Self-Care: Why we all struggle with it

Self-care simply means doing things to look after your own health and well-being. It’s very broad and can include anything from sleep to hobbies to going to a doctor’s appointment to taking on new challenges.

It’s no surprise that caring for yourself provides the basis for good mental health. It sounds simple yet so many of us struggle with it. Why? I believe it’s partly due to two common misconceptions.

1.) We think that self-care is selfish

I think many of us believe that self-care is selfish. Why should I care for myself? Why should I focus on myself? There are other people that are struggling way more than me! I should be there for them. I don’t need to care for myself, I am fine!

Caring for ourselves is not selfish. We all have needs, and if we cannot meet these needs ourselves we tend to over rely on others. The other truth is that if we are able to care for ourselves we are better able to be present and there for the people in our life. Self-care can actually make us less selfish!

2.) We think that self-care should only give rise to pleasant feelings

Another misconception about self-care is that it is supposed to give rise to only pleasant feelings. While sometimes this can be the case, for example when we make time to pursue a new hobby or engage in some type of pleasurable activity, self-care can also give rise to very difficult feelings, for example when we have to go to that doctor’s appointment we have been putting off or when we need to be assertive with an aggressive person in our life.

If we only use self-care as a way to give rise to pleasant feelings, and avoid the necessary self-care that produces difficult feelings our health and well-being will most likely suffer in the long run.

Where to start?

Food, sleep, and exercise make up the essentials of self-care. This is always a good place to start, and can be difficult in itself to maintain. Remember, there is no need to be perfect. We cannot eat healthy all the time, and exercise all the time. Even small changes can make a big difference.

Another thing to do is brainstorm a list of self-care ideas. Are there certain activities you used to enjoy but have not had time for? Is there a new hobby you have always wanted to try? Is there a simple way you could break up your workday, like taking a walk around the block at lunch? Is there something difficult you have been putting off that you know needs to get done?

Once you have a list, try scheduling out some self-care time during the week. Start small, you don’t need to do everything all at once!

Listening to Our Boundaries

When we hear the word “boundaries” we often think of boundaries with other people. While it can be helpful to set boundaries with others, boundaries are really about how we care for ourselves.

Our Inner Yes and No

Sarri Gilman is a therapist that focuses on boundary work. She argues that we are all born with an inner Yes and No. Yes, this is okay, No, that is not okay. As we grow up, our culture, our environment, and our upbringing tells us what yes and no is acceptable and we often lose touch with this inner voice.

This inner Yes and No may be drowned out, but it is still there. Boundary work starts by getting in touch with your personal Yes and No.

7 Common Boundary Struggles

Gilman discusses 7 ways we typically struggle with boundaries, and stop listening to our inner Yes and No. People may struggle with one in particular, or a combination of several.  

1. Workaholic: this is someone who takes on more tasks at work than they would like. They tend to say yes to things they know they don’t have time for. They try to do it all which can leave them feeling overwhelmed with not much time for anything else.

2. Caretaker: this is someone who takes care of people that can actually care for themselves. They spend so much time caring for others in their life that they negate their own needs. Another consequence of this is that their loved ones don’t learn how to care for themselves.

3. Sacrificer: this is similar to a caretaker but a little different. A sacrificer focuses on the needs of other people often at the expense of themselves. They believe that other people’s needs are more important than their own.

4. Lover: people that struggle with this boundary have a great deal of love for others but often find that they never get that love in return. This is usually because they do not share much about themselves, often due to a fear of judgment.

5. Number: this is someone who goes out of their way to not feel what they are feeling. They may do this by bingeing TV, taking drugs, alcohol, overspending, overeating etc. They numb out their inner Yes and No.

6. Isolator: an isolator wants connection with others but has given up on this connection and alienates themselves. This leads them to feel very isolated and alone. Their boundary is too rigid.

7. Protector: this person protects others in their life by shielding the truth or is afraid to even hear the truth. This person often does not have a lot of support from others as no one knows what is truly going on in their life.

Where do I start?

