Why I Don’t Tell Clients to Practice Self-Care (and What I do Instead)

As a psychotherapist in a private practice and a part-time professor at a local college, a great deal of my work centres around time-management, stress-management, and self-care. I have had conversations with students, colleagues, supervisors, clients, and my own therapists around self-care over the years, and to be honest, part of me has come to loathe when the topic comes up, at least the way it’s usually brought up.

It’s not because I don’t believe self-care is important. The benefits of taking care of ourselves have shown how vital it is for our overall health and wellness, and I make sure to practice various forms of self-care regularly. When we take the time to look after our bodies, our minds, our relationships and our spirits, we are more able to be ourselves and give of ourselves to others.

For me this includes daily walks and fitness goals, eating balanced meals, regular meditation and yoga, having a regular sleep schedule, spending time with loved ones, reading, writing, creating, supervision, seeing a therapist myself, and many other activities I fit into my month.

So how can someone who believes in the benefits of self-care come to loathe (yes loathe!) discussions around self-care?

We KNOW the benefits. We’re not stupid, not one of us.

I just feel that we’ve got the conversation wrong. The reality is that we all KNOW what will benefit us. We know that meditation and yoga lead to feeling calmer. We know that eating balanced meals and exercise will make our bodies feel better and lead to us being sick less often. We know that socializing can help us feel better, that creating, or playing, or chilling can lead to a better sense of ourselves. We KNOW the benefits. We’re not stupid, not one of us.

So, when someone is struggling and overwhelmed, it doesn’t do a lot for me to remind them of something they already know to be doing – in fact, it can make them feel a whole heck of a lot worse. There is something so minimizing in opening yourself up to someone and having the first response be a reminder of what we *should* already be doing. I’ve been there, my students and clients have been there, and my colleagues, friends and family have as well.

So, what do I do instead? With my students, I usually start a discussion around the barriers that keep them from practicing self-care. With clients, we have a similar conversation, around what keeps them from doing what they already know will make them feel better. Human beings are pretty capable, resilient, and intelligent – they already know what they could be doing.

What stops us isn’t not KNOWING, it’s all the millions of things that get in the way of following through. For some people it’s time-management, or difficulty prioritizing themselves as important. For most of us, it has less to do with what’s happening around us, and more to do with what’s happening in us. Our minds can be brutal, and over time we begin to believe that we’re not worth the time or effort, that we have to put others first, or that we’re not good enough. We may believe that our health and wellness is hopeless, or that we can’t follow through “so why bother trying?”

What stops us isn’t not KNOWING, it’s all the millions of things that get in the way of following through.

There are so many ways we set ourselves up for failure in this area, and we tend to only look at the surface, instead of recognizing all of the barriers underneath that make self-care so difficult. Because the reality is, self-care isn’t all relaxation and inner peace. Self-care involves pain, and effort, and emotions that we’ve been avoiding – it’s hard, and it hurts sometimes. And when someone is sitting in front of me, struggling and overwhelmed, I’m not about to add to that hurt by minimizing how hard it is.

Instead, I’m going to model self-compassion, explore with them what barriers are holding them back, and validate their experience. I’m going to recognize how hard self-care is and remind them that they can do hard things. And that it’s okay to be struggling. Let’s change the conversation together and give each other the space to be real.

What do you think? How do you feel when people ask about your self-care? What would you change in conversations about self-care?

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