Wellness: Self-Care or Self-Soothing?

Wellness: Self-Care or Self-Soothing?

Scroll through any social media channel, and you’ll see a slew of ads, influencers, and experts telling you how to care for yourself.

McKinsey and Company’s 2022 research values the global wellness market size at over $1.5 trillion, with a projected annual growth rate of 5-10%. With this much money to be made, there will be more and more input for us to sort through, and lots to distract us from what might truly promote wellness.

I’d like to challenge us to shift our wellness thinking away from what the popular media promotes under that label: new stuff that costs you money.

We can break “wellness” into two parts: Self-care actions and self-soothing actions.

Let’s start by thinking about wellness using an analogy. In a well-built house, first things come first. You have to start your construction with a firm foundation, sturdy walls, and a solid roof. Likewise, self-care comprises actions we take to keep our bodies, minds, and emotions as strong as they can be, so they can contribute to our baseline wellness.

But what about the fancy smoothies, skin care routines, and wine nights? Those are fun and promote joy and wellbeing, for sure. And they go into a different category: self-soothing. Self-soothing also contributes to wellbeing but in a different way. It doesn’t shore up your home’s structural components. Instead, self-soothing is the comfy couch, décor you enjoy, and other things you add to your home because they please your senses and make your life enjoyable. They can comfort you on a bad day, but won’t help much over the long haul. As always, too much of a good thing becomes a problem.

Here’s a thought exercise: If you could predict that you have some terrible days ahead, what would you do to prepare for the challenge?

This is a personal question, and not one that TikTok influencers or I can prescribe for you. And often, it won’t look fun, escapist, sexy, or exciting, either. (Tip: If it’s fun, escapist, sexy, or exciting, it’s probably self-soothing.) The concrete slab, two-by-fours, and roof aren’t glamorous. They’re practical and boring, but without them, that comfy couch crashes through your floor, and the weather ruins your cheery décor.

While the structure you need to be your best is uniquely personal, there are some general categories to consider. These vary, but likely include physical health, mental health, relationships, financial security, and a connection to something larger than yourself. Something larger than yourself can be your religious or spiritual faith, and can also include feeling connected to nature, humanity, or the greater good of the planet.

I’ll use myself as an example…

If I knew hard times were ahead, I’d first want to be well-rested. If I’m tired, I’m never at my best; rest is my house’s foundation.

Next are my walls. I have two physical body-related walls. One of my walls is to feel capable and strong in my body, not lethargic or sedentary. With this wall, regular movement is key. Another body wall is to feel physically comfortable. I’m no longer wearing high heels or too-tight pants. I quit working out so much that I’m always sore, and rarely get to the point of being too hungry, too thirsty, over-caffeinated, sugar crashing, or hung over at this point in my life.

My third wall is relationships. I maintain a strong social network, meaning I have my people in my corner to rely on for help. The last wall I call “my reserves.” This means I have not over-extended my spending, my energy, or my brain space on things that don’t contribute to my wellbeing. I have extra to fall back on, and I trust in myself that I will protect that safety net, and feel confident it will be available when I need it.

Finally, my roof is my spirituality, which helps me keep problems in perspective, while understanding I’m also part of a larger, loving, meaningful universe. This helps me feel less alone on my worst days.

You can see how a personal self-care philosophy can arise from these categories.

For example, I’m going to get 7-8 hours of sleep a night; strive to balance my sugar and caffeine intake with protein, veggies, fruits, and water; incorporate movement that helps me feel strong; donate those too tight clothes that don’t serve me; and spend quality time with my loved ones.

If one of my core relationships feels off, I’ll proactively talk with my person to shore it up. I’ll monitor my spending and limit exposure to negative news and social media . And, as kindly as possible, I’ll let go of relationships that no longer contribute to my wellbeing and don’t respond to my efforts to fix them. I’ll spend time in nature to feel connected to the larger universe and be open to experiencing awe, an emotion that always fills me with gratitude and security in this unpredictable world.

Self-care is about being your own best friend, parent, and protector.

