When Self-Care becomes Punishing

Sep 13, 2016

When Self-Care becomes Punishing | www.nalumana.com

Self-care is a massive area of concern, growth, and learning for almost every. single. woman. I work with.


The conversations sound almost the same across the board.

“I just can’t seem to find the time.”

“I feel guilty about leaving my family to meet my own needs.”

“I don’t want to be selfish.”

“I try to do it and then I just end up folding laundry or something…there are always other priorities.”

And no matter what a woman’s reason for not engaging in self-care,

Sprinkled throughout the conversation, seemingly benign and yet ultimately toxic, are the SHOULDS.

“I should…get some exercise, take a bath, book a pedicure, take a weekend away, go on a date night, book a babysitter, buy myself a new outfit, meditate, get to yoga more often, have a girls night, call my best friend, read more books, listen to that podcast, go out for coffee, dust off my motorcycle / surf board / scuba gear / hiking boots…

…should, should, should.”

Research by the neuroscientist Kelly McGonigal, an expert on self-compassion, shows us that that whole

“quit shoulding yourself” 

thing that we say 

(which, ironically, is a should in and of itself)

is actually more important than we imagined.

McGonigal’s research shows that brain scans of people who use that “should” language actually light up in the very same way as they do when they’re being punished in some way.  In other words, the same areas of the brain that are activated when you’re being punished also activate when you say “I should be (fill in the blank).”

When you say “I really should be doing more self-care,” your brain feels like you’re punishing it.



McGonigal goes on to suggest that responding with self-compassion is they key to avoiding punishing yourself with the shoulds.

It’s a way of getting curious and going deeper with your assumptions and beliefs about self-care, why you need it, and why you’re not getting it.

It’s about ever-so-gently having this dialogue with yourself:

“Sweetie, things have been tough lately.  I sense you’re feeling a bit stretched / frustrated / on edge / sad.  It seems like a bit of self-care might be the answer, but it feels challenging to schedule, hard to justify.  That can be hard.”

And then….you sit there.  With the shittyness.  And you let it be.  Because chances are, a pedicure or a date night or a run isn’t going to actually solve what’s going on right now.  It’s a Band Aid for really challenging feelings that probably involve your sense of self-worth and how you show up on your own priorities list.  No doubt, it’s probably got a little bit to do with your mother.  There are probably some deeply-engrained stories about selfishness and guilt and time (or lack thereof).

And when you’re sitting in that shittyness, just acknowledge it.  That is self-compassion.

And now:

“Sweet honey babe, what do you need right now?  Can I get that for you?  Let me take care of you.”

And you allow it.  You allow yourself to actually nurture yourself, in a way that is truly based in your own needs, not someone else’s definition of self-care (see also: pedicure).  It’s an energetic shift:  it’s a sensing, and opening, not a shoulding.

And I think your brain will really like it, too.