear of Losing Status, Power and Our Identity In some cultures, including corporate ones, self-care is viewed as being shameful and self-indulgent. It’s no different in many of our families.

Long-suffering behaviors, including excessive overwork, sleep and food deprivation, passive indifference and neglect of one’s health are considered signs of strength, loyalty and sacrifice. Whether we’re doing it for the “family,” “team” or “company,” we allow our fear of losing status, power or identity (as a mom, dad, CEO, “favored child” or “family hero”) to control whether and how we take care of ourselves. Allowing fear to shape our decisions about taking a much-needed break from years of nonstop activity, we find that “pleasing” and caregiving is the antithesis of good health. Breaking free of our fears allows us to think clearly and act independently when it comes to taking genuinely good care of ourselves.

Saboteur No. 7: Unforgiving, Self-Defeating and Self-Punishing Behavior Although this kind of self-sabotage isn’t always easy to see or admit, sometimes we have it in for ourselves. That’s right — we’ve become our own worst enemies. Being at odds with ourselves, if not at war, there’s little or no possibility for self-love, much less self-care. Punishing, berating and beating ourselves up for something we did or didn’t do in the past is a kind of retribution or payback (comparable to being in a courtroom with only a prosecuting attorney). With no judge, jury or lawyer representing us, we’re virtually defenseless against our own one-sided accusations. As such, we make situations, conditions and circumstances much more difficult than they need to be. Those of us who fall into this self-destructive pattern of turning opportunities for self-care into ones of self-neglect often end up portraying ourselves as victims.

Next week, Next Avenue will publish my follow-up story that will share seven freeing, empowering steps to take in order to become the smarter, stronger, more self-caring version of yourself.

Ken Druck
By Ken Druck
Ken Druck, Ph.D., has worked for more than 35 years in coaching and counseling others on resilience, healing after loss and courageous aging. His new book, Courageous Aging: Your Best Years Reimagined, uses examples from his life and work to free readers of the destructive and limiting myths, biases, stereotypes, and misconceptions of getting older. He has appeared on Oprah, CNN and other media.@kendruck

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