Mental Health
Why Your Self-care Isn’t Working

Why Your Self-care Isn’t Working

6 min read


Caitlin Harper

There’s a good chance that, at this point, you know all about self-care. When I simply Googled the word, I got about 4,400,000,000 results. But despite knowing all about it and what we’re supposed to do, time and again, we realize that it’s just not working for us.

The term self-care has origins in medical research, but its move into the public sphere can be traced back to Black feminist writers, such as Audre Lorde, who described self-care as a way of coping with the personal journey of cancer as well as the structural trauma of racism. 

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” - Audre Lorde

At its core, self-care is the practice of activities that an individual initiates and performs on their own behalf to maintain life, health, and wellbeing.

Sounds easy, right? Turns out, it’s not. In fact, despite wellness being a multi-billion-dollar industry, we’re more burned out and stressed out than ever. So why doesn’t your self-care work for you? Here are a few reasons:

Self-care isn’t one-size-fits-all

Taking a bath, sleeping, getting a massage, and eating a well-balanced diet are all examples of self-care. While sleep and a well-balanced diet are beneficial to all, baths, massages, and other activities aren't for everyone (even sleep is nuanced—obviously it's essential, but as the mom of a new baby, sometimes awake time to read, sit outside, or have a coffee feels more rejuvenating to me than sleep). It’s important to adopt a comprehensive, individualized approach and do what fills your cup.

Self-care shouldn’t contribute to your stress

Is all your self-care…exhausting? Stressing you out? Contributing to your to-do list or burnout?

Those Instagrammable self-care acts of bath bombs and perfect plates of food can contribute to our stress by just adding more things to do to our plate. Did you eat enough? Sleep enough? Travel enough? Relax enough? Quantifying the “work” we are doing on ourselves (and ostensibly for ourselves) not only reinforces the idea that self-care should be work but also presents excessive opportunities for self-criticism.

Be kind to yourself and celebrate any progress you make—aiming for perfection will make it harder to stick to a routine, and making self-care another to-do item can compound feelings of burnout.

Sometimes, self-care is more about doing nothing than doing something

The first step in smart self-care—which is the often-difficult work of cultivating strategies to address things like healthy boundaries, vulnerability, toxic relationships, reactiveness, numbing, scarcity, failure, success, etc.—often begins with a conversation we have with ourselves (a difficult conversation), asking, What’s working and what’s not working? What gets in the way? What needs to change? How do I invest my time?

This is one reason boundaries are so helpful. If things or people in your life are draining, it can be an act of self-care to say no, take things off your plate, and just stop trying to do it all.

Self-care doesn’t have to mean slowing down or relaxing

Sleep and rest are important, but if you’ve got sleep covered and don’t feel fulfilled by stillness or additional rest, then that might not be the self-care angle for you! If you’re more rejuvenated and grounded by a long run or going dancing, do what works for you. Think about what you can build into you life that fills you with positive emotions and refuel you so you can continue to engage.

Self-care isn’t a one-off action

Again, self-care is the practice of activities that an individual initiates and performs on their own behalf to maintain life, health, and wellbeing—the key word here being practice.

Once you decide what you find most rejuvenating, make a contract with yourself to commit to these actions until they become second nature. Life will get in the way, and family, friends, and work never stop calling, but making preventative self-care a priority will save you time and energy in the long run.

Self-care works best when it’s preventative, but it’s never too late

Nothing makes my anxiety spike more than thinking I haven’t done something I was supposed to do, so this might sound supremely unhelpful, but if you feel like you need “some self-care,” it might be too late.

Too late to not feel that way in the first place but never too late to course-correct. If you need to right the ship, try something new:

Self-care has nothing to do with buying things

Unless shopping is your particular form of self-care, consumerism doesn’t have to come into play at all when it comes to your self-care. Volunteering, spending time with loved ones, sitting or taking a walk outside, spending time with a pet, reading a book from the library—there are countless ways to care for yourself for free.

Self-care doesn’t always mean alone time

I love alone time—I need alone time. But self-care doesn’t always have to mean alone time. In fact, especially in pandemic times, connection and community are more important than ever.

I (re)realized this just the other day when I was watching my baby daughter alone. I was getting frustrated and thought, I’ll need a break after this, and of course while I did deserve a break, I realized that the source of my stress was that I was trying to multitask; I was answering emails while watching my daughter and doing a poor job at both things (and getting super drained in the process). 

So I closed my computer and lay on the floor while my daughter climbed all over me, and rested my eyes while she giggled and stuck her fingers up my nose. This turned out to be way more restorative than continuing to multitask and then disappearing the second my husband got home to “recharge” while feeling like I’d barely seen my daughter at all.

You might be doing “self-care” actions that don’t work for you

Maybe what you're labeling as self-care isn't restorative at all. Reacting to stress with numbing activities—like zoning out in front of an electronic screen or binging on junk food and alcohol—contributes to obesity and disease, poor sleep, and ultimately, an unhappy existence. If you're looking to care for yourself but you're landing on numbness instead, that might not fill your cup.

Or maybe what you used to do for self-care doesn’t work as well anymore. For example, self-care can look different before and after having kids, changing careers, moving to a new place, or another life shift.

There are a million lists of self-care activities you can try, but if you’re struggling to figure out what works for you, think: what would restore and rejuvenate my mind, my body, and my sense of support right now? Take five minutes and see if you can do that thing.

You might be turning to self-care to avoid processing

Self-care can serve as a distraction, but if you’re always distracting yourself, you’re not solving the core problem. Self-care means self-awareness and self-acceptance.

Sometimes, things suck. Pandemics suck. Climate change sucks. Gerrymandering sucks. Credit card debt sucks. We can do things about things that suck, but often, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to just scream into the void that THIS SUCKS. Acknowledging it, figuring out what you might be able to change, and getting support can help, but the first step is to let yourself feel your feelings.

You can’t self-care your way out of systemic issues, trauma, or global conflicts

Trauma survivors usually need more than DIY self-care to heal and very few people can self-care their way out of grief, loss, racism, loneliness, addiction, and other serious experiences alone. 

If you’re suffering or basic needs are not being met, Instagram posts telling you to “just” journal or breathe miss the mark. You should never be made to feel like a band-aid solution is the solve for life’s serious problems or that you are somehow failing if you can’t “fix” your situation with a walk outside. If you’re struggling at this level, it can help to seek support from a therapist, community group, or other healthcare provider.

Self-care is a way to invest in yourself, avoid burnout, and keep your cup full

Self-care is not just making time to recharge your batteries with a nap, meditation, or by taking a break from your family—although all those things count. Self-care ultimately is about setting priorities, setting boundaries, and finding purpose.

The best approach to self-care is to initiate your practices and routines from a place of strength and stability to proactively prevent crises. If you need some help, your therapist can work with you to figure out what’s best for you. You will recognize patterns in yourself and better anticipate how your past and present impact you now and in your future. Therapy is not intended to eradicate all sadness or a full range of emotions. Rather, you will build the skills to observe, weather, and accept any storm.

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About the author

Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at

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