When a Self-Care Practice Is No Longer Self-Care

August 18, 2021

“The first step to recognizing when self-care isn’t working is when your self-care starts to feel like work — if something has become a ‘should’ that you feel you have to do instead of something you’re looking forward to doing,” Gillihan says.

It could be that your running routine used to fill you with endorphins and motivate you for the day ahead, but now you find yourself depleted of energy during or afterward and you dread putting on your sneakers.

Maybe you used to have a weekly call with a close friend that made you feel heard, connected, and soothed, but the calls have actually become quite draining and you don’t look forward to picking up the phone anymore.

Maybe you started eating healthier, but you’re finding yourself obsessed with nutritional values, and meal planning is becoming a big stressor for you.

Why might you resist breaking a habit or routine that’s no longer working — or struggle to recognize that it isn’t? Our brains like following the same routine because it’s a more efficient way to work, according to Harvard Medical School. To get out of a routine, you’re going to have to get really intentional.

Take note of how the activity makes you feel, Gillihan says. Does it ramp up stress and anxiety or tamp it down? If something is giving you more stress than it’s relieving, it’s time for a change.

High standards can take joy out of an activity. Maybe it’s not the practice that’s not working, but the expectation you’ve put on yourself that’s becoming draining or depleting, says Christine Carter, PhD, a senior leader at BetterUp and a sociologist and senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California in Berkeley, who studies happiness and productivity.

For example, maybe you’ve committed to speaking to a friend and being a great listener, going for a run and becoming a much faster runner, or eating differently to have the perfect diet. You might be doing those things — having those conversations, running, and eating healthier, Dr. Carter says. But if you’re not achieving those high bars you set for yourself, you may find yourself feeling depleted or stressed by the activity.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t push yourself and strive for new goals. “But if you’ve given it a go for six months and it’s not happening for you (or bringing you joy), let it go,” Carter says.

My Self-Care Routine Isn’t Working. Now What?

You’ve acknowledged that your current self-care practice isn’t giving you what you need. But what will? Here are some tips.

1. Reacquaint Yourself With Yourself

“Self-awareness is so important for you to be able to find what will work,” says Paula Gill Lopez, PhD, an associate professor of psychological and educational consultation at Fairfield University in Connecticut. Consider what was feeling stressful about your old self-care routine. What’s a new routine that can help relieve that tension? What’s a new routine that doesn’t cause that type of stress? “You really have to know yourself to know what’s going to work for you,” Dr. Lopez says.

2. Be Open-Minded

Trying something new and changing our habits can be intimidating, but we can train our brains to be more open-minded. Lopez recommends focusing on the positives we may get out of the experiences, rather than telling ourselves to “I won’t like this.” It will help our brains build new, more positive connections.

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