Is Your Self-Care Routine Killing You?

Let’s face it – life is hard.  We have bills to pay and mouths to feed, places to go and people to see.  Most of us feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day to do all the things that are expected of us.  Many of us feel enormous pressure to succeed, to nurture relationships with people we love, to live up to expectations, to fulfill our own goals, and to feel happy doing it all.  It can all be quite overwhelming.

With the myriad images of our peers winning at life evident on our iPhones and newsfeeds, it’s no wonder that we feel pressure to succeed in life and sometimes feel a bit beat down.  That’s where self-care comes in.

“Self-care” is the buzzword on the streets.  It seems like everyone, from the high-level executive drinking Tension Tamer tea on her first class flight to the neighborhood yoga instructor buying lavendar essential oil at Vitamin Cottage, is focused on fitting in self-care.  Self-care is vital to the healthy, fulfilled life we all crave.  We work hard and we need to care for the bodies and minds that help us do all this amazing stuff, gosh darn it!

If you’re like many people, your self-care routine may not be as regular or as nurturing as you may like.  You probably don’t get weekly massages or drift off to bed at a reasonable hour every night after spending quality time reading novels.  It might look a little more like this:  After leaving the office 25 minutes later than you absolutely had to leave to get home “on time” (due to a client’s 4:45 p.m. request for data they absolutely must have before 8:00 a.m. tomorrow), you run to your car only to be hit with a flood of rush hour traffic and an iPhone that won’t connect to your Bluetooth so you’re stuck listening to radio announcers talk about the weather and the traffic that you’re stuck in.  When you finally get home, you grab a Lara bar to munch on while you attempt to craft a homemade meal and end up burning the organic cauliflower roasting in the oven while the wild rice crusts itself to the bottom of the pan.  News alerts ping your phone and your kids fight about whether they are T-Rexes or Superheroes today, and you pour yourself a glass of wine to drown out the ruckus while you warm up a pizza.  After bedtime you are too exhausted to read, or to cut up that watermelon that looked so good at the store a few days ago, so you pour another glass of wine, grab some potato chips or ice cream and pop on the TV.  Nothing is on but it doesn’t matter.  You sink into the couch and feel your tension drip away.  Three-and-a-half hours later you tell yourself for the 8th time that you really need to go to bed, so you stumble up the stairs and plug your phone in to make sure you get up on time.  Just as your eyes close, you hear, “Mommy! Mommy!  MOMMY MOMMY MOMMY MOMMY!” so you stagger down the hall to find a toddler shivering and crying next to pee-stained sheets, so you wash him and change him and invite him into your bed so you can “snuggle” with a sharp-elbowed munchkin fond of sleeping with his feet in your face as you count down the minutes until your alarm blares.  You hit the snooze, reach for the ibuprofen to dull your headache and brew some coffee, ASAP.  It’s going to be another long day.

(Not that that’s ever happened to me).

The wine, the TV, the snacks – or sometimes the 45-minute cardio session to make up for days without exercise, or an evening out dancing with the girls to make up for not seeing your friends as often as you should, or staying up late to catch up on overdue paperwork … these are all things that many of us have done to try to take care of our lives, and ourselves.  These are things we do in a half-hearted attempt to fit in self-care … but what good are they doing, really?

“I deserve this wine after the day I had,” we say.  And it’s true.  We definitely deserve a treat.

“I will feel better after this run,” we tell ourselves.  And yes, exercise creates endorphins that we need.

“I will be much more relaxed after answering these emails,” we think.  And we do cross some things off our To-Do lists.

Drinks + Exercise + Productivity = Self-Care.  It’s an equation I see often.  Friends “care for their bodies” with cardio, “clear off their plate” with midnight work and drink some Mommy Juice to take the edge off.

But how does that wine affect our sleep?  How does our head feel the next day?  Was the 6th mile really necessary, or are our feet now so sore that we can’t even walk like a normal human from one room to the next?  Did we really accomplish as much as we think we did, checking email at 2 a.m., or did we end up stewing about situations we couldn’t address in the middle of the night and dreaming about the clients we couldn’t get off our backs?

I used to drink wine every night to “relax” and “help me sleep.”  Then I realized that the wine was doing everything to keep me stressed, not to relax me at all.  I may have fallen asleep eventually but my sleep was fitful and I always felt groggy in the morning.  I drank the wine as a treat for my hard work, but it made my work harder.  So I don’t do that anymore.

I used to think that if a 3-mile run was beneficial, a 4-mile run would be even better.  More endorphins and increased stamina, right?  Then I realized that plantar fasciitis negated all the effort of the extra mile, when interval training was just as effective and gentler on my poor aging feet.  I adjusted my running routine and was even able to schedule in some time for decompressing in the steam room.

I used to think that pounding out as much work as I could every night would decrease my stress.  But then I discovered that checking email in the wee hours made my brain work overtime and brought my anxiety into overdrive, disrupting my sleep and increasing the perception of impending work disasters that in reality were much simpler to solve when I was well-rested and focused.  I decided to turn my phone off at 10:00 every night and to skip the call of the laptop.  My work improved.

It’s hard, in a world that moves at speeds we can never catch up with, to stop the madness and step back and look at what we really need.  In the moment, when emails are flying and the phone is buzzing and people are demanding things of you and the clock is ticking away, we reach for the easiest, quickest thing we can do to keep ourselves going.  A cold beer.  TV.  A funny video on YouTube.  An hour of exercise to escape.  One last text to a coworker to tie up the loose end.  We may schedule ourselves a massage every quarter in an attempt to care for ourselves, but then we spend the hour of our massage going through our To Do list in our head.  What’s the good in that?

It’s hard, but necessary, to take a step back every once in a while to really look at our routine and figure out what we need to do to care for ourselves.

When I stepped back, I saw that some of the things I was doing in the name of self-care were really killing me.  I realized that the wine wasn’t doing me any favors, so I stopped drinking it.  I recognized that I was pushing my body too far with my exercise routine and doing more damage than good.  I saw that fitting in more work was killing me, so I started saying no more, and started doing less.  These aren’t things that everyone needs to do – but they were things that I needed to do, in the name of true self-care.

Self-care isn’t something that we can just fit in willy-nilly, and it’s not something that we can forego just to try to get more done.  We are given this one body, this one mind and this one life.  What do you need to do to nourish yourself?

We all do what we can to get by, but if we don’t take the time to figure out what we truly need, we can go our whole lives “just getting by” without truly caring for the body and mind that we’re given.

Is your self-care routine truly good enough for you?


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