Do any of these patterns resonate with you? Boundary work is an ever-evolving process. The first step involves spending some time getting in touch with what your inner Yes and No is saying. Boundary work also starts with making a self-care plan.

If you think you need help with boundary work I highly suggest Sarri Gilman’s book Transform Your Boundaries. This book walks you through how to begin to set boundaries in your own life, as well as how to set boundaries with difficult people.

What if anxiety was not the problem?

Anxiety, it’s painful, it’s annoying, it’s inconvenient, sometimes it can feel downright unbearable. But what if anxiety itself was not the issue?

Anxiety is there to protect us

Anxiety is an emotion that we all get to experience. It shows up to protect us from some type of danger. This could be a physical threat to our life, social rejection, or perhaps the possibility of failure.

Our brains are wired to protect us. The caveman that spent most of their day scanning the environment for any type of threat was more likely to survive and pass their genes onto future generations. The result? We all have minds that are wired to be anxious.

So, what can we do with anxiety? Fight hundreds of thousands of years of evolution? Seems like an unimaginable feat. What if there was something easier we could do?

The costs of trying to get rid of it

What if anxiety was not actually the problem but the problem was all the things we rely on to get rid of anxiety?

The wine we might overindulge in at the end of the night, the person we didn’t ask out on that date, the challenge we turned down at work, the party we did not go to.

What if the problem was also how we treat ourselves when anxiety shows up? All those harsh things we say to ourselves to make anxiety go away.

The struggle

Whenever an uncomfortable emotion shows up our mind almost always starts struggling with it.

For example, let’s say anxiety shows up, a very natural human emotion. Our mind does not like anxiety, it’s unpleasant, so what does it try to do? It tries to get rid of it. Our mind might start saying oh no! There’s anxiety, I don’t want anxiety, why is it coming up right now, what’s wrong with me? Now we have anxiety about anxiety. Our mind might start beating us up, what’s wrong with me, no one else seems to be struggling, I’m pathetic. Now we have sadness about our anxiety about our anxiety. This struggle can seem never ending and create a cascade of even more difficult emotions!

How to drop the struggle

What if there was a way to drop the struggle with anxiety? Anxiety shows up, and it’s not that we like it or want it, but we choose to not struggle with it. This takes a lot of practice, and does not come natural to any human!

There are generally 3 steps to dropping the struggle with any unpleasant emotion.

  1. Acknowledge: the first step is simply acknowledging the emotion. Often times we can get so caught up in a feeling, that we might not even notice what is happening. Acknowledging can be as simple as saying to yourself “I notice a feeling of anxiety” “I notice this feeling in my stomach”.
  2. Allow: the next step is practicing allowing it to be there, even though it is unpleasant. This can include saying to yourself “aha, anxiety, there you are, I recognize you are here to protect me from danger, thank you for trying to do your #1 job!”
  3. Accommodate: the final step is the hardest one. Accommodating means making room for the feeling. Allowing it to come and stay and go in its own time. In practice this can involve taking some deep breaths around the feeling, and as you are breathing around the feeling imagine that you are creating a space for it. If the anxiety grows, try to give it even more space.

How will this be helpful?

Anxiety is an inevitable part of life. It shows up for everyone. Often the issue is not anxiety itself but all the things we do to avoid anxiety in the first place.

When we practice dropping the struggle with anxiety, it’s freer to come and stay and go in its own time. With practice it doesn’t have to hold us back from doing the things we want to do, it can actually come along for the ride.

Practice, practice, practice

This idea sounds simple but requires a lot of practice. If you’d like to practice dropping the struggle with anxiety (or any unpleasant feeling you may be struggling with) check out this guided exercise where I walk you through the steps by imagining an emotion as an object.

If you’d like to learn more, check out this short youtube clip on the struggle switch which explains this idea of dropping the struggle (I reference it in the beginning of the audio exercise).

Tips on Dealing with COVID-19

What a few weeks it has been! With many of us being forced to abandon our routine, stay at home and with all upcoming plans being cancelled, it is normal that feelings of sadness, disappointment, frustration, anxiety, or anger will come up. Here are some ideas that might help you cope during this unprecedented time.

