Tips for Distinguishing Between Self Care & Self Enabling

Yesterday, I realized I hadn’t left my room except to eat, go to the gym, and get coffee. Usually this situation would be cause for concern for me but, strangely, I realized I had actually had a really wonderful and productive day staring incessantly at my computer screen. This led me down a path I go often: When am I performing a ritual of self care or giving into self enablement? I’ve debated this for months if not years with myself and others. In true millennial fashion, I turned to Instagram to crowdsource an answer. What follows is a summary of the conversations with strangers & friends alike. Thank you to those who shared – if you’d like to be named, I will gladly do so. I’ll note that for better long term solutions, many folks recommended both therapy and meditation to help you begin to understand your intentions better.

While I can’t define these concepts perfectly, for the sake of discussion, let’s go with these very simple definitions:

  • Self care: actions deliberately taken to take care of one’s health whether mental, physical, or emotional.
  • Self enablement: actions taken to perpetuate maladaptive behaviors.

What will set me up for a better tomorrow/How will this affect me tomorrow?  

These questions should help you figure out very quickly if the form of self care you want to indulge in is actually self care or destructive. If it will set you up for a better tomorrow, you aren’t indulging yourself  – you are empowering yourself!

Example: I’m anxious and don’t want to go through all that is required for cooking dinner tonight (figuring out what to make, going to the grocery store, cooking food, cleaning up, etc). I ponder just going out to eat knowing it’ll hurt my wallet and likely not be as healthy but it will solve the stress of cooking. The problem is I’ll run right back into the same problem tomorrow! Instead, I go the extra step to cook everything tomorrow knowing it’ll pay off in the following days.

What will set me up for the long term future I want?

Thinking more long term like this helps me a ton when it comes to self care vs enabling when it involves other people. If I want a community, I have to go out and create one even on bad days. If I want to be in good shape, I need to drag myself to the gym or even just to go on a walk. On the flip side, I don’t really care much to go to xyz party since I’m not a huge drinker and don’t value the folks who will be there all too much – I’ll skip and save the energy.

Example: A friend asks me to go to a party on Saturday. At the time, I say “yes!” and commit but as the week goes on I find my brain is friend and I am falling deep into needing some alone time. Saturday rolls around and I think about why I’m going to this party. At the end of the day, I’d rather have more time to sleep, finish a book I started that I think will help me with work, and get a really good workout in over going to this party. I text and let them know that a party is just too much for me but offer to snag coffee with them some other time. Ultimately, it’s their friendship I value – not the value of the party.

Is this a pattern of behavior?

By figuring out if this is a pattern, you can often pause to dig into what the root cause might be and adjust going forward so you can avoid the conundrum all together.

Example: Every Thursday I play trivia with an awesome group of people. The problem is by the time Thursday comes around, I’m usually absolutely exhausted and want to just curl up in bed. Each Thursday, I used to have this fight with myself as I really wanted to go and build those friendships. It wasn’t until I recognized and accepted this happened every week that I found a solution: prioritize sleep on Wednesday so I’d have more energy to go on Thursday.

What is keeping me from wanting to engage?

If it’s fear or some negative emotion, this likely means you’re indulging self-enabling. When this happens, I often think about my past self and why they agreed to whatever it is I’m now avoiding. If the answer has to do with energy or desire, it can be really healthy to question your engagement and to take a step back.

Example: A friend invites you to a dinner at her place with friends you don’t know. As the date creeps closer, you get more anxious thinking about all of the new people there. You think about cancelling but realize you are wanting to not go because you are afraid of putting yourself out there. You go and meet a new friend you end up exchanging numbers with!

What would I say to a good friend in this moment? 

This is a general good rule of thumb for all of life. Why can we be so kind to others yet so mean to ourselves? I find this question helps propel me into a more objective mindset and helps me move away from negative thinking into a space where I begin to actually think about how to take care of myself.

Create a hierarchy of actions you could take and find a balance. 

Rather than having an all or nothing mindset around self care vs self enabling, create a hierarchy of possible outcomes. This can allow you to still focus on self care while not fully succumbing to a possible outcome of enablement.

Example: You want to do your usual workout but getting out of bed was hard today. Instead of fully opting out and putting away your gym clothes, write out different options. You could go to the gym and just do cardio rather than doing your usual lifting + cardio routine. You could go to the gym and do really slow cardio while listening to your favorite podcast. You could go for a walk and call a friend to catch up. You could do a body weight circuit in your room for 10 minutes. You could just simply stretch right here and now :).

Disengage with the intention to engage in something else. 

Disengaging is okay to do and something that I think often makes me spiral into the concerns around “but am I self enabling?!”. Learning to disengage with intention to engage in something else is key! What are you opting into by opting out?

Example: Your family invites you home for the holidays but you opt out after getting overwhelmed at the thought of yet another family fight. While you sometimes need to disengage, you then take the extra weekend to be intentional about engaging with your life and those in it.

Be honest with those around you. 

I tend to only do this with close friends who can help work with me to find a middle ground. By being honest with how you’re feeling, you are also able to have another ally in your corner for future conundrums and you prevent possibly damaging that relationship. Plus, it gives them a chance to be a part of the solution with you!

Example: A friend wants to hang out and invites you to go on a road trip to a neat town 2 hours away. When the time comes to go, a full day excursion feels like way too much for you to commit to. Rather than shutting down the entire experience, you can express how you’re not up for a full excursion but offer up other options for engagement that you can handle. This gives your friend a chance to be a part of your self care too!

Make a pro/con list. 

If you have the energy and the right mindset, this is always an excellent decision framework to use. I’m not going to give an example as I think this is a tool most of us have used at one time or another.

What do you do? Any tips/questions/approaches to share? 

I’ll close with a big THANK YOU to everyone once more. I hope it helps us all. I know this has helped me.


3 responses to “Tips for Distinguishing Between Self Care & Self Enabling”

  1. Great post, very helpful. I just came across an article that explains that choosing active behaviour over sedentiairy behaviour actually requires more brain activity. Basically our brain is hardwired to choose the couch over something active. This is of course not quite the same as self care versus enabling, but maybe it has a similar underlying principle of choosing something that is easy, safe and low key in activity versus something that is a better choice but has a long term benefit or requires effort. Choosing the long term better option to go for a run or hike or something social is always harder than opting for the couch and a book.

  2. […] math around how busy the trail I wanted to hike might be. I leaned on some previous tips around determining self care vs self enablement and decided to just go without worrying how far I might make it on the […]

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