This week a patient asked me “How can I tell if I am doing self-care or if I’m just avoiding?” We step away for minutes and even hours each day to do things to help us get through our day. So, the underlying question becomes what are we doing that is actually taking care of us and what are we engaging in that is simply avoiding something that makes us uncomfortable. Honestly, sometimes it can be hard to tell.
Let’s start by talking about experiential avoidance. I like to explain it as a way of leaning out of our own experience. We move away from a range of thoughts, feelings, memories and physical sensations that we don’t like (Hayes, Strosahl, Wilson, 1999). Now this may seem like a good plan because if we don’t like something why wouldn’t we want to stay away from it. In fact, our tendency to avoid probably saved human existence by helping us to stay away from dangerous and harmful things in our environment. However, the problem is that we can’t avoid all things uncomfortable or unpleasant because some of these things are essential, universal human experiences. Let’s take sadness as an example. We cannot live life without experiencing this central human emotion. We wouldn’t really want to avoid being sad because sadness helps us to figure out when we are happy by allowing us a range of emotion. Sadness also allows us to understand our relationship to certain events by providing us with useful data about our relationship to what is happening both internally and externally. So instead, we benefit from acknowledging our sadness and making room for it without trying to change it because we know the feeling will pass but while it is here it is useful.
It is also important to understand that when we avoid we may be giving the unpleasant experience more power. A good example is anxiety. If you feel fearful in social situations and you drink to help you loosen up and relax then you reinforce the idea that you can’t handle your social anxiety and it actually increases. You then become someone who tells yourself the story that you can’t be with others unless you are drinking and I am sure you can see how that can become a slippery slope. Again, we would benefit more from acknowledging that we feel anxious and taking small steps to socialize anyway. This builds our confidence in our ability handle social situations and what results is a decrease in social anxiety. This does not mean an absence of anxiety, but instead means that when anxiety does show up you start to understand that you can navigate it.
If you are leaning into something in a present way that brings you feelings of joy, focus, relaxation or a myriad of other pleasant feelings then you are engaging in self-care. You are by definition actively engaging in an activity that takes care of you by making you feel good. Self-care is so important because it helps us to recharge our batteries and makes sure that all parts of who we are can be taken care of. Self-care goes beyond doing something to treat yourself once in a while and instead it is a regular practice that improves your quality of life by helping you to feel renewed and revitalized.
Essentially, the intention is a key tell when figuring out whether we are avoiding or taking care of ourselves. If we are doing something to help us feel good and improve our life in some way then we are heading into self-care territory. If instead, we are moving away from an internal or external experience and hoping that our activity will help us to feel a different way we are most likely avoiding. The goal would be to allow all of our feelings and experiences to be present knowing that they will continue to morph and change. This helps build our acceptance of our own experiences. At the same time, it is also important make sure that you are investing time in healthy activities that help you improve the quality of your life on a regular basis.