Acknowledge and open up to what you are feeling

This sounds basic but it’s oh so important. Often when we experience an unpleasant feeling we immediately try to get rid of it. Sometimes this can work, but often it can result in an unnecessary struggle with the feeling which can lead to a cascade of even more unpleasant feelings. For example, if we feel disappointed about a cancelled vacation our mind might try to get rid of the feeling by beating ourselves up, “look how lucky you are, you are healthy! Thousands of people are struggling more than you right now, what is wrong with you, it’s just a vacation!” Now we have guilt about our disappointment. Our mind might continue to struggle to try and get rid of the feeling, it might say ‘you are never able to look on the bright side, you are so negative, you will always be this way!” Now we have sadness about our guilt about our disappointment.

Instead when you notice yourself struggling with a feeling, try simply acknowledging how you feel. You could calmly say to yourself, “I notice a feeling of disappointment”, or “I notice a feeling of frustration”. Headspace is a meditation app that is now offering free guided mediations during the COVID-19 crisis which is a great way to help drop the struggle with unpleasant feelings. For more information click here.

Another way we can drop the struggle with unpleasant emotions is by practicing self-compassion. A good first step is asking yourself what would you say to a friend who was going through something similar. For example, if you had a friend who was disappointed about a cancelled vacation, would you say “what’s wrong with you?” or would you say “that sounds really hard, it makes sense that you would be disappointed, you were really looking forward to this .” For more resources on self-compassion check out my blog post on the topic here. This is a difficult time for everyone, being kind to ourselves is needed now more than ever.

Focus on what is in your control

After we acknowledge and open up to our feelings, it can be helpful to focus on what is in our control right now. We cannot control what others do, and we cannot control the virus itself. We can follow health guidelines about physical distancing and washing our hands. While this can seem small, the effect it can have on slowing down the spread is HUGE. Psychologist Dr. Steven Hayes wrote a great article on how all of us have the potential to be everyday heroes. You can read this article here.

Connect to your values

In times of uncertainty it can be helpful to outline what it is that is important to you. One way to do this is to imagine yourself 1 year from now looking back on this difficult time. How do you most wish you treated yourself, your friends, your family, and other people? Maybe you wished you were kind, and caring to yourself and those around you. Maybe you hoped to make those around you laugh, and have fun during this difficult time. Maybe you wished you were courageous and helpful to those in your community. There is no right or wrong answer here. Once you’ve identified some values, you could try picking one each day, and doing some small action in line with this value. If you do try this out, notice how you feel afterwards.

Additional Resources

Self-Care Kit for Children: this definitely is a stressful time for parents! While all us childless adults are spending time doing yoga or trying out new hobbies, parents of young kids are required to be on 24/7 without the break of school or day care. If your child is experiencing anxiety related to COVID-19 this is a self-care kit for children created by Dr Kathryn Holden, a psychologist from England. Click here.

FACE COVID: Here is a youtube video created by psychotherapist Dr. Russ Harris on how to handle COVID-19 using principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Some of the ideas from this article were taken from here, check it out.

Free Yale Course on the Science of Wellbeing: One of Yale’s most popular psychology courses is now being offered for free. The course looks at empirically supported tools to enhance wellbeing and teaches you how to bring these tools into your day-to-day life. If you are someone that has a lot more time on your hands this could be helpful. Click here.


Self-compassion has received a lot of research recently (over 1,000 published studies)! Psychologist Dr. Kristen Neff was the first to come up with a formal definition of self-compassion, and use it as a measure in psychological research. Her definition of self-compassion is made up of 3 components.

1.) Mindfulness

In order to give ourselves compassion we must first be aware that we are suffering. Mindfulness simply means opening up and acknowledging our pain. In other words, noticing your thoughts and feelings. For example, you might say to yourself I am having the thought that I am not good enough, or I am having the thought that I am a lousy parent. You could also take note about what feelings these thoughts bring up, for example I notice a feeling of guilt, shame, sadness, worry, etc. For more information on mindfulness, check out my blog post on the topic.

