The idea of self-care seems simple on the surface. Do things to be healthier and happier. But its more complex than that and in this post, I explore some of the nuances of what to do when our self-care routines don’t seem to be working well. Reading time ~ 15 minutes.
A couple of weeks back, I was talking to a group of students about self-care, namely the actions we take to improve some aspect of our physical, mental, intellectual, social, spiritual, financial and environmental wellbeing.
I was talking about the diverse ways people go about engaging in self-care and was emphasising that a good self-care routine typically involves a number of elements. It isn’t usually one activity that does all the heavy lifting, but a collection of activities that each contribute something to our overall quality of life.
Some examples include:
- getting more sleep or better-quality sleep
- improving the quality of your diet
- moving more]
- getting a health check and getting any issues or conditions treated
- training yourself to breathe slower, deeper and through the nose
- articulating your goals and values and regularly self-assessing where you are in relation to those goals and values
- prioritising and allocating time to tasks that are consistent with your goals and values
- creating and protecting the time necessary to do deep focused creative work
- expanding your perspectives/knowledge/skills through ongoing professional development
- learning how to create relaxed mental states through breathing, yoga, meditation, time in nature and relaxation techniques
- gaining insights on the functioning of the mind through contemplative practices like meditation
- developing mental models and ways of thinking that help you better navigate through difficult situations
- building and nurturing connections to people, places, animals, nature, and objects
- increasing time spent in leisure activities – activities that are done for the enjoyment, not the outcome
- nurturing your living and working spaces so they are functional and enjoyable places to be
- Paying close attention to what you consume through news, social media, and limiting content that elicits unhelpful levels of anxiety or stress
- Paying attention to how you allocate your time, money and attention and better aligning their allocation with your goals, values and circumstances
One of the students then asked an excellent question, which I am paraphrasing but I hope I have captured the core elements.
“What if I am doing a lot of those things already, yet I am still tired and unhappy? What if my self-care routine isn’t working?”
As is often the case for me (not always the best thinker on my feet) I gave an answer that was incomplete, and so I wanted to revisit that question in this blog post. Here are some things to consider if you don’t feel your self-care routine is working or you are doing lots of the right things but don’t seem to be getting the outcomes you want.
Is it really the case that your routine isn’t working?
Hear me out on this one.
Depending on your starting point and circumstances now, a truer test of whether your self-care routine is working is to compare it to your life if you weren’t engaged in any of your self-care activities.
Yes, you may be tired and have low mood, but it might be that your self-care routine is standing between you and burnout or complete collapse, i.e. far worse outcomes. Yes, your routine isn’t necessarily producing the energy and mood you want, but it is still helping you navigate through life, keeping moving, staying active etc.
In a similar vein, we sometimes assess a self-care activity as only worthwhile if it makes us ‘feel good’ even though there are a multitude of positive outcomes that don’t quite fall into that category (doing something meaningful, maintaining connections with others, being productive, living according to values, caring for others, healthy lifestyle choice, increasing capacity, securing your future).
I’m not suggesting blindly following a routine that consistently underperforms your hopes and expectations but remember that your routine might in fact be working very well to keep you afloat during tough times or raising you up from a baseline of poor functioning.
Get a health check
If there are symptoms – physical or psychological – that are troubling you, consider a visit to your GP for some blood tests and general health checkup.
I went for a couple of years with an unidentified B12 deficiency that was contributing to low energy, low mood, muscle, and digestive problems.
I was engaging in all sorts of lifestyle modifications and therapy to address these symptoms, not realising there was an easily correctable deficit that was contributing.
Correcting the deficit didn’t fix everything, but it contributed to a significant improvement that wouldn’t have arisen from other self-care activities.
Are you bringing to your self-care some of the same things that got you tired in the first place?
For those of you that are very driven or ambitious in your study and/or work lives, you may need to ask yourself whether you are bringing some of the high expectations and perfectionism to your self-care routine. Are you pushing yourself too hard to have the perfect self-care routine, one that is varied, executed perfectly, and optimised exactly?
