Every weekday, I try to carve out 30 minutes or so to jog around my neighborhood. Between the hours of 9 to 6, I am essentially tied to the desk in my home office. I consider these daily outings short, very necessary bursts of self-care—opportunities to detach from my laptop, move my body, and breathe in fresh air. While I typically feel more relaxed and focused when I return from running, too often, I stress out about making sure I’m able to squeeze it in—even on days when I’m just not feeling it—and I’m hard on myself when I don’t get around to it.
If a particular practice is causing stress or otherwise eroding your well-being, is it really “self-care?” According to Pooja Lakshmin, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist and author of the new book Real Self-Care, the answer is a big NOPE. You may think you’re doing something in the name of wellness but, ultimately, if that so-called self-care doesn’t feel like you’re, well, taking care of yourself, it’s not going to have the effect you want, Dr. Lakshmin tells SELF.
That’s not to say the activity in question—whether it be nightly journaling, a meditation or massage session, or, in my case, a daily jog—is inherently bad (and, hey, there very well could be some great benefits). It’s just that, if it’s not connected to your own needs and values in a given moment, you’ll lose the restorative rewards of the practice, Dr. Lakshmin says.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself to determine if your self-care routine is actually serving you, or if you’ve fallen into the trap of practicing what Dr. Lakshmin calls “faux self-care.”
Is the activity internally or externally motivated?
First, take a sec to determine what’s driving you to do your self-care practice: Are you going to yoga because it legitimately gives you the time and space to slow down and connect with your breath and body, for example? Or did you sign up for a studio membership so you can post a cute mirror selfie on IG or secretly compete with the person on the mat next to you? (Nope, never done this. Not me!)
Dr. Lakshmin recommends asking yourself: Is my reason for doing X practice coming from the outside or the inside? In other words, are you seeking positive feedback or validation from others, or perhaps trying to live up to diet culture-driven “wellness” ideals? Or do you genuinely want to do a yoga flow or some post-work stretches, say, so you can detach from your day and tend to your body and mind? If your motivation comes from genuine enjoyment of an activity, you’re much more likely to feel refreshed afterward. As Dr. Lakshmin says, when practicing self-care, ideally you want to be totally immersed in the moment, so you can fully absorb the practice.
Are you too focused on what you’re achieving?
Another common mistake, according to Dr. Lakshmin, is approaching self-care as a form of achievement. For example, maybe you go to a cycling class twice a week, but instead of using the 45 minutes to absorb the positive energy, sweat out some tension, or get lost in the ride, you’re hyper-focused on where you fall on the leaderboard (the stress!) or how many classes you logged that week. Or maybe you make yourself log a certain number of steps or meditation sessions so you can please your smartwatch or get a “Nice work!” notification from an app.
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