When trying to practice self-care makes you feel worse

When self-care turns you into a martyr, indulgence, deprivation

This post was co-written with Beth Scarlett (registered psychotherapist).

As moms, we talk about how important it is to add self-care activities to our life, but what about the things we do that are counter-productive for our self-care? I’ve been thinking about self-care on a daily basis for about 3 years and had never asked myself, “do I do anything that damages my self-care efforts?”

Now that I have that question in my mind, it’s hard to get it out. In fact, I almost wonder whether these activities that are counter-productive to self-care are as important (or maybe even more important) to our overall self-care than adding more things to our to-do lists.

As I was drafting and finalizing the self-care post, I shared it with a girlfriend, Beth. Beth is counselor whose actual job is to help people work through issues, so she talks a lot about self-care. Plus we had been having conversations about how easy it is to tell others what to do (for example how important self-care is), but that it can be really, really hard to turn around and do that yourself. Beth has two young kids, works full-time, and has just started her own private practice – she is busy, mostly taking care of other people and not making enough time to take care of herself.

When I sent her the draft post, Beth had wonderful feedback and shared her self-care acronym with me. Here is what she shared:

Self-Care Acronym


These go together for me. I always have a few books on the go, though I have come to learn that for my self-care, I need to find a balance. Typically that balance is made up of 3 types of books: 1) "Escape reading"---currently Harry Potter series; 2) non-fiction inspiring/self improvement focused reading; and 3) academic reading/work related books/history/politics. As for writing, it's my chosen creative outlet, from keeping a journal and free writing, to letters/emails to friends/family, to impromptu limericks, and hopefully eventually a wellness blog. Humans are story tellers, and it is my passion to be on either side of the story (giver and receiver).

R---Running (and other exercise)

Running is something that "clears my head". Ideally if I can run at least once per week and do a yoga class once per week, combined with chasing after the kids, I'm doing alright.

I---Intellectual Conversation

(Yes, I completely stole this from you, but it is SO IMPORTANT to me)

T---Time Alone

This is huge! And I often underestimate the importance of it. I so often focus my attention and energy to others, that my time alone can be "auto pilot" at the end of a hectic "giving" day and not self-care. When I intentionally set aside time alone each day while I still have energy (I find waking up first at home ideal) my whole life is smoother. If I can squeeze formal meditation in, all the better.


Obviously, I eat daily, but again if I approach it in a mindful intentional way, I get so much more from it. Making good choices as to what I put into my body, appreciating the sensory elements that cooking and eating evoke. Cooking is something I love to do if I can carve out the time.

I love her “WRITE” acronym so much. In fact, I immediately added “time alone” to my acronym and I’m envious of the simplicity of her acronym, mine is EBMIQT, which doesn’t have the same beautiful ring to it as WRITE does. Okay, now I have to check myself, it’s not about comparing, it’s about inspiration. Beth inspired me to add a much needed word to my acronym – time alone!



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    Damaging our self-care efforts

    A few days later, Beth writes me another email asking whether I have an acronym about the things I do that might hurt my self-care efforts. She described these as “far more sneaky and less tangible than the self-care list”, these are the “warning signs” that we are doing things that are not helping us.

    Here is her brilliant list of anti-self-care activities:

     MARTYR (due to my inclination to "self-sacrifice" for what I think is the benefit of others)


    Not being present to enjoy and experience the little moments that make up life, a lack of intention in my own actions


    Trying to avoid issues, challenges, and my feelings


    For example, rationalizing that I need to do all of these things for other people – this is my go-to defense mechanism

    T---Time wasting

    Screen time can just suck up my energy and mindlessly pass the time without making me any happier

    Y--Yielding to others

    Putting others needs/wants ahead of my own


    Thinking about and re-hashing the same worries over and over, the opposite of avoidance, with same results.

     Wow! That was powerful, really powerful for me. Everyone might have different warning signs, and a lot of these really, really resonate with me. It also helps me understand how sometimes doing my self-care activities doesn’t quite give me what I was looking for – on those days I have often spent a lot of time on more self-destructive activities. My go-to things are about planning and overplanning – trying to control the uncontrollable. Then getting so worked up that I don’t stop to breathe or take even a moment to myself, but instead mindlessly doing lots and lots of non-productive things (like complaining about my stress, going on social media) that actually make me feel worse, not better.

    When I’m aware enough to think, “wow, I need some self-care”, I start doing something on my self-care acronym in a checklist-like way. It’s as if I’m trying to complete the self-care to check it off my list instead of truly enjoying the activity.

    If any of this sounds familiar to you, it’s a great opportunity to think about how you can create a second acronym – the list of things you do that counterbalance your self-care activities. It doesn’t need to be long, it’s about figuring out the things you do that make you more stressed rather than less stressed.

    How do you start?

    1. Make sure you have a really solid self-care acronym.

    2. Spend 2-3 days paying attention to the activities you do and the thoughts you have that damage your self-care efforts? What are the things that counterbalance all of the good that came from your self-care activities?

    3. Come up with your anti-self-care acronym.

    4. On those rough days, think about what self-activities you could be doing more of and which anti-self-care activities you could spend less time on.

    It’s not easy, but it’s totally worth it!


    when self-care makes things worse for working moms, indulgence, martyr