When Does Self-Care Become Self-Sabotage? (And How To Do Self-Care Well!)

When does self-care become self-sabotage?

Last week I saw a post on Instagram along the lines of “Self-care is doing what makes you happy, even if that means having ice cream instead of going to yoga.”

At first, I nodded mindlessly at my screen in agreement, hearted that shit, and scrolled on down the thread. Then the wheels started turning in my head, as they tend to do, well, pretty much all the time, and I had to go back and unlike it.

Admittedly, inspirational/motivational quotes and platitudes about life, success, happiness, etc. almost always grind my gears. There’s something about sweeping generalizations that just don’t sit well with me. So just know you aren’t reading from a neutral perspective here. These things have their place, but I think people often heavily conflate inspirational quotes with reality instead of taking them as general inspiration. Kind of like people who take Proverbs literally instead of recognizing them as wise life generalities. 

That said, while I am not a fan of inspirational quotes, I am a fan of self-care. I want to make that clear before I start tearing into its seedy underbelly. Being kind to yourself, cutting yourself slack and making sure you’re in your best state of mind and body is a worthy goal and self-care when done right encompasses that.


But when I saw this quote about ice cream being better if it makes you happier than yoga, hell if I didn’t want to throw my phone across my office. I don’t really internalize platitudes, but a lot of people do. And they aggregate them along with other information to make decisions about their lives on a daily basis. So it’s important to think carefully about what the platitudes you share are actually saying (hey, I’m a lawyer. I do words for a living. You with me?)

If your constant intake is that self-care is about being happy and (for simplicity’s sake) the less healthy choice is ok if it makes you happier than the healthy choice, your self-care is going to backfire pretty damn quickly. 

Which brings me to my primary question: when does “self-care” become self-sabotage?

When you consistently reward yourself with instant gratification in the name of self-care. 

A personal pet peeve of mine is having to deal with a large contingent of people (including the dating pool oh my gawdddd) who believe the concept that life is about being happy. Life is about a lot of things, but if your goal is to constantly be happy, that’s a tough row to hoe. Chasing happiness is a fool’s errand at best. Which is not to say being happy is bad or shouldn’t be a large part of your life, but it’s a fickle emotion and a poor compass for your life path.

Good self-care should be about putting yourself in a state to do your best work and be the best self, friend, partner, parent, and person that you can be. Self-care is taking care of yourself so that you can take care of life and the things and people you value in life. 

Not to get all platitude-y after hating on platitudes, but one thing that is holding true in life is that nothing worthwhile comes easy. Chief Mom Officer talks about this in a recent post!

Nothing worthwhile comes easy.

And that means it requires effort. Work. Discomfort. The input doesn’t always make me happy, but the output gives me peace. 

If my obsession were with happiness, I’d pick ice cream and napping every time, because that’s what my slovenly inner self would love to do forever. Like truly I am the slothiest of sloths by nature. 

  I’d give a sloth a run for its money in the napping department.  (Photo: Life in the Sloth Lane: Slow Down and Smell the Hibiscus by Lucy Cooke (Workman). © 2018. Photos by Lucy Cooke)

I’d give a sloth a run for its money in the napping department. (Photo: Life in the Sloth Lane: Slow Down and Smell the Hibiscus by Lucy Cooke (Workman). © 2018. Photos by Lucy Cooke)

But then that doesn’t really make you happy does it? Eventually you start to melt into the couch and turn into an over-sugared, under-sunshined person.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of self-care things that DEFINITELY don’t always make me happy, but that are absolutely necessary to care for myself: 

  • Therapy

  • Exercise

  • Eating well

  • Reading

  • Meditation/Prayer

  • Getting enough sleep

  • Regular doctors’ appointments to stay on top of things

  • Keeping my apartment clean

  • My face routine

Some neutral (pleasant but not a total “indulgence”) self-care activities would include massages, baths, afternoons reading at the pool, a cup of coffee on a hard afternoon, etc.

Sometimes self-care DOES look like ice cream, frozen pizza, binge-watching ER, or letting myself sink into a spell of anxiety instead of fighting it. Some days we are not built for battle. And that’s ok. Never feel shame for needing these days. It’s a lesson I’m still learning. 

But those days and choices should be “treats” or almost a form of “medicine” in the self-care arsenal, not the default choice.

The input doesn’t always make me happy, but the output gives me peace. 

Some of my best moments of self-care have been when I literally drag. ass. to the treadmill and make myself run a mile or two because I feel anxiety pulling me under. Instead of giving into that anxiety in the name of self-care, I fight it in the name of self-care. And I never regret fighting. My mental and physical health are improving, and that in turn is reducing my need to fight the anxiety because it is subsiding to some degree. THAT is self-care. 

It isn’t caring if it’s sabotaging your overall goals. 

With respect to finance, self-care looks like: making hard decisions that set you up for healthy finances in the future, but allowing yourself a financial treat or two in your budget. Self-sabotage would be spending tons of money in the name of self-care that you don’t have or that doesn’t serve your long-term goals.

Confession: I’m actually kind of bad at financial self-care. A post for another time, but suffice it to say my love of the finer things in life can get me into trouble. 

So what does good self-care look like? 

Good self care will mean different things to everyone, but my best suggestion is to stop chasing happiness and start chasing health, peace and contentment. The concept of joy regardless of circumstances sometimes feels lost in the pursuit of happiness and it’s to our great detriment.

Focus on optimizing. Good self-care will mean:

  1. Consistency in the (sometimes difficult and occasionally unpleasant) things that yield positive results in your life and your finances. For me, again, it is all the things on that “hard” list above, plus a daily bath with epsom salts :)

  2. Learning when you need a break from that consistency, and

  3. Kindness to yourself to allow yourself those moments of indulgence when you know you truly need it. 

In the example of ice cream and yoga, #1 is yoga, which you should do regularly, and #3 is skipping yoga and letting yourself have ice cream. If you can learn #2 and implement it with respect to #3, you’ll be in an excellent position of self-care. 

How can you evaluate if you’re practicing self-care or self-indulgence? 

  1. Do you consistently use “self-care” as an excuse to do something that isn’t “good for you” instead of doing something “good for you”?

  2. Do you prioritize your mental, emotional and physical wellbeing in specific ways? 

  3. Do you regularly go over your budget or spend more money than you make?

  4. Do you build “happies” into your budget? 

If you answered yes to 1 or 3, you may be self-sabotaging. Try to think about how you can shift your mindset to longterm calmness and stability in your life instead of giving in to every whim.

If you answered yes to 2 or 4, you’re probably practicing self-care pretty well. Keep checking in with yourself on a regular basis to determine whether you need to recalibrate.

If you answered a mix of yeses, try to implement your self-care behaviors into the areas you may be self-sabotaging. 

For example: I am doing a great job of prioritizing my mental, emotional and physical health, but I’m sacrificing some financial health in the process. It’s something I am going to have to reevaluate pretty soon, which will be painful, but is necessary to rebalance my finances.

Now to end with more cliches I hate: Life is a highway. Life is a winding road. Life goes on. Keep on keepin’ on. When the going gets tough, the tough gets going.

What I’m trying to say is, life is hard. Don’t beat yourself up over not being perfect. Focus on improving over the curve of your life. Take care of yourself (and your money!) for real, the best you can, and you will see dividends over time. I promise. Literally and metaphorically.

Now go do some yoga…THEN have some ice cream :)

How have you implemented self-care in your own lives? Successes AND failures! Share in the comments!