It is possible to treat self-care like a ‘project’ that must be delivered on-time, on-budget and operationalised down to the fine details. The actual ‘care’ part can be lost to trying to achieve the perfect routine’. In these situations, self-care loses its ability to provide balance, rest, and growth, and instead just becomes part of your overall work/study load.
This can work in the other direction as well. For those that are a bit haphazard and casual in their approach to study and work and for whom some additional discipline would constitute self-care, they can carry that same lax attitude into their self-care routine, creating something that is anaemic and ineffectual.
Essentially, it is easy to colour our self-care routines with the same personality characteristics that contributed to us needing a self-care routine in the first place. A good self-care routine encourages us to develop those balancing elements in our life, as opposed to becoming another instance of our quirks.
Is more experimentation needed?
I started properly thinking about self-care in my mid-30’s which is a bit late considering my profession. That means I have been playing around with self-care for a decade now.
Being a black and white thinker, I used to think that a self-care routine was something you developed, perfected, and then carried out with strict adherence. What I’ve learned though is that we need to be open to letting our self-care routine adapt over time, based on circumstances, goals and perceived benefit. This doesn’t mean changing it every day, but it does mean remaining open to the idea that what is helpful at one stage of our life isn’t necessarily helpful at another stage and that it is OK, even desirable, to experiment.
So, over the last decade, my self-care routine has seen many changes. Many things have played a part, not all of them remain. For example, yoga used to be a critical part of my routine, now it is walking. Reading was a key activity for a couple of years, now it is podcasts.
Experimentation is necessary in order to find those activities (or mix of activities) that serve us best, in our current circumstances. My self-care routine, now that I work a lot from home, is different to my routine when I was office-based. The expectation that you’ll discover a routine, and it will be unchangeably effective over the course of your life is an unrealistic one.
If your current self-care routine isn’t working, are you willing to try some new things? Would you be willing to put some activities on ice and try something else?
Interestingly, in both the Be Well Plan and the Good Vibes Experiment, we encourage people to experiment with adding and removing self-care elements over time. This reflects the ever-changing circumstances of our lives.
Are you avoiding the self-care activities that you really need to focus on?
Whilst self-care can be about building in healthy activities that make us feel better in the moment, self-care can also be about solving difficult life problems that are holding us back. Often these are problems we want to avoid.
I’ve been particularly good at focusing on self-care that is health and productivity focused, but quite poor at self-care that is focused on nurturing important relationships in my life, which I find harder and more challenging. The result is that I can work productively but my interactions with others are poorer.
Could it be that the reason you feel your self-care isn’t working is because you aren’t addressing those issues that really need to be addressed, because they are hard, challenging, upsetting?
It may sound strange to engage in self-care activities that make us feel worse in the short-term, but often it is our future selves that we need to care for. Going into therapy is an example of an activity that commonly elicits short-term distress but for a future benefit (reduced suffering, better relationships, better decisions). Journaling is similar. Writing about upsetting events can cause temporary upset but by processing them, we make life easier for our future selves. Even with exercise, we can find it hard whilst we are doing it, but rate it as valuable having done it.
Are you just in a really challenging period of your life?
The modern university student has a lot to juggle. Study, working, family, caring responsibilities, professional development, health, personal development, sports, clubs, hobbies, interests etc. Modern students carry lofty expectations of being able to ‘do it all’ and that can make the studying years busy and hence stressful.
Thus, a self-care routine for a student may be more about resilience and surviving, than it is about wellbeing, balance and thriving. I have the luxury of focusing my self-care routine on being as happy and content as possible, because I’m older, I’m in a stable phase of life, and some of the groundwork for my life has been done. But for someone that is starting out on their career, self-care might be more about managing demands, staying afloat, keeping going.
It is also possible that you have challenges in your life that you are confronting right now that mean life is just really hard. It is one of the reasons that counsellors put together a ‘self-care during difficult times‘ document, to provide guidance to students going through tough times.
What we can expect from our self-care differs depending on the circumstances we find ourselves in.
