This is a topic I did some research on recently for my program. I was so intrigued and couldn’t believe that this wasn’t being talked about more! Basically, it addresses an unnamed question that I haven’t been able to answer very well:
Why does self-care feel so…meh?
(for lack of a better word)
When COVID-19 hit, I was constantly talking about and hearing about the importance of self-care. Confession: it wasn’t very convincing. Sure, I love bubble baths, candles, and essential oils as much as anyone. Working out and taking steps to eat and sleep well are game-changers for my mental health. But if I’m honest, prioritizing “self-care” (as defined by popular culture) never took anything more than a tiiiiny edge off from my mountain of anxiety, chronic stress, and sadness.
According to Patricia Kerig (2018) – who has done a lot of research on how to address burnout and secondary traumatic stress in helping professionals – here are three reasons why self-care just doesn’t cut it sometimes:
- The emphasis is on the individual, not the system. It places the burden on the person at the mercy of unhealthy or even toxic systems to do all the work. Organizations and more powerful entities don’t have to take any responsibility.
- Self-care activities often work by helping us to distract from unpleasant emotions, rather than providing us the tools to process them. Caveat – I am a huge fan of distraction. But I know that it can’t be the only tool in my toolkit.
- It isn’t a very culturally-sensitive concept – it can feel awkward or produce resistance because it feels self-centered.
To make up for these deficits, Kerig developed a curriculum called Resilience for Trauma-Informed Professionals (R-TIP). She defines resilience as an interaction between self & environment; is a set of skills that can be developed rather than a personality trait. It is also multidimensional (emotional intelligence, meaning-making, interpersonal relationships).
If you’re a mental health professional, there is a continuing education course available here. I’m also citing her paper below.
But since most of us don’t have time to read a research paper and are not members of the APA, here are my takeaways re: how we can reframe the way we think about self-care:
- When feeling burned out, consider that this is not a reflection of individual failure or weakness on your part. Try to get curious about the systems you’re a part of – your workplace, school, household, etc – and see if there is a way you can ask for support or have your needs advocated for.
- Consider how to develop strategies for dealing with stressful and traumatic situations in the moment, and not just after the fact. If you’re anticipating a triggering or stressful day/event, be prepared and have a plan. Breathing, mantras, and escape strategies can be useful.
- Be careful of practicing self-care that is lacking in self-compassion. It’s so easy to take self-care and make it performative! Notice if you start telling yourself things like, “I failed really bad at self-care today, I need to do better.” Practicing self-compassion makes us more empathetic with others too. Sometimes we are so used to this punitive posture that we punish ourselves with our so-called self-care! (e.g. working out even when we’re exhausted, letting the logistics of self-care activities create even more stress, etc). It’s ok to let go of things that aren’t promoting healing and nourishment.
- Ask for feedback. Even though I like to think of myself as a highly self-aware individual, I know that I’m a poor judge of my true mental/emotional state. If you’re feeling brave enough, asking for honest feedback from a close friend or a family member can be valuable. I’ll ask my partner, “How do you think I’m coping with life? In your opinion, is ___ working for me?”. Sometimes the answer is hard to hear! But it’s in the spirit of trying to be more collaborative and systems-aware in the way we care for ourselves.
Kerig, P. K. (2019). Enhancing resilience among providers of trauma-informed care: A curriculum for protection against secondary traumatic stress among non-mental health professionals. Journal of aggression, maltreatment & trauma, 28(5), 613–630.