Self-care is complicated. Self-care is both the difficult and the soothing. Self-care is working through taxing emotions, changing unhealthy habits, enforcing boundaries, and untangling shame. Self-care is also being playful, relaxing, indulging in things that make you happy, and taking a break from reality with media. Self-care is also the sort of in-between things like being creative, establishing rituals around exercise or house cleaning, and investing in knowledge or skills.
I use self-care to cope with stress, manage my chronic health problems, and do my best at my Day Job. Self-care is how I fuel up and give structure to my life so that I can be financially secure, improve my writing, and have fulfilling relationships.
I’m definitely a proponent of self-care but in this post I want to talk about a time in my life when I used self-care in an unhealthy way.
Listening to music has always been a major way for me to decompress or deal with stress. This is pretty common—lots of people use music in this way and I didn’t feel any shame in using music as an outlet to escape reality.
In 2017, I was in the middle of the worst year of my life. I despised my job but I was stuck with it because I needed health insurance. My chronic health conditions were getting more painful and harder to deal with. During this time I would come home from work, eat dinner, do a minimal amount of housekeeping, and talk to my husband for maybe ten minutes. I would then disappear into the dark bedroom, plug in my headphones, and listen to music as high as the volume would go for two or three hours. Then I would go to sleep early and still feel like I had been hit by a bus the next day.
Now, if this had just been a bad night, or even a handful of bad nights, it would have been all right. I allow myself to overindulge in things from time to time. But the bad nights piled into bad weeks and heaped into bad months. What had begun as a comforting, self-soothing escape had turned into an experience that was completely numbing and didn’t feel good at all. My writing fell so far behind schedule it added to my discouragement. My husband was worried about me. He also wasn’t getting anything he needed from our relationship—communication, touch, friendship, anything.
It was pretty obvious to me that I was sleeping and escaping in my headphones far too much. But I didn’t want to stop.
Music wasn’t the only outlet I was using to escape. I showered myself in shallow self-care tactics trying to hold onto my life as the days got darker and more frustrating—Streaming TV shows and YouTube videos instead of writing, overindulging in fast food, buying things I didn’t even want or need, and even doing odd things like going for walks at 3 in the morning. My attitude also turned bleak and cynical.
But in the end, I just prolonged my suffering. I didn’t take any positive action in my life or make any changes.
I knew what my problem was: my job, at the time, was toxic and impacting my health. But I tried to convince myself that everyone was miserable in their jobs and I could stick it out as long as I kept overindulging in these surface self-care tactics.
But eventually, the damage I was doing in my life got so bad that the desire to fix it weighed heavier than my desire for a lukewarm escape. I took a hard look at the aspects of my life that were being impacted by my behavior: most importantly my marriage and my writing. I then focused on the way I consumed music. (The other things like binge sleeping, my bad attitude, and my fast food habit followed later. I had to start with one thing.)
I began by setting very specific boundaries about when I could listen to music. I knew that music calmed me down and helped me cope with stress so I didn’t want to cut it out of my routine altogether. I knew that I listened to music in the car, so I used that to build a routine. I didn’t change my morning routine or else I would be late for work, but in the evenings I took a different route home on my commute. It added about 12 minutes to my drive, more if I got stuck behind a tractor on the back-roads. This gave me more time to listen to music but also gave me more time to decompress after work, something I really needed. When I got home I found it was easier to focus on my husband and my writing since I allowed myself time and space to wind down right after work. I continued to give myself permission to zone out and listen to music in the evenings—but for no longer than thirty minutes. If at the end of that time I still felt the urge to zone out and disappear, I would light some candles, run a bath, and listen to a podcast while I relaxed. Listening to the podcasts felt productive, because I was learning things instead of just zoning out. And it would also usually inspire me to write something, even if it was just a few notes.
Rearranging my consumption of music helped me restructure other areas of my life and at least pulled me out of my apathy. None of my stressors went away—I stayed at that stupid job for another year and my health was the worst it had ever been in my adult life. But I did manage to break the habit of escaping into time-wasting distractions and invested in more healthy coping mechanisms. Investing in my writing and relationships gave me more meaning in my life and that truly helped me cope with my sh&tty day job situation. When I did quit, I had built a more stable structure that got me through the hardship of changing jobs, being without health insurance, and losing quite a bit of income. Leaving the job was not an easy thing to do but the healthier structure and deeper self-care I engaged with did give me an edge during that difficult time in my life, instead of making things worse.
I know now that YouTube, music, fast food, or walks in the middle of the night can still sometimes be ways I relax or reward myself as self-care. But I can also see now that using these self-care tactics so often were simply distracting me from doing what I really needed to do at the time: remove myself from the toxic work environment.
Self-care is important but it is not passive. Just because outlets are socially acceptable doesn’t mean they can’t be self-sabotaging. You know yourself and what you need. Don’t bury that voice with shallow distractions. Don’t silence yourself with excuses. Acknowledge that voice and do one simple thing a day to honor it and work toward what you know you need to do for your life. It won’t be easy and it might take a long time. It took me three years to get stable after that terrible year. But I had to start somewhere. If I hadn’t, I might still be in that terrible situation.
That’s all for now. ‘Til next time, be sharp, be delicate.