What is Behind the Wrestling Match with Self-Care?

001026-F-1644L-024Last night, I had the privilege of participating in one of the bi-weekly Medicine X Live Google Hangouts.  These are video conferences conducted with Google+, and simultaneously live-streamed on YouTube.  There is also a parallel tweet chat that accompanies the video conference, so that people from all around the world can offer questions to participants.  It was great fun for me–I got to see the faces of some of my fellow MedX alumni, and this week, I got to talk about self-care and wellness. I will probably have a few posts that bubble up from that conversation.  But the thing that really grabbed me last night were questions posed by panelist Britt Johnson (@HurtBlogger) and moderator Liza Bernstein (@itsthebunk).  Britt, who blogs at HurtBlogger, brought up the issue of feeling as though her self-care falls into the category of being selfish.  I have written before about this verbal mix-up that trips so many of us.  And Liza, who blogs at ItsTheBunk, cut right to the heart of the matter when she asked, “Why do so many people seem to struggle to actually do self-care?”

The Difference Between What We Know and What We Do

Liza’s question is a critical one.  If you ask anyone on the street whether they think self-care is important, you will probably get a clear, quick “Yes!”  If you follow that up by asking what they do for self-care, you may get a “deer in headlights” look, a few stuttering sentences, etc.  We have a clear difference between what we know is important and good for us and what we actually do–where we put our effort. I think that this difference isn’t about being lazy, or lacking willpower.  Honestly, I think that this difference is complicated enough that I could (and probably will) spend multiple blog posts addressing it.  But I think that there are a few issues that come up pretty quickly when we start to unpack this difference.

  • We have gotten into the cultural habit of not carving out time for ourselves–because we’re caring for children, partners, loved ones, job duties, etc.
  • Many of us have not really taken time to clarify our central life values.
  • Sometimes, we can articulate our values, but we get confused in how we act them out.
  • When we feel tired, sore, or overwhelmed already, the idea of implementing self-care can just feel too big.

Changing the Conversation (Step out of the Ring)

Changing the way we think, talk and act around self-care isn’t something that happens overnight.  But it can happen.  And it doesn’t have to be a constant wrestling match with our inner selves. The first thing we need to do is spend time sorting out our most important values.  Blogger and patient advocate Jody Schoger (@jodyms), who is living with metastatic (stage 4) breast cancer, nailed it last night when she said this, “My disease has forced me to be very clear about the priority on my health. There is no stage 5, so I need to make healthy choices now.”  Whether or not you live with serious illness, Jody’s statement rings true.  If we neglect our own physical & emotional health, we will not be available to complete action toward our other values. The next thing we need to do is to remember that all change is composed of small choices.  You don’t need to upend your life–you need to choose to care for yourself in this moment.  That can include a glass of water, a few moments outside, time on the phone with a good friend, even checking in with a community on Twitter.  And then make another small choice to care for yourself.  One step at a time.

This isn’t the end of the discussion–and I’d love to hear your favorite strategy to stop wrestling and start acting.

And if you want to hear the great lived-experience advice from last night’s ePatient panel, here’s the video:

Image used under Creative Commons License.

20 thoughts on “What is Behind the Wrestling Match with Self-Care?

  1. Hi Ann,

    This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. I like the points you make about the cultural habit of not taking care of ourselves and the difficulty following through when we are overwhelmed by our commitments.

    I also like the idea of making small choices towards improved self-care, one moment at a time. That is what I have been working on and blogging about.

    I look forward to reading more of your ideas on this topic.


    1. Andrea,

      The “small choices,” “tiny habits” ideas–those are so very powerful. They allow us to cut through some of the distractions that keep us in unhealthy patterns. Thanks for chiming in. I believe if we keep talking, we can help shift the culture.


  2. It was wonderful being on the podium with you last night, Ann and thank you for including my perspective. Once the consequences of NOT caring for oneself properly are apparent it’s not only easier to do the right thing but essential. When I don’t take care of myself i suffer. That’s the bottom line. I don’t feel well, and when I don’t feel well nothing goes right.

    But here’s the rub. Once we start feeling well it’s easy to backslide. Healthy people think their health will be there for them forever and our culture gives lip service to help and corporate success messages that are completely the opposite: work harder, faster, better, longer. It’s an act of will for Type A’s to step back from that, recognize artificial noise for what is is, and breathe.

    This is a topic I’m glad to return to. Thanks for keeping the conversation going.

    1. Jody,

      You make some excellent points about how much easier it is to backslide when we begin to feel better. I remind my clients (and myself) that we can always recommit to action. There’s no formal start or stop point. It’s important to call out the cultural and systemic issues that work against our good health choices too. I’m all fired up about this topic, so look for more posts soon.


  3. Thanks for this post – so important to address! One technique I like to talk to my fitness clients (and use myself in my music career) is to just do 5 minutes. Often, the hardest thing is to get started. It somehow seems easier to think, “oh, I just have to do 5 mins.” rather than an hour of something. Just get started. Of course, once we’re going, it’s usually easier to keep going. But even if we only do 5 mins., we’re building a habit of making a choice to take care of ourselves.

    1. Julie,

      Thanks for your input. I’ve used a similar tool with my clients–we all need options to help us overcome the inertia of our current patterns. And 5 minutes or “baby steps” help us see the change as manageable. Glad to have you in the conversation.


  4. Echoing Jody’s point about the backsliding that happens when we feel well and adding another layer: the upside and downside of denial! As someone with a long-time and occasionally debilitating chronic illness, I often ignore self-care because once I acknowledge that I need it, I really start noticing pain and deep fatigue. Depression ensues. And oh the irony: for years I’ve earned at least part of my income by writing about health and wellness!

      1. Meredith and Ann,

        You both make an excellent point about how hard it is at times to follow our own advice about making self-care a priority. I try to remind myself that we all need to put on our own oxygen masks before we help anybody else to put on theirs.

        Part of my effort to be more authentic with my clients is to acknowledge that it is hard for me to be consistent with my own self-care. One day at a time, one choice at a time, I am trying to improve my own self-care habits. I believe that makes me a role model for determination, perseverance and acceptance of my own imperfections.

        All the best,

        1. Andrea,

          I do that kind of modeling with my clients as well. I believe that a willingness to acknowledge that this is a struggle for all of us can help my clients overcome some of their own negative self-talk and fear. I love the phrase, “I believe that makes me a role model for determination, perseverance and acceptance of my own imperfections.” Thanks for the continuing conversation.


    1. Catherine,

      Yes–when there is a serious illness at play, we often think that self-care should only be used to cope with the illness. That perspective misses the reality that self-care is an ongoing lifetime process. And we can’t look after others well if we are neglecting ourselves. Thanks for sharing.


  5. Ann, this is a wonderful, insightful post. Self-care is so very important and crucial to physical and emotional health. I love your statement, “If we neglect our own physical & emotional health, we will not be available to complete action toward our other values.”

    In my case, before cancer I had self-worth issues and felt I didn’t deserve to take care of myself. Cancer changed that. Once I got sick, I realized the importance of ridding my life of toxic people and of relaxation techniques. I am now good to myself and feel I deserve it.

    Thank you for this post.

    1. Beth,

      Those underlying self-worth issues are a critical barrier in our self-care process. All too often, I sit with someone who says, “I just don’t feel like I deserve time (for exercise, meditation, play, you name it).” I am so sorry that it took something as drastic as cancer to help you claim your self-care, but glad that you did get to have that experience.


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