The Self-Care Trap: How To Actually Care for Yourself on Your Journey to Improving

The following is an excerpt, Chapter 12, from my new book — Real Help: An Honest Guide to Self-Improvement

Quick test for a con: what questions does it not occur to you to ask? — The Last Psychiatrist

Often, the challenges themselves don’t get in your way, but rather the way you treat yourself and talk to yourself throughout the process does. Many people fail not because they lack talent, but because they lack energy and sanity throughout the process.

This is where self-care comes in. You do have to take care of yourself over the long-haul, but the idea of self-care can quickly become a trap.

They go by many descriptions — the self-care guru, meditation sage, the Buddhist hipster, the “treat yourself” enabler. Their goals and opinions are the exact opposite of the prototypical gurus.

Instead of telling you to pull yourself up by the bootstraps, they pretend bootstraps don’t exist. Instead of telling you you’re weak unless you’re successful, they tell you that you’re strong because you’re not successful. Instead of telling you to hustle 24/7, they tell you to reward yourself for doing nothing.

Both sides of the coin are wrong. As often happens, the answer lies in the gray.

The Happiness Dichotomy

There are two types of happiness, memory happiness and experiential happiness. Memory happiness answers the question “How has my life turned out so far?” If you have experiences in your past that boost your confidence, remind yourself of your worth, and confirm your identity as a successful person, you’ll have great memory happiness, fueling further success.

The opposite is also true. Lack of achievements lowers your self-esteem, and self-care isn’t going to raise it to the level you need to truly feel good about yourself. I meditate daily, journal, eat healthy, treat myself, etc., but I also work on goals that have meaning to me.

This idea that you can use mindfulness to remove your need to achieve goals is false. Maybe you can pull if off like the Dalai Lama, but odds are the pangs of desire will stay with you forever.

I’m not attacking the idea of caring for yourself. I’m attacking the idea that you can live a full life without achievement being a central piece of it. By achievement, I don’t mean making a million dollars, just something that matters to you.

I fear the self-care movement often tricks people to feel good about themselves in the short term, which leads to forgoeing better long-term goals that fuel meaning. This perverted version of self-care says “You are inherently good, deserving, and entitled to self-worth.”

It argues that you should feel good about yourself, no matter what, but is that actually true?

Be honest, what do you think about more: random moments of experiential happiness or the constant thinking of the past (what you could’ve done differently) and incessant mulling about your future (what you want, wish, and hope to do but often procrastinate on)? If your lack of achievement doesn’t haunt you, then move on. But I bet it does, no matter how much you try to bury it.

Isn’t boosting your confidence by achieving your goals a form of self-care, too?

You don’t want to become someone who always chases goals and never feels whole. But when you focus on continually evolving, you naturally care for yourself, and you become more grateful, open, and full of high self-esteem as you climb. In an ideal sense, you should come from a core of inherent self worth, but it’s hard to come by without some climbing. The climbing itself gives you the push to reach real contentment. Juxtapose it with the opposite.

“Treat yourself,” “take a break,” “enjoy the moment,” “avoid burnout.” All of these statements would be beneficial if you’ve been giving it your all toward something worthwhile. When it comes to burning out, most people don’t reach it through the exertion of effort. If you’re really exhausted from taking the time to build your dream, of course, take time to recharge.

Instead, people often burn out because they’re working on the wrong thing, they’re focused too much on petty distractions and errands, or they’re inaccurately assessing how hard their life is.

If you don’t have genuine diagnosed depression, live in poverty, or have a truly dire lifestyle, I’d bet you’re using self-care as a cop out, or you’re just making mental mountains out of molehills. Following this path of chasing experiential happiness will never quell the voice of desire inside you.

On top of that, you can’t trick yourself into loving and respecting yourself. You have to earn it.

Problems Self-Care Can’t Solve

Life is hard. Inherently tragic. Regardless of who you are, you’re oppressed, experiencing hardship, and “the man” is holding you down in one way or another. Whether the blame is placed on the glorification of status, beauty standards, societal expectations, or other people in your life, the moral of the story is the same:

“It’s not your fault. You couldn’t avoid your fate. Effort is overrated. You deserve a break.”

I emphasized the word deserve because it speaks to the overall goal of the self-care movement. They want you to feel like you’re entitled to feeling better. Somewhere along the line, respect for yourself became a basic human right instead of something you earned.

Feelings of entitlement, martyrdom, and superiority gained through disingenuous humility will make you feel good in the short run, but entitlement doesn’t solve the deep underlying problems of human nature.

