Self-care v Self-sabotage

My podcast this week is on the topic of self-care — what it is and is not. there’s a ton about self-care on social media, especially Instagram, but I was feeling like the most important features of self-care were buried under a blizzard of ads for face masks and soap bombs. Actually, self-care is part of the continuum of health care. Most illnesses are managed either wholly or in large part via self-care. Your self-treatment for headaches, sprained ankles, bug bites, common colds, and your prevention-oriented activities like sleep hygiene, socializing, watching your sodium, and exercise all count. It’s the foundational stratum, the foundation for health, and a major public health resource. Yet, it’s under-recognized and under-appreciated.

A lot of what passes for self-care on social media falls into a category I would call “self-soothing.” They are activities that can help you get by in a tough moment. Self-soothing is important — the deep breaths, the walk outside, the lying down in a dark room, taking a warm bath, vegging out with a screen, just making yourself feel safe enough the get through the present moment. But self-soothing can easily degenerate into self-indulgence — that glass of wine or bowl of Cheetos we deserve; the new scarf or comfy yoga pants we need to get through another week of the pandemic. The danger of stopping with self-soothing, with just getting through the tough emotions without asking ourselves deeper questions, is that it can become self-indulgence. You aren’t really getting at the root issue. Self-indulgence is by definition “excessive and unrestrained” — the glass of wine that becomes a bottle a night; the bowl of Cheetos becomes a bag; the hour with the screen to numb out becomes hours on end of scrolling.

And look, if that’s your goal, to just gratify your immediate desires all the time, then as long as you aren’t harming anyone else (like, say, a dependent) go for it. Lotus-eating FTW! But this post is for people who want to gratify higher and longer-term goals, at least some of the time. In that case, practicing self-soothing is great, but it should prompt a query into what feelings and needs are being met by it. A bath bomb or splurge online is grea,t but it won’t help you understand your negtive or scary emotions. What helps is to practice kindness towards yourself, and approach your mental state with curiosity. Ask yourself, “What do I really need right now?”

We can ask ourselves if we are trying to disconnect from ourselves, why that is. Will this choice help to reduce my stress? Am I avoiding something? How will my future self feel about my actions now? This helps to identify practices and activities that will really allow us to care for ourselves.

Some self-indulgent choices can actually be a form of self-sabotage. While self-care helps promote resilience and the ability to do the things that reflect your best version of yourself, to move towards the better version you want to become, self-sabotage does the opposite. Self-sabotage is anything you do that gets in the way of your intentions. You’re basically pulling the rug out from under yourself. Procrastination, getting into arguments, unhealthy forms of numbing out (pot, booze, etc., in excess), overspending, over-committing, etc. are all versions of self-sabotage.

Why would anyone do this? Lack of self-worth, a need to be in control, a way to interject drama into a routine life, the feeling of being a fraud, you name it. All of the various self-sabotage methods serve in in some, often unconscious way. For me, it was procrastination. I had to learn that when I procrastinated, it was basically serving me — unconsciously — in two ways: (1) it would lower my perfectionist expectations for what I could produce, and (2) it would give me an external motivation to get something done. I procrastinated to get to a point where I knew that I wouldn’t be producing my best work, but only the best work I could do in the short time window I allowed myself. It was the way I lowered my expectations so that I could get something done. Eventually, I learned to lower my standards to realistic levels without needing to box myself into a terrifyingly small time window. And second, I had to learn to accept my need for external motivators. For the longest time, I told myself that a true academic would be internally motivated to do everything. I was ashamed of needing that external nudge or pull. Today I accept it as part of my motivational structure, neither good or bad, just me.

I have more to say about all of this in the podcast episode. I hope you give it s listen.


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