The Easy Way That Self-Care Can Backfire

While you'd be forgiven for thinking the trend of self-care was spawned by Instagram influencers and mental health experts, the concept actually has roots in the social-justice movement. As women—especially women of color—have fought and continue to fight for space and equality, the self-care movement emerged as more than just taking care of yourself, but acknowledging that you both need and deserve it. 

For me, self-care has been incredibly liberating. I grew up in a small town where acts of service were valued above all else, and while taking care of other people is phenomenally important, this focus meant that I never learned how to take care of myself and other people. It's strangely easy to learn how to take care of other people without taking care of yourself.

But while I found joy in service, I also found myself kind of miserable.

I was spending so much time taking care of other people that not only did I forget how to take care of myself, I felt like I couldn't do so without being selfish. I found my sense of self-worth through external validation, and—as I got older—I grew more and more dissatisfied with myself as an individual.

As a teenager, I became a leader in my youth group, helping fellow teens through tough situations at home and at school. I asked for (and was given) more responsibility, until I was a 17-year-old in a leadership position over students who were my age and older. I was praised by adults for my initiative, which I loved, but the rest of my life slowly slipped away.

I stopped playing sports, I gained weight, I slept less than four hours a night, and I didn't care whether or not I was happy as long as I was making other people happy. Eventually, I stopped being able to make other people happy because I could barely function myself.

After college, I did anything and everything I could think of to find happiness, but I was looking in all of the wrong places. I ended up starving myself with an eating disorder, overworked, and nearly friendless.

The self-care movement was a lifesaver—perhaps literally.

I saw articles and Instagram posts encouraging me to take a bath, take a break, eat the damn cupcake... and I freaking loved it. I'd spent so much time thinking self-care was selfish, and it was so freeing to learn that taking time for yourself isn't just a nice-to-have, it's a need-to-have.

I started small, doing little things I'd never allowed myself because I "shouldn't." I got a manicure, I bought myself coffee along with a packet of my favorite chocolate-covered almonds, and I tried not to feel guilty when I left work early because I was in desperate need of a mental health break. 

And letting go of the word "should" helped me to relax in ways I couldn't have imagined. I'd been telling myself that I should go to the gym or have a salad for dinner, but I needed a nap and a bowl of ice cream. Instead of feeling guilty, I felt free.

But what started as liberating quickly turned sour, as many of the self-care habits I saw touted on social media began hurting more than helping. 

Sleeping in, drinking, comfort eating, procrastinating, and other forms of self-medicating can be harmless, but it's not hard to fall from self-care into self-sabotage. 

Which is exactly what I did. Instead of indulging in pizza because I needed a break from cooking, I turned to junk food when I was sad, lonely, or just bored. Sleeping in turned into spending the entire day in bed, and "taking a mental health day" soon meant I was behind on deadlines, struggling to motivate myself to complete even the simplest task. 

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I saw this playing out on social media too: Watching people post about their individual self-care habits is harmless—after all, one cupcake is almost always a good idea. But when photos about mental health days are consistently followed by Instagram Stories about falling behind on deadlines, overwhelming anxiety, and stress levels ticking up higher and higher… you realize there may be a problem here. Behind the glowing appearance of self-care and positive personal growth, people were struggling just like me. 

It wasn't until I saw this tweet that I really understood the disconnect and realized that the line between self-care and self-sabotage was hard to navigate:

 I love the self-care movement. I'm still a huge advocate of self-care, and I talk about it almost constantly on social media and with my friends and family.

However, I'd become confused about what self-care is and what it is not.

To better understand self-care, I spoke with Emily Roberts, M.A., LPC, a psychotherapist and the author of Express Yourself: A Teen Girl's Guide to Speaking Up and Being Who You Are, who explains that true self-care is about intention. 

"The No. 1 thing to remember is that self-care means treating your body and mind with care. So self-care isn't gorging on donuts or overspending at your spa to 'feel good,'" Roberts says. "It's about your intention. If you need to take time out of your busy day because you've been at the computer and your eyes are glazing over, you don't go to lunch for three hours and grab a few glasses of wine. You go to lunch, get off your screen, and take a walk around the block because you are trying to make your body feel re-energized." 

Self-care, she says, is about learning to listen to your body (and your mind) and making an effort to build a better relationship with yourself. Self-care is about learning to take a minute or two to be mindful, to check in with yourself, and to go from there. While this can be difficult, it's important to remember that self-care is an ongoing practice, not an individual action. It takes time, but—in the end—it's totally worth it. 

"The difference between self-care and self-sabotage is becoming an expert on intentional listening. It's a practice, but getting clear on listening to what your body needs versus what you think your body wants is essential," says Lauren Zoeller, a certified yoga instructor and Whole Living life coach based in Nashville, Tennessee.

"If you are new to intentional listening, the first step is to identify your self-destructive behaviors. From this acknowledgement, you will be able to train your mind to listen to a message and decipher whether your body needs a self-care practice or if the message is a trigger that could lead you to a self-destructive habit. Self-care is a practice that realigns your mind, body and spirit. Self-sabotage is a practice that may seem like a self-care action, but in actuality, brings your mind, body, and spirit even further out of alignment."

Self-care means taking the time to learn what you know you need to be your best self. 

For me, that means moving away from indulgences like junk food and alcohol, which trigger my anxiety, and setting aside time to do things that I know will boost my overall health and wellness in the long run.

I still buy face masks and bath bombs, yes, but I also recently took time to go to the eye doctor for the first time in five years (yep) and deep-cleaned my house. I re-dedicated myself to exercising regularly, but I also eliminated the word "should" from my workout routines and focused on listening to my body. I made sure I left each workout feeling refreshed and recharged, and if my body wasn't feeling it, I took a day (or more) off from the gym. 

More and more, I'm learning that self-care is about finding balance in life. I'm working on identifying and eliminating the habits that I know aren't serving me—like binging on negative news on Twitter—and focusing on the things that bring me (and the people around me) joy. 

The most important thing is to be patient with yourself. Find time to work self-care into your daily routine, whether that looks like five minutes of meditation or sipping on a matcha latte, and gradually work on ditching the habits that aren't serving you. Think about the long-term and remember that self-care, like life, is a journey, not a destination.

Jandra Sutton is an author, historian, and public speaker, and holds a master’s degree in modern British history from the University of East Anglia. In her spare time, Sutton enjoys fangirling, running, and anything related to ice cream. Pluto is still a planet in her heart. She lives in Nashville with her husband and their two dogs. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.