You’re in charge of the maintenance and repair on your house so you have a safe and stable place to live and share with others. You may also need to ask for help, just as you would if you needed a roof leak repaired, and you were not a roofer by trade. Regular doctor and dentist visits, finding a therapist, or hiring a workout trainer may be actions you take to keep your house in order.

Now, an important caveat. We can’t address self-care without acknowledging the role that privilege and oppression play in our ability or lack of ability to build a sturdy house. The location, family, race/ethnicity, gender, body, and financial resources you were born into; the opportunities or lack thereof that have been available to you; what you learned about how to care for yourself; and so much more may make your home easier or harder to build.

For example, as a woman, I’ve been raised in a culture that sends me messages all the time that I need to ignore my house and instead focus on helping others build theirs. And if I’m going to pay any attention to my house, that attention had better revolve around keeping myself young, attractive, and pleasing to others (e.g., 14 step skin care routines, dying my gray hair, and reinforcing these kinds of activities in the other women in my life). As a mother, society doubles down on the message that my kids should come first (but also I should have a successful career…).

But you know what? When my house is solid and built on self-care and not self-soothing, guess who lives in it more comfortably? Not just me, but also my kids and loved ones. When I’ve taken care of my house, I have more to give them financially, physically, and emotionally. I also hope that by modeling this behavior, my kids will learn that it’s important for them to build their house well, too.

The good news is that if you’ve faced barriers to building a sturdy house, there are many free resources available to you to help you build it, even if you’re strapped for cash, support, and uncertain where to start. I’ve linked some of those at the end of this blog post. 🙂

As you consider where to begin, start small and give yourself a lot of grace.

Building a house takes time. Mistakes are made and corrected. An extra room is added later to adjust to new circumstances. And if you go back and read the examples from my life above, you’ll notice that nowhere do I say I do it perfectly. Self-care is about flexibility, learning from your mistakes, and regaining balance when the box of dark chocolate caramels with sea salt convinces you that you need to eat all of it and you load up your Amazon cart to soothe a bad day.

You’re human, building the best house you can with what you’ve got. Ask for help. Be kind to yourself. And save up for that comfy couch.


Free reading material

  • Find your local library. For free, you can download, listen to, or borrow paper copies of books and magazines on most any topic.

Physical health

Mental health

Financial education


Religion, spirituality, and connection to the greater good

Life lessons from kittens

Life lessons from kittens

Just because you got the invite to fight doesn’t mean you need to participate

We currently have two kittens in our house. Goose, the one I sweet-talked my partner into from a litter of fosters we had early this spring, and Shaggy, who is a precious and wonderful little guy, but whom we aren’t going to keep (mostly so I can continue to try to pretend I’m not a crazy cat lady).

They’re the best of buddies right now, and they’re quite hilarious to watch when they’re in a roughhousing mood. But there’s also something about boundaries they are really good at demonstrating.

Inevitably, once or twice a day, one will be in the mood for a good tussle, while the other just wants to nap. Or chase a wad of paper around. Or sit in a sunbeam and slow-blink. And the fighter will do everything he can to bait the other into the conflict, including full-on attack mode with a throat lunge.

Sometimes it works, and they’re off to the boxing ring. At other times, it just doesn’t. The one who doesn’t want to engage will lie there impervious to the drama, get up and slowly meander off, or come sit beside me as they know I won’t tolerate a feline WWF brawl on my lap.

When our priorities are different, our energy levels are different, or it’s not our fight to have, we don’t have to engage. 

But many of us do consistently engage. And it can be useful to explore why, because often it’s not serving us or the relationship. A hallmark of psychological health is conscious flexibility in our responses to our context — meaning that we practice taking a second to pause, reflect, and then intentionally choose our response to the situation rather than automatically and habitually jumping in with two feet (or two fists) as a reaction to the situation.  

Some ways to create a pause: 

  • “Please hold that thought — I’ll be right back.”
  • “Give me a minute to think this through.”
  • Take some deep breaths and stay quiet. Sometimes this is all it takes. 

