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  • Joanna Townsend

Self-care or numbing: When self care is not actually self-care

Self-care is surely a buzzword these days. We hear about it on the news, in social media, amongst friends, in advertising, apps, and most likely, in therapy, too. It’s encouraged as a way to relieve anxiety and stress, to make time for oneself, and to handle all of the daily challenges that life brings us.

But what is it really? Or rather, what is it not?

We typically think of self-care in terms of rest, relaxation, movement, massages, or taking time off. Maybe we even classify that online shopping splurge, booking that trip, or that extra glass of wine as #selfcare. But just because something feels good in the moment, does not necessarily mean it’s true self-care. There is a difference between numbing and restoring. And too often we’re missing the point and facilitating unhealthy cycles of stress and reprieve.

What self-care really is is the things we do on a consistent and ongoing basis to care for our mental, emotional, and physical selves. No amount of food, sleep, exercise, facemasks, or television will help us long-term if their purpose is to distract from or avoid negative emotions. Sure, maybe these things help temporarily and produce a short-term dopamine burst. But chances are, unless we’re revisiting, and exploring the roots of our lows and woes, we’re not going to get far. And we’re going to think it’s self-care that’s the problem, that it’s not working, instead of considering it’s actually about how we’re using self-care that is either keeping us stuck or helping us move forward.

Sometimes self-care is the hard stuff—accepting our feelings, honoring our needs, creating boundaries, being assertive, making an informed decision to take medication, or prioritizing our financial health.

Self-care can also look different depending on the day and the person. Sometimes it does look like taking the day off, going to the gym, a night on the town with friends, or turning off work email alerts on your personal phone. On other days, it’s showing up for life and your responsibilities. The fine line between restoring and numbing has to do with the “why”, not the “what” of what we’re doing. Why are you on Facebook, buying things, baking, or logging miles? Is it to escape, numb, or comfort? Or is it because you’ve made a conscious decision to engage in a habit or action in support of your mental, emotional, and physical health?

Whatever self-care practices you decide to use, take a moment to first think about why you are needing self-care—are you anxious about work? Unsettled about an argument with your partner? Feeling down? It’s important to always try to identify your feelings before acting on them. Then, see if you can pair self-care as you work through your emotions. Think about what will help you and leave you feeling restored and nourished versus simply indulging to buffer your emotions.

The more we pay attention to our thoughts, engage in consistent and adaptive self-care habits, the more at peace we can be with our emotional worlds.


Comment below with what self-care looked like today for you!

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