Is My 'Self-Care' Really Self-Sabotage?

Illustrated by Assa Ariyoshi
It was back in 2017 when I first heard the term 'self-care' and it was just so perfect. Important indulgence. Me time. Taking care. Saying no without guilt. As an anxiety sufferer, I could really relate to the notion of checking in with yourself and prioritizing personal wellbeing.
But here's the thing: I've since realized that self-care has slowly become my go-to excuse to wriggle out of any situation that sparks fear in me. Cancelling plans, avoiding work events, talking myself out of trying something new – it's all acceptable In The Name Of Self-Care, right?
Recently, I tried to count the number of opportunities I've passed up by using self-care as my very own Get Out Of Jail Free card, and it's safe to say there are far too many. Jobs I would kill for, incredible events that I'm lucky enough to be invited to, even dinners with friends that I irrationally decided would cause me too much anxiety. On reflection, I'm pretty sure I've got self-care all wrong, and I've crossed the line into self-sabotage.
I speak to clinical psychologist Dr Hamira Riaz, who agrees that self-care can be problematic when we use it for the wrong reasons. "We are giving in to our fears when we choose to stay in our comfort zones for too long," she says. "We all have fears that hold us back in some shape or form. Facing into anxiety and worry involves an element of personal stretch that always feels uncomfortable, but it's outweighed by the sense of accomplishment that comes with pushing through and achieving a goal."
It's true. As an introvert, the so-called 'self-care revolution' has merely become yet another way for me to indulge my shyness. Exhibit A: my job. Granted, as a freelance journalist I've already made it as plain-sailing as possible to keep myself away from people, tucked up in my home office. But when events, meetings and new opportunities come up, I all too often find a way to avoid them. Is that self-care, or self-sabotage?
Truthfully, it's not obligatory for me to get out there and network – I do okay for myself. But I have no doubt that my social reluctance has limited my success, and most likely my wellbeing, too. The fact is, working by yourself all day every day can get pretty overwhelming, even for a shy gal. I long to make more friends within my industry, yet I find a way to stay home at every opportunity.
I recently came across the term 'self-coddling', thanks to the brilliant Jessica Pan, who has literally written the book on putting yourself out there in Sorry I'm Late, I Didn't Want To Come. She writes: "I had taken my introvert status as a license to wall myself off from others. Although I savoured my introvert world, part of me wondered what I was missing out on… I didn't want to be tethered to my insecurities and anxieties for eternity. I didn't want to stay stunted."
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I ask Dr Riaz what she thinks the difference between self-care and self-coddling is. "Self-care makes us feel good over the long term because it fuels a positive attitude toward ourselves," she says. "Self-coddling might provide you with a high in the short term but it doesn't last and is often followed by a low – that is the signal that you are stagnating, stuck in a rut. If you are not growing, there is a good chance that you are diminishing." Crikey.
The thing I most relate to among all this is the fear of trying new things, and putting myself in situations I'm not used to. Giving in to my fears is arguably the biggest indulgence in my life. Forget bubble baths, sheet masks and the most Instagram-worthy #SelfCareSunday rituals; there's nothing more gratifying to me than staying firmly in my comfort zone.
It can be big things or little things. I'd love to join a local choir, yet I've signed up to countless taster sessions only to never make it out the door. I've stood on the sidelines and watched friends try adrenaline-fuelled activities I'd love to find the confidence to do; I even cancelled my big wedding in favour of a smaller affair at the local pub. Don't even get me started on work Christmas parties. But is this purely my nature? As a shy person, a worrier, an anxious person, I wonder if it's okay to give in to those feelings sometimes.
It would all be okay – I think – if I actually felt good about my so-called self-caring decisions. As Dr Riaz says, if I end up feeling low about it, it really wasn't all that empowering anyway. I can tick off my wedding as an excellent choice, that's for sure (more weddings should be held in pubs) – but the others? I'm leaning towards self-sabotage.
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Unsurprisingly, the key is balance. Dr Riaz goes on to cite the Yerkes-Dodson law in psychology, telling me: "We need some stress to perform at our best. While avoiding anxiety to stop stress doesn't serve us, neither does blindly walking into uncharted territory and taking on too much stress without sufficient support."
I like this. For me, it's about baby steps – I do want to push myself more, but not so much that I regret doing it in the first place. Happily, Dr Riaz has some advice for that too. "You can’t go wrong with a strengths-based approach to life," she says. "This means finding ways to enhance the characteristics and qualities that make you unique as a person, rather than becoming preoccupied with 'fixing' what you feel is wrong with you."
I don't want to fix my shyness, but I think my only way of embracing it is by not allowing it to control me. Because for me, that's not self-care. There will be days when I give in to it, but that's okay. Where's the joy in staying in and taking pictures of your cat if you're going to beat yourself up about it?
As for pushing myself, maybe I'll show my face at the next networking event I'm invited to. And perhaps it's time to try that first choir session. Don't hold your breath for the Christmas parties, though…
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