The Root Causes That Make You Feel Bad in the First Place

Fake self-care is the classic form of “treating the symptoms without addressing the diagnosis.” Pain meds will ease your pain if you’re terminally ill, but you’ll still die without a cure. You can ease dissatisfaction and discontentment with “self-care,” but it doesn’t address the reasons why you feel you need self-care in the first place.

Often times, you feel bad because your life is actually bad.

If you’re working a job you hate, have low-quality relationships, don’t feel a sense of meaning, have poor health, don’t have the things you desire (all of which paints a general malaise on the canvas of your life), of course, you’re going to feel bad. I mean, why wouldn’t you? Your mind uses external cues to form an identity. The state of your life itself often dictates how you feel about your life.

A few years ago, I’d gotten the most out of shape I’d ever been. You know what got me out of that sadness and frustration? Telling myself to accept myself no matter what? Nope. Getting in shape did. When I was broke and living in an apartment with no electricity and rats crawling in the walls, I was not happy. You know what helped me get happy? Meditating and renouncing my possessions? Nope. Reinventing my career, earning more, and improving my standard of living did that.

Before the peanut gallery starts to yell at me for being shallow, understand the point I’m trying to make. This isn’t about the way society or other people feel about you; it’s about the way you feel about you.

I don’t know you. I’m not judging you. I’m asking you to judge yourself.

Whatever answer you come up with is fine as long as you’re being honest.

In your current situation, which will work better for you? Trying to conjure up a positive self-image in your mind, or doing something tangible to help you change the way you see yourself?

Only you know the answer. I have plenty of self-care routines, but these techniques are complements to my real self-care routine, that is, working hard, doing the things I love, and creating a life that means something to me.

The Underlying Sense of “Not Being Good Enough”

Yes, you can place partial blame on the arbitrary measures of success we all abide by, the standards society sets, and the media that turns our insecurity into profit. But there’s a more potent source of not feeling good enough, one that does way more damage than those listed above.

Sometimes you feel like you’re not good enough because … you’re actually not good enough.

You need to practice and get good at something. You need to solve the problems and obstacles in your way. That way, you get to conquer something.

When you continue to conquer goals and solve problems, you become a conqueror. You start to look at yourself as a person who overcomes challenges, faces fear, and persists through failure. This builds a new identity and true memory happiness.

With an earned sense of pride, you have certainty that you are a worthwhile human being. Nothing can fill this void except effort, action, and work.

The “Outward Success” Problem

I get why people tell you not to focus on outward success. Ambition can harm you, too. You can chase after the wrong goals and waste your time building up your status instead of developing a sense of meaning.

Still, pretending like worldly success isn’t something you’re both judged on and judge yourself on doesn’t account for the way the world works. Even if we removed all media, advertisements, and the entire slew of gurus, you’d still constantly compare yourself to other people. You’d still feel envy, not from arbitrary success but from other people who genuinely follow their own paths, regardless of what those paths are. You’d still worry about what other people think.

My life got better when I started to use my nature to my advantage. Instead of trying to feel no envy, I used envy as fuel to reverse engineer the strategies of people more successful than I was. Instead of pretending like I don’t care what other people think at all, I follow my own path to the furthest extent possible, so I know that people have no choice but to respect my hustle.

Instead of pretending I didn’t want more money, I just got more money and then reinvested it right back into a quality life; putting it into creative projects, spending it to improve my health, and using it to buy more time and freedom.

Maybe my advice doesn’t apply to you, but I’m guessing it does. I’m guessing you’re constantly watching your up and down movement on the totem pole. Why not just move up? Because you’ve been convinced not to.

The Societal Magic Trick

In an earlier chapter, I talked about why society doesn’t want you to succeed. I explained that there’s no “grand conspiracy” where “the man is trying to keep you down.” No. There are just incentives for society wanting to keep you distracted, conformist, indebted, angry, and helpless.

The same can be said for the self-care movement.

The Money Incentive

First, self-care makes money because there are products to fill that void. What, do you think Dove tells you to take a calm bubble bath with their products because they care about you? It’s just an inverted version of the “exacerbate your insecurity with beauty standards” strategy.

You’re good enough, worthy, deserving of care, so here, buy this “all natural” body scrub.

It makes no sense for advertisers selling the self-care brand to help you actually get better. The more self-reliant you become, the less you need both the keeping up with the Joneses products and also the self-care products.

They’re different frequencies of the same energy. Something’s wrong with you, and the solution is to fill the void with anything but actual effort.

If you think the media controls the social standards, you’re admitting that you can’t think for yourself. In fact, they want you to think that. That way, both sides of the coin can profit from your insecurity.

The Conditioning Incentive

If the self-care industry were truly about wellness, meaning that it helped you take care of yourself and become your best self, I’d be all for it. In reality, the gear that keeps the wheel turning is the idea that you’re helpless.