Consider alternative energy sources
I remember a colleague once describing to me that despite engaging in all the ‘right’ activities (good nutrition, exercise, social connection, sleep, health check) they were tired. Like, really tired 🥱
It started a conversation about where we get our energy. I typically think of my energy levels as being a function of my lifestyle choices. I get more energy if my diet is good, I’m getting plenty of sleep, I’m physically active. The usual suspects.
But we can derive energy and motivation from other sources.
For some it is about being around people they like and admire. For others, it is about being energised by a mission or purpose. It could come from being creative, trying new things, being in new places, connecting with a higher power or purpose.
If your self-care routine isn’t generating sufficient energy, consider alternative sources of energy.
Doing things superficially
It is easy to fall into the trap of trying to do too many things and in turn, not being able to dig sufficiently deep into the activity to get benefit.
This is probably the case with me and meditation. I do about 50 minutes of meditation per week (and that is on a good week). It is enough to alert me to the mechanics of practice, but probably not enough to benefit greatly. My practice is superficial.
Whilst I’d like to argue that I ‘don’t have the time’ to meditate more, I suspect it is the case that I want to be able to say ‘I meditate’ without really having to put the hard work in. I don’t want to jump fully in, because I am still on the fence as to whether I think it will be helpful, but I’ll never know if it is helpful UNLESS I jump fully in.
Do you find yourself caught in any of these kinds of self-care contradictions? Not really committing fully and as a result not really knowing if it would be helpful.
Do a time audit
Modern life encourages us to get the most out of every day possible. That leads many of us (me included) taking on lots of things and then feeling very time pressured. That time pressure sits in the background as a constant form of anxiety/stress.
At a meta level, it’s likely that we need to rethink how we allocate our time and think about time management (I really like Oliver Burkeman’s writing on this topic).
At a practical level, you need to use a calendar or diary to see where in the days/weeks/months, you have the time necessary for your jobs, study, family, hobbies, rest, meals etc.
A self-care plan needs to be aligned with the hours of the day, so that it is feasible to implement. You need to know how much time you realistically have to allocate to all the things you want/need to do.
You may be reluctant to put your timetable under the microscope for fear of discovering there aren’t enough hours in the day. But I suspect that for many, looking closely at a typical week will reveal unrealised opportunities or efficiencies. We’re quick to say, ‘we don’t have time’ but it may be more accurate to say, ‘I need to look at how much time I have’.
Activities masquerading as leisure
For my final consideration, I want to bring attention to those activities that you think are soothing, resting, rejuvenating, but aren’t really. They are often activities we do to distract ourselves from harder tasks or difficult feelings, but that aren’t really providing much self-care benefit. For me this is watching YouTube.
To be clear, some of my YouTube time is quite beneficial. It is a way I keep track of topics of interest to me: guitars, technology, gardening etc. But I know a large chunk of my YouTube time is avoidance. It is me retreating from difficult but ultimately far more rewarding tasks.
I think social media in general serves this purpose for many. I think it’s why we often find ourselves retreating to social media when we have demanding work to do.
I’m not demonising avoidance here, but I am asking you to reflect on whether you’ve started defining that avoidance activity as self-care. Because avoidance activities give us a break from certain tasks, we can be fooled into thinking they are providing more benefit than they really are. Ask yourself whether another activity might provide you with a healthier escape, such as time in nature, chatting to a friend or some light exercise.
In this post, I’ve outlined a few considerations if you feel your self-care routine isn’t working. Rather than scrapping all your healthy practices and retreating to a block of chocolate and bottle of gin, see whether any might apply first.
An overarching takeaway message is that self-care routines aren’t perfect. They don’t provide us non-stop blissful happiness, 100% of the time. They are intended to help us better navigate our way through complex lives and as such they will be imperfect. Thus, we should remain open to reflecting on and adjusting our self-care routines on an ongoing basis.
I wish there were a perfect self-care routine I could communicate to you and all your problems would be solved. Instead, I need to encourage you to remain a scientist in your own life and be willing to experiment over time to learn what works (and more importantly doesn’t work) for you.