Overcoming Personal Barriers to Self-Care

As part of my work and personal experience with burnout, I created a tool to help myself and other practitioners make a plan for affordable and sustainable self-care. This tool has served me well through the years, reminding me what I can engage with on a regular basis that can help me promote my own energy and well-being. But I have noticed, especially during the times where I wasn’t at my best, that this tool has some limitations. 

There are often times where I engage with the activities that help usually recharge me, but for whatever reason they weren’t as effective, or it felt like there were barriers to my self-care activities working as they usually did. 

Identifying Barriers to Self-Care

So, what did I do when I noticed this? I made myself another acronym. But this time, instead of naming the activities that help me thrive, it was about identifying the sneaky barriers to self-care that were sabotaging my well-being. Unlike the observable, actionable tasks that are the cornerstone of my self-care plan, the self-care blocker acronym names more insidious elements. It’s more about mindset and the non-observable behaviors that can get us in trouble.

Just like the self-care plan, this acronym is individual and unique. Yours won’t be the same as mine or anyone else’s. This tool is much more personal and requires some in-depth reflection. It’s time to get honest with yourself.

How to Create Your Barriers to Self-Care Acronym 

In order to make this tool work for you, start by recognizing that there are certain times you’re better at taking care of yourself than others. This is human nature, and seems especially true for individuals who devote a giant portion of their life helping others. Then look at what is happening during those moments. 

Ask yourself: What are some common thought patterns that arise when I’m not taking care of myself? What autopilot behaviors do I engage in? What warning signs show up and drain my energy? What do I hide from others or feel some shame about? What sort of mindset steers me away from the activities that I know help me?

When I created this tool for myself, I chose a word that represents the darker side of my helping self—MARTYR. This choice isn’t an accident. In fact, I’ve really gotten to know my martyr side very well over the past few years, especially through my major burnout episode

I think of my martyr side as being well-intentioned—yet self-destructive. She often starts driving the bus when I’m feeling depleted. She’s the part of myself that convinces me that my own needs don’t matter. She tries to convince me that she’s making good points, but I don’t want her behind the wheel. To help address these qualities of my martyr self, here is the breakdown of my MARTYR acronym. I hope it inspires you to do some reflection and create your own list.

M: Mindlessness

For me, mindlessness looks like a sense of disengagement and lack of intention behind my choices and actions. This can show up in many ways, such as in food consumption, media intake, or just not being present in whatever I’m doing. As a result, even if I’m doing something that is usually an act of self-care, such as going for a walk, if I’m doing it mindlessly, I’m less likely to get the full benefit from it. 

A: Avoidance

This might come in the form of procrastination of tasks, not responding to calls or emails, or even cancelling plans by making excuses. It can also look like avoiding obligations, but I typically find obligations to others are the last to go (bringing it back to the martyrdom). The first things I tend to avoid are the actions on my self-care acronym. If I’m avoiding those simple tasks, I’ve lost sight of my own needs.

R: Rationalization

In all honesty, this is my favorite defense mechanism. There are times that it has served me well, but more often than not it pairs really nicely with avoidance to keep me from focusing on my own well-being. It’s easy to find excuses not to exercise or to make false promises that you’ll do it later—without defining when later actually is.

If you can catch yourself doing this, try to flip your rationalization skills in favor of self-care. Personally, I do that a lot when it comes to running. Instead of rationalizing why not to run, I’ll rationalize that it’ll only take me 20 minutes, so I might as well get it out of the way. 

T: Time Wasting

This goes back to not being intentional with our actions. What are your autopilot time wasters? It’s not about the actions themselves—social media, TV, video games, and other autopilot activities can all have a place in a thriving life. The trouble starts when we go into autopilot instead of being purposeful with our time. As a result, an activity that could be self-care instead becomes self-destructive.

Y: Yielding to Others

It’s taken me years to realize how frequently I put the needs of others ahead of myself. Between my personal life as a wife and mom of two young children and a business owner who provides psychotherapy and supervision services to others, it’s easy to lose sight of my own needs in favor of what other people need. When I forget to “pay” myself first, I end up not just doing a disservice to myself, but also to the people I care for and support. 

R: Rumination

This is when I get stuck thinking about and re-hashing the same worries over and over. Funnily enough, while on the surface rumination is the opposite of avoidance, the results are the same. I get stuck on repeat in my brain, and it keeps me from letting go and moving forward.

During challenging times in my life or in the world, such as during my intense burnout episode or throughout the pandemic, it was easy to slip into these patterns of thinking and behaving. The term “languishing” that has been floating around a lot lately is quite fitting here. Feeling stuck, unmotivated or simply “blah” can really create barriers to self-care.

While this list isn’t as practical or actionable as my tool for creating a self-care plan, I use it in a different way. I have a sticky note with these words on it in a place that’s easy for me to see. When I notice I’m feeling depleted, I look at my list, and remind myself that I don’t actually want to be a martyr—let’s face it, that doesn’t ever end well. But if you can name the barriers to self-care that you’re facing, they’re easier to change. 

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