But What About When “Self Care” Doesn’t Work?
by Hillary Chaney, LMHP
When you are in an airplane, the flight attendants give multiple instructions for what to do in case of an emergency by demonstrating multiple life-saving resources. These resources include an oxygen mask that will automatically drop from the overhead console for the passenger to put over their nose and mouth to ensure clean oxygen inhalation. The instruction given by the attendants is to put your own mask on BEFORE attending to a child or person in need of assistance. Any well-versed therapist will use a metaphor much like this one to encourage an individual to “take care of yourself first before trying to meet all of the needs of others.” After all, you can’t very well fill someone else’s cup if your cup is empty! This is such an important truth that it’s no longer just therapists pushing this idea of self-care…it’s our culture.
McDonalds continues to remind me to take “Me Time” with a McCafe.
LINDOR truffles encourage me to take the extra moment for myself to enjoy a bite of chocolate….
Things like massage therapy, floating (huh?), and getting a facial exist to encourage us to take time to pamper ourselves and feel better.
These are GREAT ways to avoid burnout and build resiliency. But what happens when they aren’t working? “I DRANK the dang McCafe and I am still STRESSED!!” Are we destined to an eternity of overwhelming, I-just-want-to-curl-up-in-a-ball, messy days? Well, let’s hope not!!!
Sometimes self-care doesn’t work because the stress monster still lingers overhead after the frothy beverage has been consumed and the knots have been kneaded out of our bodies. We recognize that we are stressed and overwhelmed, but we don’t necessarily identify the stress culprits.
Here are a couple of ideas that are likely to help your self-care efforts be more successful and worth your time and effort:
- Identify that there is an issue. You are feeling ready to snap. If you are ready to ankle-butt someone with your grocery cart for going too slow down the isle, want to literally cry over some spilled milk, or have said recently, “Oh, I just punched the door twice in the past week, everything is fine” (trust me, you are NOT fine.), your plane is going down and you need to put on your mask!!! It is self-care time. But, good for you! The first step in making anything better is identifying there is a problem.
- Write down all that is burdening your heart. Make a visible list. This is a two-for-the-price-of-one benefit. A list will sometimes ease the sense of stress immediately as we see that our burdens are not as drastic as they felt. The list also puts a label or name to the things you are trying to care for yourself through. I like to then put the list “away” somewhere. It is a mental note for me that I don’t have to deal with this right now. I can go get it when I am ready to tackle it. Then, when you are practicing your self-care and these thoughts or triggers pop into your head trying to sabotage the “me time” you are taking, you can consciously tell the thought to, “Go away, please.” Always be polite, even to your thoughts. Your mom will be proud.
- Figure out what gives you a DEEP sense of satisfaction. There is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all way to care for YOU. For me, laughter is a great stress reliever. Take away the warm bubble bath and give me a silly comedy or time with my light-hearted friends and I will be a happy camper. Others deeply need their bubble bath, glass of wine, and People magazine! Is it art or music? Helping people? Reading? Petting a fuzzy animal? Time walking in the outdoors, away from city noises? If you aren’t sure, experiment! Your body will tell you.
- Put it into action. Once you have this great mystery solved (what gives you satisfaction) then it is time to PRACTICE!!! Who, growing up, practiced the piano only on the day of the recital? NO ONE! We practiced everyday leading up to the big performance. Why on earth would we wait until we are pulling our hair out to care for ourselves? Perhaps because society tells us we SHOULD NOT need extra time for ourselves, we SHOULD be able to do it all, or perhaps other responsibilities appear more urgent? Nothing could be further from the truth! Remember, put your mask on first, and then help those around you, because you are no good to anyone if you’re passed out.
Good self-care grows our emotional resilience. Dictionary.com defines resilience two ways: 1) The power or ability to return to the original form, position, etc., after being bent, compressed, or stretched; elasticity; and 2) The ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like; buoyancy. Once you have practiced and mastered self-care, the things in life that appear to be consuming you will not feel as monstrous. They may drag you down momentarily, but you’ll be able to find your way back to a place of hope and joy. You’ll have renewed energy. You’ll find that you have more patience and compassion for others. You will be more RESILIENT!
Lastly, if you try all of this and are still finding that the stress continues to grow and you’re experiencing symptoms that keep you from functioning well on a daily basis, reach out via the Hope and Wellness website to someone to talk to and help you through it. That’s what therapists are here for!
Photos by Jonas Jacobsson, Jennifer Pallian, Tim Gouw, & Jonathan Fink on Unsplash
Hillary is a licensed mental health professional with experience working with foster kids at Boys Town. She also has many years of therapy with clients who have experienced significant trauma. Along with that, she and her husband have foster multiple children…all teens.