Codependents and people who grew up in dysfunctional families often struggle with self-care. But you can learn what true self-care is and how to tend to your needs.
Do you struggle with self-care?
Self-care is especially hard for those who grew up in dysfunctional families and/or developed codependent traits. Codependents struggle with self-care because they tend to focus on other people’s feelings, needs, and problems, and take care of others, often at their own expense. Part of changing these patterns is shifting from taking care of others to taking care of yourself and tuning into your own feelings and needs.
Self-care doesn’t come easily to those with codependency. It’s truly the opposite of what you’re used to doing. Codependents grow up without role models for self-care, being told their feelings are wrong or unimportant, and feeling unworthy of love and care. Practicing self-care involves unwinding the toxic messages you got in childhood that told you that self-care is selfish, wasteful, and only for people who deserve it.
Self-care is for everyone and it’s essential to your physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. You have feelings and needs that are as valid as anyone else’s. Self-care is a way to meet your needs and embrace your authentic, worthy self.
What is self-care?
Codependents often tell me that they don’t know what self-care is. They are used to living in a constant state of fatigue and suppressing their own needs in order to care for and please others. You probably know this isn’t healthy, but you still might not know how to actually give yourself what you need.
What isn’t self-care?
Self-care is often confused with recreation, self-indulgence, or anything that’s not productive work. Self-care isn’t a justification for doing whatever feels good. Real self-care is good for you and will recharge your batteries. For example, going on a shopping spree might feel good, but it’s not going to restore your emotional wellbeing if you’re now stressed about your credit card bill for months to come.
What do you need?
For self-care to be effective, you have to know what your body, mind, and spirit need. A fun night out with your friends might “fill you up” if you’re feeling alone or disconnected, but it might further exhaust you if you’re feeling run down.
Your body and feelings will tell you what you need. You just have to slow down and tune in long enough to listen. I suggest starting a practice of checking in with yourself 2-3 times per day. Ask yourself: “How do I feel?” (Be as descriptive as you can. Saying, “I’m good”, isn’t going to be helpful.) “How does my body feel?” (Notice things like pain, tension, heart rate, breathing, etc.) This should help you choose a self-care activity to match your needs.
Self-care is mindful rather than mindless
Be intentional with your self-care. Spending 30 minutes on social media is an easy distraction and we assume it’s self-care because it’s not productive work. Many people actually feel worse after spending time on social media either because they’re comparing themselves to others or they feel guilty about wasting time. If social media is relaxing and fulfilling, please use it and give yourself permission to do it without guilt. However, if it leaves you feeling drained, you can intentionally spend 30 minutes doing something that will truly leave you feeling positive.
Treat yourself like a toddler
If you’re still struggling to differentiate self-care from other pleasurable activities, try treating yourself like a toddler. While adults do have some additional needs, it’s a very helpful way to figure out whether something is good for you.
What do little kids need to thrive?
- Healthy food
- Enough rest
- Consistent schedule
- Playmates who treat them well
- Activities that stimulate their brains
- Fresh air
- Help to soothe and comfort themselves
- Physical affection
- Kind words
- Safe place to live
Adults have the same basic needs. Imagine you’ve come home exhausted and just want to relax and forget about work, the three missed calls from your mother, and the pile of bills on the counter. Eating that pint of Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer and zoning out with a movie sounds luxurious.
Would you let a toddler eat an entire pint of ice cream? No, of course not. It’s not healthy. Would you let a toddler watch five hours of TV? No, that’s way too much TV. It’s not healthy for a toddler and it’s not healthy for you. I’m not saying you have to be perfect! We’ve all binged on Netflix and ice cream. Doing it occasionally is fine, but it’s not self-care; it’s checking-out. Keep in mind that moderation is probably not something you learned in your family, so you’ll have to work at it. Be kind to yourself and remember it’s about progress, not perfection.
If you see a baby or toddler crying, you’ll pick him up; you’ll attend to his physical needs by feeding and diapering him and his emotional needs by rocking him, singing or speaking gently to him. All babies deserve love and attentive caretaking. You don’t reserve the best care for the babies who have earned it, or who are the cutest and most perfect.
So, why do you feel like you must earn being cared for? Somewhere along the way you’ve gotten the idea that you’re not worthy of the same care that you give to others. But loving care isn’t something that has to be earned; it’s not reserved for the perfect or the rich or the successful. Just like you shouldn’t wait until a baby has stopped crying before you comfort him, you shouldn’t wait until you’ve got it all together before you give yourself self-care.
Self-care is uncomfortable for codependents and those who grew up in dysfunctional families
When you try to increase your self-care, you will feel uncomfortable. This is a normal part of personal growth. Self-care goes against everything you were taught. You’re learning new skills – how to trust your yourself, listen to your feelings, and meet your own needs. This takes practice.
As you practice self-care, notice what you’re thinking and feeling. I encourage you to write it down and talk to a therapist, sponsor, or another support person. Your thoughts and feelings can be important cues to understanding how your self-care is working or why it’s gotten derailed. For example, if you notice feelings of guilt surfacing or you hear yourself saying, “You shouldn’t spend money on yourself”, you can work on challenging those thoughts to see if they reflect your values and beliefs and replace them with more supportive thoughts that promote self-care and self-worth.
If you recognize that your self-care is lacking, start small. Perhaps, check-in with yourself once per day and ask yourself what your feeling and what you need. Try to do one small thing for yourself to meet that need. If you’re tired, you can take a short nap or go to bed earlier. Self-care doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. It’s what you do every day for yourself.
You don’t have to sacrifice yourself and push through fatigue, resentments, or obligations. If you struggle with self-care, you can slowly add more self-care and compassion into your life to reflect a new-found appreciation and acceptance of who you are and what you need.
More articles for folks who struggle with and self-care
- Is Perfectionism Sabotaging Your Self-Care?
- Self-Care When You’re Overwhelmed
- How to Set Boundaries with Kindness
©2017 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.