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Why is Self-Care So Hard and What Can We Do About It?

Learning how to unwind and recover when your usual is 100%.

Key points

  • Our relationship with self-care often stems from early experiences with how others perceived self-care.
  • When we feel the constant need to be moving forward, we often are neglecting the basics of self-care.
  • Exhaustion is not a marker of success. Left unattended, we will model poor self-care to others.
  • Self-care needs to be part of the performance cycle. To start, start small and consistently.

In my work with executives, entrepreneurs, athletes, and other high-performing professionals, I have heard countless stories about how difficult it is to integrate adequate self-care into our life rhythms. When we are used to producing at such high levels, we often find ourselves unable to schedule sufficient downtime, to sit still, unwind, relax and truly unplug. The need to 'always be doing' seems to creep in. The adrenaline high that we get while always on the go feels good, even when it feels stressful.

My work as a resiliency expert has taught me that no matter the details of our unique stories, resiliency means that we have a steadfast knowing that we will have to do hard things. It means that we understand that as human beings we are hard-wired for struggle and that come what may, we will be okay. A profound truth I came to recognize in my own life is that somehow the only emotions I had been giving myself permission to feel were ‘productivity’ and ‘exhaustion.’ I had internalized a set of values that were driving me at the expense of my own peace and wellbeing.

Guilt is not helpful but it often shows up

The guilt we can feel about taking time for ourselves and our wellness is a clear indication that we have internalized these misaligned values. It takes courage and a certain amount of resolve to refuse and resist this conditioning – to put ourselves and our self-care first. Notice if you resonate with any of the following common reasons high-performance professionals find it difficult to prioritize self-care:

  • Bias: Feeling we do not need it - ‘Professionals do not need to rest’.
  • Faulty Logic: Thinking self-care is selfish - Hustle mentality.
  • Conditioning: Being raised to think self-care is secondary.
  • Occupational Pressures: Overwhelming internal & external demands.
  • Significance: Not prioritizing wellness and health.
  • Shame: No feeling worthy or deserving.
  • Burned Out / Depleted: Being so tired we do not make good decisions or choices.

Active Recovery is Part of Performance & Delivery

It takes active effort on our part to prioritize and integrate our self-care as successful professionals. Being aware of our well-being and how we are feeling on a routine basis is critical to preventing burnout. Self-awareness and self-love are key. We can practice checking in with ourselves, listening to the information our bodies give us about what we need to be and staying well.

Here are some of my go-to’s when working with top-performers:

Basics Done Right: Sleep, nutrition, and movement. Basics done right yield excellent results. Remember that consistency and commitment is more important than perfection. There is no 100% perfection score for physical health. Shot for an 80% success rating in ‘helpful health decisions’. I like to use this idea: I can miss one day of physical activity but not two days in a row. This has been a game-changer for me. In a month, I inevitably get a minimum of 15 workout-ins with this system.

Take Regular Breaks: Schedule meetings as much as possible with time in between to get up from your desk, stretch, drink water, and take some deep breaths. Be sure to take the breaks before you feel as though you need to. You charge your phone is the low battery indicator is on. What would your low battery indicator look like? How often would you stop to re-charge?

Schedule ‘Alone with my Good-Feeling Thoughts’ Time: It is so important to tend to ourselves by noticing our thoughts, feeling our feelings, and reflecting on what it is that we need. We are not needy, you have needs. What helps promote your good-feeling thoughts and feelings? Music. Planning. Imagining. Reflecting. Be sure to make time for your feelings and thoughts to land in the same spot. Often our thoughts are charging forward and our feelings are left stumbling behind. Moments to come into the present moment together (thinking and feeling) can not only be restorative but can also foster creativity and innovation!

Say ‘No’: We cannot do all the things! Learning to say no to new projects, tasks, meetings, or favours that we don’t need to do is a critical skill and allows us more time for the first three tips above.

Ask for Help: This one is the sweet spot. We don’t have to do everything on our own – we can ask for help when we need it. Having an accountability partner for active recovery is crucial. Can you schedule regular check-ins? For example: Twice a month, for 15 minutes have quick report backs with key people in your world. Set an intention for the next 2 weeks.

Redefining Success

I appreciate that life with work integration and recovery is not easy. I am myself a high-achieving professional who daily juggles the demands of being an entrepreneur, scholar, speaker, teacher, and parent. I am still on the journey to figure out how to live my values on a daily basis. Over the past few years, I started seeing the effects of high performance (read: neglect of self-care) on the people I love the most. I witnessed our teenagers picking up extra work shifts, juggling conflicting demands, pulling 14 hours days, training relentlessly, never having downtime, doing the grab-and-go snacks as meals until it became the norm.

Exhaustion is not a marker of success

And this realization stopped me in my tracks. Exhaustion is not a marker of success. The pace society sets for us is not a pace that leads to a high quality of life. And so, I stopped. I acknowledged what I was seeing, and I humbly asked my children to let me show them another way. Working remotely during COVID has allowed me to grow through my own edges and learn to practice self-and-professional care. This has granted me the privilege of modelling value-based living for my family. And doing so has gifted me with more clarity, more drive, and more energy to take my work to the next level.

It is not easy to put ourselves, our wellness, and our self-care practices above the bustle of life and the hustle of a demanding career. It is an investment, but it is the kind of investment that pays infinite dividends. Integrating active recovery into our professional practice takes a willingness to be self-aware and to prioritize our wellbeing. It is not easy, but it is so worth it.

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