You can’t have a society filled with awake, aware, and self-reliant people. You also can’t overtly show disdain for success because that would be too obvious. No, you need coded, subtle, and repeatedly asserted messages.

  • You deserve [x] — When you deserve something, you’ll never work for it; you’ll wait for it to come to you, or you’ll buy it. Someone will always be there to fill that void.
  • It’s not your fault — Few people sell the measured message of “circumstances do get in the way, but they’re not a death sentence.” No, it’s easier to sell you the idea that nothing’s your fault, nor will anything change. Might as well dive into nihilistic bliss and comfort.
  • You’re oppressed and helpless — Sure, you live in the wealthiest period of human history and have access to infinite amounts of free education and resources, but you’re fucked, and life is just too hard. Here, come to our meditation retreat to alleviate your anxiety. That’ll be $1,997.

The Ego Incentive

All marketers, copywriters, and persuaders know that playing to your ego is the best way to sell you, especially if they’re trying to sell you bullshit. The idea that you’re helpless, weak, burned out, unjustly unsuccessful, and deserving of a better life all speak to your ego.

Your ego doesn’t exist to help you self-actualize; it exists to protect you from perceived harm. It will gladly step in to replace the idea that you need to exert more effort with the idea that there’s nothing you can do.

No matter how hard your ego works, though, it can’t erase the feelings of discontentment, dissatisfaction, and wanting more for your life. So what should you do instead?

What You’d Do If You Really Cared for Yourself

If you really cared for yourself, you’d do everything in your power to live a better life. You’d work hard, challenge yourself, face fear, and turn pain into triumph. Why? Because true self-care comes from doing things that are hard. You don’t become healthier physically from a lack of action. You put yourself through a positive form of stress like exercise.

You don’t become healthier mentally by avoiding difficulty.

Here’s a nice mental image to help you get the idea. Which will make you feel better? Sitting around the house doing nothing and cracking open a beer or a glass of wine to “treat yourself”?

Or going to do two hours worth of yard work until you’re sweaty and tired and then enjoying a nice cold glass of beer as a reward? How about finishing that draft of your novel, before you have that Moscato?

Self-Care Should Be a Reward

When you care for yourself as a reward for doing the hard work it takes to improve your life, you enjoy it with a guilt-free sense of accomplishment. You can relax because you genuinely believe you deserve to relax.

If you reward yourself with self-care for your lack of effort, you create a negative incentive. You’re not in stasis, you’re moving backward because you’re rewarding yourself for bad behavior.

Again, the measuring stick belongs to you, but the sentiment is the same for everyone.

Self-Care Cures the Diagnosis

In the book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson, one of the rules is “Treat yourself like you’re someone worth caring for.”68 The author uses the example of people taking medication. If you have someone you care for who needs medication, like your pet or child, you never miss a dose. But often, people care less for themselves. They’ll miss taking their meds or ruin their health. He cites the statistic that a surprisingly large number of people fail to take anti-rejection medication after getting transplants!

You care for yourself less because you know everything about yourself. You know your flaws, every mistake you’ve made, and every negative thought you’d ever had. Since you know this, you’re harder on yourself than you are on anyone else. The often given example is that you’d never talk to a friend the way you talk to yourself inside your head.

If you treat yourself as if you were an outsider seeking to advise or help yourself, you’d really try to help yourself. You wouldn’t settle for rationalizations. You’d become your biggest coach, fan, and cheerleader to help you alleviate the true causes and achieve the goals that would swing your life in a positive direction.

How can living a life well below your potential be considered caring for yourself? When you think about it rationally, it can’t. But humans are irrational.

We convince ourselves to focus on comfort instead of improvement when improvement is almost always the best remedy.

What This Means for You

However you feel about what I’ve written is how you feel about it. So how do you feel about what I’ve said? Do you take issue with it? If so, why? Because you think I’m wrong or because deep down you know I’m right?

The truth you know but don’t want to hear often provides the straightest path to a better life, if you listen. You’ll have to parse that one out on your own.

Do you feel that I am right but still feel a bit lost, confused, and lacking in motivation? If it helps, I spent years living the “life of quiet desperation.” I’ve experienced laziness, depression, and aimlessness. I once thought I’d always feel that.

If that’s where you’re at, realize this is not the end. The strategies I provide in this book might not work right away, but they will work if you work on them for a long enough period of time. If you really want to practice self-care, take better care of yourself.

When you truly take care of yourself, put yourself first, and get yourself in order above everything else, some may call you selfish. Let them. This next chapter teaches you how being more “selfish” actually makes life better for everyone around you.

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