Self Care Isn’t Always The Answer

Do you ever feel like you are running through life and cannot catch your breath? Do you find yourself coasting on fumes, just praying that you'll make it til bedtime? Or maybe you find yourself barking at the people around you even though you really just want to be nice and get along. That irritability and exhaustion just take over your personality and eventually wreck havoc on your relationships and self-esteem. Before long, you start thinking more and more negatively, your optimism wanes, and you find yourself cutting corners just to get by.

I've been there. As a business owner, a mom, a wife, sometimes all the little line items pile up to the point of being overwhelming. I stop enjoying the little things. I stop laughing with my kids. I forget that life can and should be awe-inspiring if I open myself to it.

So, I've developed a kind of check list for self care. You know the lot: When I'm not sleeping well, I stop to check in with myself. When I'm not laughing with my kids, I slow down and make time for fun. When I'm eating poorly, I ask myself if there is anything that I am avoiding. When I'm dog-tired well before the end of the day, I rework my schedule to build in breaks more often, take a nap, or cut back on mindless "filler" activities like Facebook or busy work so that I have more time for mindfulness.

Usually this does the trick. Usually I reset pretty quickly and am better able to prioritize. I start noticing the sky again and find myself awash with the beauty of a particular day or overcome with gratitude for the sound of my kids playing or suddenly struck by how hot my husband looks in his t-shirt. Life is good.

But what happens when we refocus on our coping skills and things don't magically get better? There are a lot of people out there doing all the right things and still feeling stressed to the point of exhaustion. Maybe you reach out to family, friends, or other networks for more ideas on how to cope. Maybe you decide to pick up a self-help book at the bookstore. Maybe you start therapy. Still, you find yourself barely hanging on. What do you do then? 

To me, this is a sign that something big needs to change. It's like maintenance on your car. Let's say you find your car losing air in one of your tires. The first step is to stop and put some air in it. Usually this does the trick for a while. You are good to go. But sometimes, the tire deflates again quickly. Maybe you put patch on it and that does the trick, but if you are still finding your tire is losing air after doing everything right to make it better, you probably need a new tire.

But how often do we keep trying to hold onto old, battered ideas or habits that are no longer working (or never did) in our actual lives? I know I have been guilty of this. For the past several years, I enjoyed a nice, full practice. I had achieved and was maintaining my ideal number of clients. I had arranged my schedule so that I was home with my kids every day after school. I was living the dream, right? So, why was I not sleeping well? Why was I irritable and overwhelmed and too often needing to completely zone out from my life? Well, as it turns out, I was asking too much of myself. The entire system was not sustainable. My full-time practice was squeezed into part-time hours so that I could be home with the kids in the afternoons. I would find myself swimming in paperwork and administrative tasks that bled into my family time leaving me absolutely no time for creativity or thinking deeply about cases unless it was the middle of the night or when I should have been playing with my kids.The way my dream was structured was simply not working in reality.

But, oh, how I held onto that dream of doing it all. I became increasingly creative with short coping skills. I started drinking more coffee. I made to-do lists out the wazoo. I complained how life was moving too fast, but really I was just trying to do too much with the time I had. I needed to admit to myself that if I want to be both a therapist and a mom at the levels I was expecting, I had to have a part-time practice...in reality; not just in client hours. This meant restructuring my practice and lowering the number of clients I see each week. This meant talking to my husband and making sure that he would support me since this would mean less income. This meant swallowing my pride whenever talking to other clinicians who see more clients. It meant scheduling in time for paperwork and writing and peer consultation rather than scheduling those times with clients even if I had to turn someone away.

I am in the middle phases now. I realize I need to make a change and am working on holding myself to these boundaries, but it takes effort. When I am successful, I look forward to my writing and feel incredibly satisfied when I go home and am able to lay aside my to-do list. I enjoy my clients more. Things tend to run more smoothly and I notice more moments of spontaneous happiness.

I still find myself needing to reset frequently. It is easy to get pulled back into old habits and old beliefs about what I "should" be doing because one of my values is hard work. I want to be successful and this competes with my desire to be a good mom and my desire to live a life that is present and authentic. But I try to let that go as soon as I realize it is happening. I can be both successful and in love with my life if I let myself have balance.

If you find yourself doing everything right and still feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, it might be time to ask yourself if the entire system needs to be changed. Can you be brave enough to really live the life you choose and leave behind the "should's" and the "should nots"? If you need help sorting any of this out, therapy can be a great place to start. I'd love to help. Let's get started.

Traci W. Pirri, LCSW

Traci W. Pirri, LCSW is a top anxiety therapist, depression counselor, and adoption therapist in Austin, Texas. She is also licensed in North Carolina. She is passionate about working with people whose lives or professions have caused them to struggle, but still desire a life worth living. She helps people find the connections they want with their relationships and daily lives.

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