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  • Writer's picturePeak Benefit Solutions Team

Why is self care so hard to do?

by Julie Brown

Trends and Connections

This week we celebrate International Women’s Day; a day meant to empower, celebrate and embrace the contributions of all women, past and present.  It’s also a day of advocacy because it acknowledges that we need this day to address issues of oppression and equity.  It recognizes the hard work of women and the many hats we wear.  At a systemic level, it helps us understand why we are tired, depleted and needing self care.

But why is self care so hard to do?

This will not be another message about the importance of taking care of ourselves and I won’t use  the airplane analogy of putting our own oxygen mask on first.  We’ve heard these messages so many times, and yet many of us continue to struggle with caring for ourselves.  We know we should do it, we say it outloud, we can even list the activities that would benefit us (i.e. yoga, meditation, going for a walk, taking a nap, reading a book, going out with a friend, etc).  So the problem isn’t confusion about the importance of self care and it isn’t (usually) a problem of discerning what to do if  we prioritize it.

So what is the problem? 

There are two main themes at play that I’ve learned - and this is based on my 20+ years of experience as a psychotherapist.  First,  we feel guilty, selfish, “bad” for prioritizing ourselves.  We worry that saying yes to ourselves can often mean saying no to someone else we care about.  We carry around an internal sense of our own badness when we are not contributing/accomplishing/caring/producing on someone else’s behalf.  Secondly, we’ve forgotten how to be still and how to slow down.  When we slow down and get quiet, challenging feelings might arise,  so it can also feel uncomfortable.  Who wants to feel uncomfortable when we are trying to take care of ourselves?

In summary, we feel selfish and/or  uncomfortable.  So given this,  you can see why the land of  self care  feels distant and elusive.   

I first identified these issues many years ago when I was teaching a 10 week mindfulness program.  The majority of the participants in these groups identified as women and the most common goals for attending the group was to improve their ability to manage stress, reduce anxiety and care for themselves.  The program was designed to gently introduce the concept of mindfulness and mediation, practice in the group, and then transfer the practice into their lives.  When practicing during the group session, most participants would immediately report some degree of calmness, soothing, reduced tension in their body; many would fall asleep.  The weekly program would then give them a small piece of “homework” to practice between sessions.  The homework often involved meditating for 5-10 minutes and other mindfulness activities like mindful use of technology, brushing your teeth and being fully present.  

My co-facilitators and I noticed a trend that became predictable.  The participants would practice in the group, they often reported positive effects and then would struggle to practice between the sessions.  They would often comment  they were too busy, their family needed them, and they couldn’t find a quiet space to practice for 10 minutes.  Or sometimes they were practicing, feeling calmer and then would eventually stop because uncomfortable feelings were starting to arise.    For a while, we heard this feedback and didn’t inquire further.  However, over time we saw the need to invite the participants to explore this further. 

What was really getting in the way of taking 10 minutes daily for yourself?

The responses were a variation on a theme of; “I feel selfish”  “it feels wrong”  “I feel guilty”  “it feels uncomfortable to say no to my child/spouse/neighbour/friend and prioritize myself.”  “It feels uncomfortable to slow down and then feel the sadness/fear/anger that starts to arise”

We dug deeper, with curiosity, and  it became clear that our struggle was that we had tied our self worth to being productive and getting through the ‘to do’ list. Many of us hold a belief that  if we got more done then we could relax.    We didn’t feel deserving of our own self care unless we earned it.  It wasn’t enough to say, I will engage in this practice that feels supportive and nourishing.  It felt wrong to say yes to ourselves because it felt like we were saying no to someone else. 

I could use the airplane metaphor again - if we don’t put on our mask then how do we help our people? 

But I know the work is so much deeper.  We must explore these inner narratives; the narrative that we must  earn rest and care.   Often these are old narratives that were either modeled or articulated for us at a young age.  Sometimes the words were never spoken but it was the expectation of our conduct.  And to be fair, all of this happens within our social constructs.  Our society has been giving this message throughout time that a woman's work is to take care of others.  We are to be other oriented, not self focused.   It’s a message woven into the societal fabric throughout time. 

So all of this to say….it’s hard to change a narrative.  It’s hard to pull out a book that is full of writing and find space to write a new narrative.  If we find the space, and try to write a new narrative, it also feels uncomfortable.  Our body and mind often squirms, becomes agitated, gives us feedback that we interpret as further evidence that it’s wrong.  This is when I sometimes hear “it’s just not my personality to relax.”  This isn’t a fixed trait, this is old conditioning and all change feels uncomfortable. 

So where do we start? 

My invitation to you: to start simply (but powerfully) with the following new  narrative and then one question. 

The new narrative:  The people I love deserve care, rest and respect AND I deserve care, rest and respect. 

It’s both, it’s not one or the other, we can choose both. 

The Question:

Ask yourself, better yet, ask your body (not your head):  what is a small thing I can do this very moment that is caring, restorative and respectful for myself? 

A glass of water, a deep breath, stretching, step away from your screens, an early bedtime, a snack (most of us are hungry because we’ve been told beauty means being a certain size -   That’s another blog!)

Your answer may sound different than the above, but listen deeply, allow the wisdom of your body to answer this question.  The wisdom is already there inside you just keep asking this question day after day.

And remember, it’s both.  Your people deserve it AND so do you. 

And if it feels uncomfortable?  That means you’re changing and growing. 

Chris Zelasko
Julie Brown Registered Psychotherapist

Julie Brown is a registered psychotherapist working in the Peterborough area.  She has 20 years of clinical experience working in both the health and education systems.  She holds a Master's degree in Counselling psychology, Bachelor of Music Therapy and Bachelor of Music.   Julie is the owner of Tabono Therapy, a therapy practice that specializes in individual therapy for adults and in providing employee wellness workshops and retreats. She also works part time as a counsellor at Hospice Peterborough, providing counselling to clients and their families who are living with life threatening illness.  Julie has specialized training in the treatment of anxiety, depression, mindfulness, grief and trauma.    In addition to her private practice, Julie is an experienced presenter, and has provided workshops to organizations and conferences across Ontario and Canada.   Visit to learn more.

Peak Benefit Solutions Inc. was established in 2008 and have helped more than 400 clients from entrepreneurs, manufacturing, professional services and public organizations with their comprehensive benefits planning. Every step of the way, we are with you.



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