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Self-Care isn’t the Answer!

Stress and Stressors

This is the third in a series of blogs about burnout. I am a great fan of the work of the Nagoski sisters, Emily and Amelia – see links below. Contrary to what many people say, self-care isn’t the answer – or at least, is only a part of the answer.

They differentiate between stress and stressors  and say that most of our stressors are what are called “chronic stressors” –  there day after day, week after week, year after year. BUT, we don’t have to wait for our stressors to be gone before we can begin to feel better, because we can deal with the stress while the stressors still exist. 

We carry the stress in our physical bodies  – stress hormones racing, muscle tension, shallow breathing, the discomfort in our gut and so we have to somehow change our body’s physiological state from fight, flight or freeze, into one of safety.

Feel the Feelings

Some people are aware of what’s going on in their bodies at all times, others don’t spot it until they are in a state of collapse in the emergency room. The solution is to be able to turn toward the difficult feelings with kindness and compassion and say, “Oh, I feel stressed. I feel unreasonably angry right now. I’m so cranky. I wonder why that is?” Addressing the feelings head on, with curiosity and kindness: “Why are you there? What do you need from me? What has to change?”

We Sometimes Fear our Feelings

The Nagoski sisters say:  “One of the primary barriers to listening to your body is a fear of the uncomfortable feelings that are happening in your body…feelings are tunnels. you have to go through the darkness to get to the light at the end. Stress is a tunnel. You’ve got to work all the way through it. Not that the stress is bad for you, it’s getting stuck in the middle that is bad for you, never having an opportunity to take your body through the cycle. One of the reasons why people don’t do that is because they feel afraid of their uncomfortable internal experiences.”

This can be tough for us, they say, especially if, like many of us, we grew up in families where uncomfortable feelings were not allowed.  Emily (who was hospitalised with burnout) says that she feared that feeling these would be like being trapped in a dark cave with fearsome monsters: “I began a practice of noticing when my body was experiencing a sensation, allowing it to be and allowing it to move all the way through. And as I practiced that with gentle emotions, I began to be able to practice it with more and more intense emotions, both positive and negative, intense emotions. So that now when I’m confronted with big, difficult stuff, I trust that my body will go all the way through the feelings without me being trapped in the dark with predators.”

Why Self-care isn’t the Answer

The Nagoski sisters are adamant that the cure for burnout is NOT self-care. Or at least, this cannot be the only solution. They say: “What you need is a bubble of love around you, people who care about your well-being as much as you care about theirs, who will turn toward you and say, “You need a break. I’m going to help you with this.” Or just give you 15 minutes for you to yell about whatever the problems you feel at that moment,  just be on your side.  This can give us enough of a release to feel a little bit better to take one more step. So, they say, “the cure for burnout is not self-care. It is all of us caring for each other. We can’t do it alone. We need each other.”

What if we don’t have these caring supportive people in our lives? (and many of us don’t)

They say that if we feel like we are isolated, there’s probably someone on the other side of that wall, it turns out, who wants just as much as we do, to connect with someone else. Modern society has led us to believe that it’s stronger to be independent, to have autonomy, to be resilient. They say that research shows us that this is not true. We are all healthier and stronger when we work together. 

Tell People What You Need

Setting new boundaries can be scary at times, but part of recovering from burnout is asserting what we need, whether at work or at home. This might be asking for alone time during our lunch hour rather than joining our colleagues in the noisy canteen. It might be taking a half hour to go out for a run in the evening while our partner minds the children, or some help with household tasks. We might not always get exactly what we ask for, but speaking up for ourselves  is a victory in its own right and sends the message that we value ourselves and our health.

Practice Self-Compassion

Self compassion is about extending to ourselves the same kindness and understanding we offer others. It’s about replacing our harsh self-critic with a kind voice who says:  “ This is a really hard time for me. Everybody in life goes through hard times – I’m coping as well as I can, but right now, the stress in my life is exceeding even my coping skills and has been going on, unresolved, for too long. What do I need at this point?”

 Further listening and reading     for the Burned Out, Fried and Exhausted    Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski Ph.D. and Amelia Nagoski, D.M.A

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, contact me:


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See also: Hidden Side of BurnoutPrevent BurnoutStress and Burnout