2.) Common Humanity

When we suffer it is common to experience a sense of isolation. Common humanity involves reminding ourselves that as humans we all suffer, we all fail, and we are all inadequate in some way. If you are having a certain thought or feeling it means that millions of other people around the world have also had that same thought or feeling. This part is not intended to minimize your pain, or imply that things are not that bad. Instead, the purpose is to remind yourself that you are not alone.  There is a great quote that sums this up nicely.

“You are not one drop in the ocean, you are the entire ocean in one drop”


In other words your pain is part of the wider human experience. It does not isolate you, in fact it unites you with everyone else.

3.) Self-Kindness

This can be the trickiest part of self-compassion for many people. Self-kindness means speaking to yourself the same way you would speak to someone you deeply cared about. Quite often, our minds are our own worst enemies. When we are struggling with something, our minds tend to beat us up. However, if someone we loved was struggling with the exact same thing, we usually would respond with kindness. Take a moment to think about the last time someone you loved was going through something difficult… what did you say to them? How did you act towards them? Now, think about the last time you were going through something difficult… what did you say to yourself? How did you act towards yourself? For many of us there is a drastic difference.  

But does it actually help?

There is a growing body of research that shows self-compassion can protect us from developing mental health issues. One study really stood out to me. Hiraoka et al. (2015) measured levels of self-compassion in U.S. combat veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. They found that those with higher levels of self-compassion were less likely to develop symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) one year later, and that this was more predictive than the amount or quality of the combat they faced. Think about that for a second, how these veterans related to themselves in their moments of pain and struggle was more predictive of whether or not they would later develop PTSD than the actual trauma they faced. 

We all have different levels of self-compassion. But what is very exciting, is that research has shown self-compassion is something that can be learned, and when taught, can increase emotional resilience in the face of stress and lead to greater overall psychological well being. There are many different types of self-compassion practices you can implement into your daily life. Below I have attached an excellent workbook that does just that, as well as Dr. Kristen Neff’s website where you can measure your current level of self-compassion, access free self-compassion exercises, and also learn the common misconceptions people have about self-compassion. 


Dr. Neff’s Self-Compassion Website


Hiraoka, R., Meyer, E. C., Kimbrel, N. A., DeBeer, B. B., Gulliver, S. B., & Morissette, S. B. (2015). Self‐compassion as a prospective predictor of PTSD symptom severity among trauma‐exposed US Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Journal of Traumatic Stress28(2), 127-133.

The Social Comparison Machine

Do you find that your mind often compares you to others? Tells you that you are not as good as those around you? That you don’t have the best job, or you are not as kind, smart, funny, pretty, or courageous as the other people in your life? Does your mind beat you up a lot about that? I know mine sure does! Our minds are social comparison machines.

Our Caveman Mind

Have you ever thought about why your mind might be doing that? Turns out, it’s most likely just trying to protect you. When looking back at how humans have evolved, one of the reasons we were so effective as a species was not because we were the biggest or strongest animals out there, it was our ability to work together. To form a tribe. Being part of a tribe was critical for our survival. The humans that didn’t care about what others thought of them and didn’t care about being part of the group, well guess what happened to them? They became lion dinner. 

Basically, the humans that cared the most about what others thought of them, were less likely to be kicked out of the group, and were therefore more likely to survive and pass their genes on to future generations. Our minds have evolved to be social comparison machines! In fact, today, social anxiety disorder (a pervasive fear of being judged by others) is the most common of all the anxiety disorders. 

The Newer Social Comparison Machine

A cruel thing about the time we are living in, is that not only do we have a social comparison machine between our ears due to evolution, but we also tend to carry one around with us all day. Our phones! I want to preface this by saying that I think today is the best time to be alive as a species. I’ll take the perils of social media over fighting lions any day. However, it is important to reflect on what exactly is happening to us right now, and maybe why so many of us struggle. We carry around these devices that give us an endless stream of images of our friends doing cool things… vacations, promotions, opening businesses, having children, getting married, you name it. This can kick our social comparison machine mind into overdrive… everyone is succeeding, I am not doing enough, I’m not as successful, what’s wrong with me! The answer is, there is nothing wrong with you! You are not alone. We are all comparing ourselves to others to see how we are matching up, this is how we have evolved. Deep down, what your mind is really saying is… don’t kick me out of the tribe please! Don’t make me lion dinner! 

