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  • Writer's pictureRachel Swanick

The Self-Care Trap

After another gruelling two-day migraine, I resolved, again, to look after myself better. Next time, I would make sure I exercised every day and said no to stressful things and worked less and breathed more and thought more positively… the list of things I should have been doing was endless. A few weeks later, I was repeating the same cycle – epic migraine followed by epic berating for not looking after myself properly. I had fallen in to the ‘self-care’ trap and whatever physical and emotional issues I was experiencing, I had put it on myself to fix them.

Everywhere we look, we are encouraged to consider our self-care. Instagram and TikTok are full of influencers telling us to keep our boundaries, to say no, to do yoga, to breathe, to buy this supplement and that book. Self-care is pushed on us in magazines and on TV; beautiful people looking in to the middle distance, cup of tea in hand, fluffy scarf on, meditating away their pain. Heck, even our clothes have some kind of motto for us – Smile! Be Kind! Positive Thoughts Only! Whatever it is and wherever it is appearing, the ultimate message is that you can think your way out of this difficult stuff.

Now, there are times when I agree with this. I love a positive spin on a rubbish situation (I wrote this blog whilst waiting for a meeting that no one came to!) and sometimes, changing the way we think is the only way to manage something difficult. But what happens if we can’t fix ourselves? What about when things are just really crappy and busy and stressful? For instance, who out there reading this is a parent and finding the run up to Christmas reaalllyyy stressful with the parties and the pressure of buying the best gifts for ALL of your friends and family whilst wearing matching PJs and a perfect lipstick-ed smile?! Who else is finding the pressure to have a jolly, sparkly time too much because all they want to do is hibernate? Who is so worried about the cost of living and the horrific events around the world that putting on some sequins is the last thing on their minds? These are very real thoughts that we can spin around a little, but actually, it doesn’t take away the feelings. And when we don’t acknowledge our feelings, they have a habit of popping up somewhere else, like in migraines, illness or anxiety.

I am a big believer in looking after yourself so you can look after others and there are times when we need to say no and do something just for us. It could be going to the gym, or a hobby, or seeing a friend. It can also be more practical things like getting through your ‘to do’ list so you are not thinking about it constantly. Whatever you do, try to ensure that it will lighten your load and not add to it. Do Less and Be More. Feeling under pressure to fix things that we cannot fix will only have a detrimental effect on our wellbeing. Comparing ourselves to others – especially those we don’t know online, for example – is an easy way to feeling like we are not good enough. And this is not true. We are good enough in our ordinary devoted way (thanks, Winnicott).

In therapy, we have a saying (another Winnicott!) that every patient has the answers they need within them. Taken in one way, you may feel that this means we can fix ourselves and that extreme self-care is the best option. However, self-care is also asking for help. It is finding the words and courage to trust that someone will hear us and understand us so that we can feel better.

After a year of migraines every month, I did go to the doctors. They are hormonal (perimenopause, anyone?) and although there are things that I can do to reduce some of the pain, I just have to ride through them. Knowing that there isn’t a lot I can do and knowing the reason behind them does help and I am glad that I reached out and reduced that pressure I was putting on myself. So next time it happens, I will stay away from the need to change everything in the interest of self-care. Instead, I might take a lavender bubble bath, or I might clear my diary so I can rest, and I might call a friend and wallow is rubbishness of it all. Whatever I do decide, I certainly won’t be falling into the self-care trap again.

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