The Serious Side of Self-Care We're Mostly Ignoring

If you've got financial troubles, are trying to navigate a difficult family relationship, or are having issues at work, "self-care" might feel like the last thing you have time for. Sure, bubble baths and scented candles sound nice, but you have serious stuff on your plate.

Self-care isn't just about patting yourself on the back for all you do and treating yourself, and it's not about candles at all. At its root, self-care is about dealing with the depletion of our emotional energy reserves—when that serious stuff makes you feel like you can't deal with it anymore right now.

"We engage in self-care not so we spend the day in our bathtub, but so we can go and do the things we need to do," says Julie Frischkorn, a licensed social worker and director of behavioral health and mindfulness for Spark360. "We're going to have stressors in our lives. [Self-care] gives us the capacity to face them with a little more resolve."

The reason many people associate self-care with spa days lies in the concept being commodified. "We've almost systematized it and named certain self-care activities [so] it feels less like options and more like solutions," Frischkorn explains. Those seeming "solutions"—baths, gratitude journaling, meditation—might not work for everyone, though. The result, Frischkorn says, is that people think they're "bad" at self-care.

"If you're so exhausted and emotionally depleted from lack of connection and fear of what's going to happen in the future, [a gratitude journal] is a hard place to begin," says Robin Tucker, a psychotherapist and life coach at DC Talk Therapy in Washington, D.C. Restoring your emotional energy, she says, can start by simply prioritizing your most basic needs such as sleep and nourishing food. "If you're not feeding yourself well and not getting enough sleep, you're not going to have the energy, not just for a gratitude list, but also to have that [important] conversation at work" or deal with other stressors.

Handling these basics "count" if they refill your tank of emotional energy and make you feel more like, "Okay, I can do this."

Self-Care Solutions for You

For Marisa Floro, a licensed clinical social worker in Pittsburgh, uncovering the source of our stresses—the real emotional drainers—can help guide how we address our stress and refill our emotional energy reserves.

"People have a hard time figuring out what's upsetting them […] because of how distracting life is. It's easy to think it's the neighbors upstairs that are causing me to freak out," but that might have just been the last straw, she says. Your neighbor might annoy you, but the source of your emotional drain could lie elsewhere—your boss isn't showing you respect, for example. "If you have two minutes per day, ask yourself: 'What is activating me that leads me to react in ways that aren't intentional?'" 

To refill your emotional reserves and deal with these stressors, ask yourself another question from Tucker: "What are you not doing for yourself that is essential for you to feel well?"

Your essentials are personal to you—they might be sleep, a sympathetic talk with a close friend, a quick walk around the block for fresh air, or even one of the stereotypical self-care activities. Taking a small amount of time for these to make yourself healthier does not mean you're skimping on your "real problems." And your essential activities don't always have to be the same, Frischkorn says. "One day, a run might be just what I need. Another time, it might be a conversation with a friend or therapist," she says.

If you're not sure, ask yourself, "'Does this serve me today?'" This can help you be honest with yourself about whether the activity you're engaging with is helping replenish your energy or just avoid your problems—an important distinction, Floro says.

If your self-care activity is addicting or compulsive—like a Netflix binge—it can just drain time instead of filling your energy, she says. "Recharge versus avoidance is a big difference. If we use self-care as a way to avoid self, we're in trouble."

Deal With It Head-On

Once you've found a healthy activity—or a suite of activities—that works for you, "don't expect to go from an anxiety level 10 to an anxiety zero," Frischkorn warns. "We get this notion that if 'I'm engaging in self-care, I'm doing it wrong because it doesn't help me all the way." But this is real life and real life comes with problems. While self-care can help give you more energy to deal with them, it's not a cure-all.

Sometimes, those problems can be the source of your self-care. Small, nagging issues in your life can create cumulative stress that takes available energy away from dealing with bigger issues.

"We all have these little 'leaks' in our lives. A wobbly desk, a lightbulb that needs to be changed […] anything that's not working can become an unconscious drain" on our emotional well-being, Tucker says. Setting aside a little time to take care of the core issue can take away that task's daily emotional drain, while also giving you a boost. "When people take the time to repair that desk or a leaky faucet, it's such a weight off their psyche."

As you identify small stressors that may be taking away energy from your ability to deal with bigger stressors, though, don't turn yourself into another drainer of your emotional energy. 

"Don't say 'should', and avoid labels like 'I am lazy' [for not having done this sooner]. That gets us nowhere," Floro says. Instead, follow this simple advice: "If your internal dialogue is nothing that you would say to a friend, then it's not helpful. [Stop] talking to yourself as if you're an enemy."