What Do We Do?

From the model I am trained in as a therapist (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, also known as ACT, pronounced one word) we don’t try to stop these thoughts, you can’t really, they are there for good reason. In fact, there is a growing body of research arguing that the more you try to stop your thoughts, the worse it gets (more on that later). Instead, we use unhooking skills (also known as mindfulness skills) to change our relationship with our thoughts. How do we do that? There are 3 steps; notice, name, and normalize your thoughts. 

  1. Notice it: the first step is to notice what your mind is doing. You could say to yourself, I am having a lot of thoughts right now about not being good enough, that others are better than me. 
  2. Name it: you could call it the social comparison machine, or even make another name for it, like ‘AHA, there’s that caveman mind!’
  3. Normalize it: remind yourself that it is NORMAL, that you are not alone, that everyone else is doing the same thing, that your mind is just doing what it has evolved to do. You could even say to yourself, thanks mind! Thanks for trying to protect me from getting kicked out of the tribe!

Now this won’t make the social comparison machine go away, it will keep coming back, but by practicing these skills the idea is that you slowly learn to welcome it as a friend, rather than see it as the enemy. Over time, this can make everything a whole lot easier.  

Mindfulness. What is it really?

Mindfulness has been a buzz word in the mental health field for a while now. I think many people have misconceptions about what it is. For good reason, as there is no one agreed upon definition!

From the therapeutic approach I am trained in (known as ACT), mindfulness is defined as paying attention to what is unfolding in the present moment with flexibility, openness, curiosity, and kindness.

That’s it you say? Okay, but what does that really mean?

Let’s try a little experiment….

I want you to take a moment, and notice, what thoughts are popping into your head right now? You may say to yourself, I am having a thought about what am I going to have for dinner, or I am having the thought that I am not going to understand this post, or I am having a thought about something stupid I said to Bob the other day. That, is a moment of mindfulness. You are noticing what is unfolding in the present moment.

Now, let’s try something different… I want you to bring your attention to your feet. If you can, gently push your feet into the floor, notice the sensations around your feet. That, is also a moment of mindfulness. You are noticing what is unfolding in the present moment.

Now, look around the room, and notice 5 things you can see….. now take note of 2 things you can hear. That, is also a moment of mindfulness.

The Stage Show Metaphor

In ACT we say that from our direct experience the world is like a stage show, and on that stage are all your thoughts, your feelings, and everything you can see, hear, taste, smell, and touch. Whenever you stop and notice any one of those things, or notice them all at the same time, you are being mindful.

I think a common misconception with mindfulness is that in order to be in the present moment, your mind has to be completely quiet (i.e. you must have no thoughts). As soon as we have a thought, we conclude that we are somehow “failing at mindfulness” or “mindfulness does not work for me”. This is not the goal of mindfulness. In fact, your mind is never going to stop generating thoughts because that is what minds do! As soon as you notice the thought, and say to yourself I am having the thought_____ or even better, I notice I am having the thought______, that is a moment of mindfulness!

Mindfulness can be a formal practice (known as meditation) but can also be informal, as we just did above.

The Mind as a Masterful Storyteller

Okay… some of you might still be saying, well what is the point of all this? The point is that mindfulness can be a very useful tool when we are getting pulled in every direction by our thoughts. You see, minds are very good at telling us stories. By “stories” I do not mean that our thoughts are false, I mean that thoughts are simply words and pictures going through our minds. Sometimes it is helpful to listen to these stories…. a car is coming, jump out of the way!!! Other times, these stories are not as helpful… I always screw up, I never do anything right, maybe there is no point in even trying. When we practice mindfulness, we get better and better at unhooking from the unhelpful stories.

More blog posts to follow on this topic.

For now, try experimenting by bringing in moments of mindfulness to your day. Check in at different points in the day, what am I feeling? What am I thinking? What can I see, hear, taste, smell, and touch? Chances are you have already done so but may not have known it was “mindfulness”.