Self-Care or Self-Limitation?

Photo by Michal Parzuchowski

Most of us understand that caring for ourselves is important, even if we aren’t always so consistent about doing so. Of course, each individual is the best person to determine what is really needed. But, the human mind can play tricks on us and we don’t always know how to best care for ourselves. Mainstream US culture doesn’t encourage us to ask ourselves the question, “What do I really need?” Discerning this takes practice.

On the one hand, having a self-care routine can be very helpful. Just as we brush our teeth every day to keep them healthy, it is also beneficial to have a daily practice built into the fabric of our lives. But, just as with brushing our teeth, we run the risk of sliding into autopilot in our practice, engaging in it blindly, without much curiosity or awareness.

Sometimes what we consider to be self-care or practice is actually just indulging problematic or outdated habits and patterns. When we feed these urges and preferences over and over again, we strengthen and solidify them. As time goes by, its as if we are chiseling self-defeating tendencies into stone or trapping ourselves in a tiny cage of our own making.

Some potentially harmful habits that can be perpetuated through unskillful practice include:

  1. remaining stuck in unawareness or self-limiting beliefs – such as never moving beyond “step 1” even when “step 2” becomes appropriate, or practicing in an “echo chamber” closed to new information
  2. feeding the ego – reifying misguided ideas about the “self”, practicing to be the kind of person we’d like to be seen as, practicing for our “self” alone – never considering the wellbeing of others, or practicing in ways that protect and build up a cherished identity
  3. grasping & clinging at what is wanted – chasing after pleasure, special states of experience, relaxation or bliss, or practicing with singular goal to become more creative, efficient or productive
  4. avoiding what is unwanted (including the concept of death) – using practice as a distraction or escape, practicing to transcend one’s humanity

It can be very difficult to discern what is actually good for us from what we prefer when they are not one in the same. How can we know if what we are drawn to, what we immerse ourselves in, or what we practice day in and day out, is actually helpful?

The best way to understand the nature of most things is through direct observation. Are the benefits of our practice short-lived, limited in scope, or highly dependent upon circumstance – or do they ripple out and sustain us over the longer-term? How closely aligned is our current behavior and life experience with these research-based correlates of psychological health and well-being:

  • Do I have a realistic, flexible and fair view of myself? Am I able to accept myself as I am – a fluid, dynamic and ever-changing process – even when I make mistakes?
  • Is it getting easier for me to remain relatively balanced and content, even in the face of difficult events or circumstances? Can I regulate my emotions and behavior independent of most environmental and social pressures?
  • Am I developing and/or maintaining positive relationships with others, characterized by reciprocal empathy, intimacy, and affection?
  • Am I able to adapt to changing circumstances and respond in novel ways to different challenges in a manner that is in alignment with my highest values?
  • Is my life meaningful or do I have a sense of purpose?

If we begin to discover that our usual practices are working against our highest intentions – one way to break out of this pattern is to begin to experiment. Can we dare to leave our comfort zones, jump the rut we have found ourselves in, and explore something new? Then, can we patiently observe the thoughts, feelings, body sensations, and urges to action that arise as well as the after-effects of our adventuring?

Change can feel scary or inconvenient and we often resist it, even when its necessary or promises some benefit. Its important to remember that self-compassion is wishing for ourselves what is best for us, which sometimes requires facing something difficult or even unwanted. Fortunately, we have everything we need already inside us to meet whatever we encounter – it just needs some uncovering – and at times we have to shake things up in order to find it. May we be open to the great adventures ahead!

I am the happiest man alive. I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity, and I am more invulnerable than Archilles; Fortune hath not one place to hit me. ― Thomas Browne


Kashdan, TB & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical Psychology Review; 30, 467-480.

Ryff CD, & Singer B. (1996). Psychological well-being: meaning, measurement, and implications for psychotherapy research. Psychother Psychosom; 65(1):14-23.

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