Essays & Confessions / Mental Health In Quarantine

Self-Care vs Self-Soothing: The Mental Health Mistake You’re Probably Making

By Thursday, December 03, 2020

Where does self-care end and self-soothing begin?

I know a self-soothing b*nge when I feel one. 

My drug of choice is spending. My trigger is *gestures at 2020.* Dopamine running through my veins, online cart full, options zipping by, a thousand tabs open. Customers who liked this also liked that. Ooh, that

I’ve moved into a new place, the world is on fire, and I feel like treating myself. The problem is, I’ve been treating myself. I keep saying, Ok, no more, but then I run to the computer quickly, as if trying to outrun my prefrontal cortex, dive into the manic consumption of all the options, and then make them mine. 

I press my little nose against the window and wait for UPS Santa.

I realize that I’m on a bender, wasting my precious salary in a time when the alarms flash SAVE! SAVE! SAVE!,  so I temper it by looking at the cheaper options on Craigslist. But this only creates a sense of scarcity that ramps up my monkey mind further.

“Maybe I should get a massage chair,” I say to my best friend, about a used one I’d seen for $200.

“You’re Paulette-ing,” she says. She’s known this pattern since I was 10 and served as one of the chief participants in my  eBay intervention of ’02. 

Is a pandemic not a time to take it easy on myself? A little retail therapy? A little self-care? 

What I’m doing is not self-care. It’s self-soothing.

I don’t remember when I first heard about the difference, but I know that when I did, my face turned into the grimace emoji. Because Oh (expletive!) now I was going to have to deal with the nuances of the story my mind spins about how I “treat” myself.

Self-care in quarantine 

What complicates matters is that there is a lot of self-care entangled in with the soothing. Everything in life feels so bad, and there’s so much I’m doing to try to feel good.

Now that we’re over the hump of pandemic-induced shock and strapped down for a longer quarantine haul than any of us imagined, I’ve surprised myself by creating a schedule that pre-Covid me would have rolled her eyes at. I exercise every week day at 7 AM. I have a night routine that involves eye cream, which is a first. I scheduled a daily money check-in. I have fallen into the strong arms of discipline and self maintenance in a way I never have before.

Quarantine has become an epic battle between self-soothing and self-care, and, if I’m not careful, my self-soothing is going to sabotage my life during and beyond this hibernation.

Where does self-care end and self-soothing begin?

Not too long ago, but pre-Coronavirus, I was going through a crap time. Those kinds of times don’t  take a break just because there’s a pandemic, and I was lamenting to my sister that I wish I could afford to get a massage. 

“Well, it is a form of self-care,” she said. 

I cackled. “Oh, you’re a good sister.” 

A massage with money that should be saved for my health insurance payment is not self-care. Self-care is not something you might regret later.

I found this wonderful comic from Deanna Zandt, where she defines self-soothing as “activities that provide distraction and/or comfort in difficult times.” She lists some fairly innocent stuff, such as singing loudly (check) and cuddling (call me). Then some other activities that could cause a little more harm if you can’t afford the time or money, like fancy beverages (so, so guilty) and TV bingeing (make this social media and ding!) She also has a few things listed that I would call ‘self-care,’ like going out in nature and exercising.             

Zandt describes self-care as “activities that help you find meaning, and that support your growth and groundedness.” Here she has therapy, meditation, taking ownership of your finances, eating well, and also exercise. AND WHAT HAVE WE HERE? JAW DROP! It’s a massage. God bless you Deanna Zandt! I need to call my sister.

I’m still not getting a massage though, because self-care comes in a hierarchy. Taking care of my finances comes first. A massage is only self-care, for me, if my F*ck Off Fund is in place, my rent and $490 health insurance premium for next month are in the bank, and my credit cards are paid off. 

Such is not the case.

Deciding what’s self-care for you

It looks like everyone has to draw these lines themselves, and check their own bs. 

Problem is, I’m a storyteller, and the genre in which I show the most natural talent is in the writing of excuses. Tell me what you want to buy, and I’ll tell you a story about why it’s justified. My sorcery is so refined in this area that while living with Vicki Robin, the Queen of Frugality, I convinced her to buy herself a hot tub. I have a true gift.

As helpful as Zandt’s comic is, no one else’s list is going to work for you. More exercise is not the answer for someone battling an ongoing eating disorder. Skin care might be great, but if you spend $500 on a night cream when you only have $600 in the bank, perhaps you need to look in the mirror, at the person behind the fine lines.

When archeologists unearth my budget, they’ll simply see purchases labeled as “Household items,” on which I’ve spent $1,500 over the last three months, or “health,” which has added up to $250. Only I’ll know about the late-night Wayfair-ing impulse-clicks or how those trips to Target felt like a heist against myself, making off with more than $500 of prettiness, soft blankets and furry rugs to pad myself from the rough world. 

What should I be padding myself with instead? A hefty savings and gratitude to the universe that I still even have a job.

How I know I’m self-soothing

To me, self-soothing feels good now. It’s rushed. It’s instant. Quick! Hit check out! Drive thru! There’s almost this tee-hee giggle about it: Just wait until ‘Morning Paulette’ finds out! It’s often followed by guilt or regret. Yet, it begets itself. Once I shop, I don’t want to stop.

Self-care is not something I necessarily want to do now. Flossing? Meditating? Lifting my body for a purpose other than to get another spiked seltzer? Not something I’m rushing to make happen. The higher part of myself goads the pouty child part of myself to do it, because I responsibly and adultily know it will help me later. Self-care results in feelings of self-love and pride, but not until I’ve done the work. My body knows the difference.

Self-care is a love letter to my future self.

Here you go buddy, I budgeted that money for you, planned your meals, cleared your mind.It calms. Self-soothing, the worst kind, is a flaming bag of dog poop on future you’s doorstep. Sorry sucka! I spent that rent money on quarantine pajamas. It panics.

Escaping a self-soothing binge

I’m out of the binge now, ramped down. I didn’t try to get out of it the way I used to. I didn’t yell at myself. Thanks to the advice of my podcast guest, financial therapist Amanda Clayman, I know that yelling at myself is just more time spent not dealing with the actual problem.

Instead, I said it out loud to people who love me: “I’ve just been on this spending binge lately, and I don’t know what it’s about.”

I stuck to my morning money routine on the YNAB app, which I skip when I don’t want to know the truth and tried to cut down on caffeine, which makes me more impulsive. I stayed out of Target because it costs $200 to go in there.

As others have helped me calm during this time, I tried to think about how I can find solace in community, so I started a writer’s meditation and freewrite. Only when we actually take care of ourselves can we take care of each other. 

And when I find something left by me before to take care of me now — a homemade burrito in the freezer for lunch, a fully charged phone, or a nicely made bed with no pile of laundry on top — I think this simple thought to make it stick: I take such good care of me.

Image via Unsplash

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