That’s not self-care: unhelpful habits people often confuse for self-care

When I need to ground myself or get out of a funk, I cook or sing.

It short-circuits the vicious cycle between overthinking and feeling crappy, and then doing things that will cause an emotional hangover. And it’s also a great way to feel creative again, and nourish myself.

That is the self-care that works for me.

The problem, however, is that what we sometimes call self-care is really self-soothing, and the long-term cost vastly outweighs the short-term benefit.

When “Just one drink!” plummets down the rabbit hole of excessiveness — where your body, bank balance and wellbeing pay the price, that isn’t self-care.

The difference between self-soothing and self-care

We all self-soothe. It gives us comfort and distracts us during difficult times, as illustrated in this very helpful infographic.

Self-soothing, however, does not help us move forward or remedy the situation. Or, it may lead to an emotional, physical or financial hangover.

Protract over-drinking to any excessive escape behaviours, from shopping to eating to sex, and you get the picture.

Otherwise, it could be as simple as entertaining our anxious thoughts or talking excessively about our problems, believing it’ll make us feel better, but ultimately we’re lost in ruminating, analysis-paralysis and living in Apocalypse.

Self-care, in contrast, is about finding meaning in life, and doing things that support our growth.

Questions to apply real self-care.

1. Can you acknowledge what’s going on?

We lie to ourselves, because it feels odd to say we have any kind of negative feelings— as though we are weak or alien.

The deal is, to be human is to have emotions.

The simplest start is to simply acknowledge what’s going on, in a matter-of-factly manner.

Such as, “(Situation) is happening and I feel (emotion) and I think (thought).”

You’ll be surprised at how taking ownership is empowering.

2. What do you need to short-circuit the vicious cycle of feeling crappy or of overthinking?

This could be self-soothing, and you discover this best by experimentation.

Essentially, something that stops us from obsessing, a “break from the disturbance, because someone who could absorb into electronics may ruminate if they went for a walk”.

The most important thing we need to know is that it isn’t excessive, and we apply our brakes.

A thing I encourage my clients to do is to ground themselves— simply by shuffling their feet on the floor and getting back into their bodies, rather than to be lost in their heads. Following this, to take three deep breaths, to reset the fear centre in the brain.

3. What do you need to do to replenish you?

Here’s when I invite my clients to ask themselves, “What can I do to take the best care of myself right now?”

It can be any of the three categories:

  • Something that brings you joy: What makes your heart smile, or gives you meaning and purpose? It could be gardening, hugging your dog, or reading your favourite book.
  • Something that brings order to your life: Quite often, our environments mirror our frazzled mind. If so, you could start by tackling one part of your house that needs cleaning or organising. Start small, and build momentum.
  • Something that gives you a sense of mastery: This could be something you already know and could improve, or a skill you’ve always wanted to pick up. Anything, from another language to cooking or strength-training.


4. How can you encourage yourself to keep doing this?

When we treat ourselves, dopamine floods into the synapses in our brain, and that sense of reward makes us want to do it over and over again.

I encourage my clients to have a list of their favourite tiny rewards, that don’t involve buying a new handbag or scoffing down three bars of chocolate.

Essentially, something that’s a well-deserved treat after properly practising self-care.

5. In what situations do you have no choice but to practise mindful breathing?

I emphasise mindful breathing (it only takes 3 minutes!) because it helps us to stay grounded. We’ve all been caught in the spiral of excessive thinking, and then making unwise decisions because we’re not connected with our own wisdom.

And so I always tell my clients, if you have time to go to the bathroom, you have time to practise breathing correctly. They laugh, and that’s how they commit to it.

Just as you don’t learn to save money only you’re in debt, you don’t practise breathing only when you’re feeling anxious or low.

For me, it’s when I’m having a facial or a massage and I have no phone to touch, that I commit to practising extra long sessions of deep breathing.

Think of self-care as Haute Couture. It has to work for you, and with you.

“I am not going to meditate for 2 hours”, a new client tells me, as though I’d prescribe that.

“I’m so sick of whatever the corporate wellness program tells me to do. It’s another thing on my To Do List, and I feel even more overstretched!”, another complains.

The problem is, any kind of self-care that is blindly copied runs the risk of making you feel worse.

In the Instagram age, it’s easy to believe that a gorgeous Instagrammable bubble bath or a trendy unicorn latte may be the solution.

But self-care goes deeper than that. For starters, you actually have to enjoy taking bubble baths or drinking the latte. It has to align with you.

For an introvert, it could be tending to their plants; and for an extrovert, hanging out with a group of friends.

Experimenting and finding solutions that align with your lifestyle, personality and goals is key.

If your self-care method happens to be Instagrammable— and you’re an avid Instagrammer— great.

If not, no biggie.

Self-care extends beyond going for that retreat.

Sometimes, a retreat can ground us or gift us with the time and space for a forced reset.

But more importantly, we have to set an intention for how that will serve us.

Otherwise, we run the risk of feeling miserable or lost in our heads, coming back feeling even worse. That can make us feel even more helpless.

And then, any retreat has to be considered in terms of what I call the And Then What? question.

Sure, you could lose weight, learn to meditate, or eat healthily for a week, because you are in a situation that facilitates that.

We have to have a strategy to make sure that these gains and new habits actually integrate into real life. Otherwise, it’s just the cycle of burnout, escaping to retreats, and coming back to reality waiting for the next burnout to happen.

Self-care isn’t simply reactive.

Most of how we see self-care is a reaction to a disturbance in our emotional state.

But self-care isn’t just reactive, it’s fundamentally about creating supportive foundations for our lives.

And therefore, self-care isn’t always glamorous.

It’s about ensuring that our laundry is done, the toilet is clean, and our bellies are nourished.

It’s about being in-control of our finances, taking care of our health and minds, and being a part of the community.

It’s also about owning our inner demons— anxieties, traumas and insecurities.

Or more accurately, what we call #adulting— skills we don’t learn overnight, that no one’s taught us in school, that we will need to practise.

To keep at it, schedule in self-care.

But when we’re frazzled, where do we start?

A simple tip is to schedule these activities into your calendar, rather than to wait till crunch time. Keep it simple, and don’t overcomplicate things— it’s easy to be ambitious and want to do everything at once.

Remember, baby steps create momentum, and lofty plans create overwhelm.

Another way I practise foundational self-care is by aligning it with the moon’s cycles.

As I tell my clients, whether or not you’re spiritually inclined, the moon is always up in the sky. All you have to do is track her, or download a lunar calendar. Because she moves in 28-day cycles, it’s a simple way of harnessing nature to rejuvenate and reboot.

As my favourite astrologer Mystic Medusa tells me, “Tuning into the lunar cycles is ultimately about going with the natural rhythms of your body and nature, and being open to the synchronicity and magic potential of life.”

She recommends that we seed new intentions and start our goals during the new moon. The full moon is a time of release. And the dark moon— the last few days before the new moon– “is a great time to chill at home and maybe de-clutter a bit, even just a drawer or two. It sets a clean slate of energy for the New Moon cycle to begin again.”

To quote Mystic Medusa, “Life is so much easier when we go with the flow, not against it. The moon maps this natural course for us.”



If you’d like to find out more, join the conversation in our next open workshop.