Some questions to ask yourself in the pause:

  • What’s motivating me to respond? 
  • Does that motivation really serve me?
  • Does that motivation serve the relationship with this person?
  • Is right now — this time, setting, tone, my energy level, and my mood — going to help or hurt this conversation?
  • Is the person inviting me to the conflict able to hear me out right now? 
  • Am I able to hear them out right now?
  • Is this even my fight to have? Is this invite misdirected and actually belongs to someone or something else? 

Experiment with not engaging and observe what comes up for you. This may mean you physically leave in order to stay out of your habitual reaction, and that’s okay.

  • “I’m not going to fight with you about this. When you’re calm, I’m happy to talk.” 
  • “I’ve noticed my habit is to jump right into things with you, and I’m going to try something different and not do that right now.”
  • “I’m not up for this today, and I’m not going to do this with you.”
  • “I love you, and I care about this, and I don’t think us going down this path right now is going to help us.”

You can always return to the topic later if it’s important. And it can be at a time when you and the other person are not leading with claws and fangs.  

  • “I’ve been thinking about what you said…”
  • “Yesterday I wasn’t up for that convo but now I am.”
  • “I’d like to talk about XYZ; is now a good time?”

Whether it’s an invitation from your partner, your angsty teen, or your coworker, things can go from a tense tussle to productive connection and problem solving with space and time. Allow yourself the chance to choose thoughtful disengaging instead of an autopilot fight response when it serves you and the situation and see what happens.

Helping others helps us

Helping others helps us

Many of us are struggling not only with our little corner of the world, but with the messy and imperfect world at large.

The pandemic, inflation and economic instability, the war in Ukraine, and witnessing or experiencing first-hand violence, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexism are only a sampling of things that can lead us to feel down, powerless, and hopeless.

The mental health literature is clear, however: when we help others in times of pain, we help others AND ourselves. Whether you choose to smile at a stranger, donate a dollar, call your elected officials, or quit your comfortable job to devote yourself to a cause you care about, every little thing adds up. No effort is too small. Each positive action we take creates ripples out into the world we will never know about, just like a pebble tossed into a pond.

It is also important to recognize that we can’t help others all the time. Overexposure to all that is painful in the world works against us rather than for us. Each of us has an individualized limit to how much news, social media, and others’ emotional pain we can productively absorb. We need enough exposure to motivate us to help others, but not so much that we become paralyzed by helplessness, guilt that we have it better, or emotional overload. 

When you need a timeout to focus on just your little world to regroup, that’s okay. Think of this like the “put your oxygen mask on before you help the person next to you” directive from flight attendants on airplanes. 

If you’re ready to experiment with how helping others can help you, the list below can help you get started. It obviously cannot be inclusive of all important causes and worthwhile organizations or ideas, but as part of my own effort to help others, I will update it as regularly as I can in response to unfolding world events.

Free ways you can make a difference today

  • Hold a door for someone.
  • Pick up trash in your neighborhood.
  • Offer to run an errand or complete a household task for a family member, friend, or neighbor. 
  • Volunteer your time (Google “volunteering near me”).
  • Meditate, pray, or engage in another spiritual practice meaningful to you.
  • Donate blood.
  • Contact your elected officials (find their contact information here).


How to set healthy boundaries

How to set healthy boundaries

How many times have you found yourself in one of these situations? 

“Hi, would you bake cookies for the meeting / serve on this committee / come home for the holidays / pick me up from the airport / wear this dress and not those pants / take over the project for me?”

And how many times have you found yourself baking / serving / going / wearing / taking over that project that was not yours and you didn’t want? 

If you’re human, this is probably familiar. If you’re a woman balancing multiple roles, this is probably a daily experience. For women in particular, since many of us are raised to value caring for others over ourselves, be nice, and avoid conflict, learning to set boundaries can be a lifelong process. We can often recognize the signs that our boundaries have been pushed after the fact because we feel some combination of resentment, guilt, anger, frustration, exhaustion, or other emotional sign that something isn’t right.

Listening to those feelings and finding the words to protect our time, energy, physical bodies, and emotional wellbeing is well worth the effort, but it takes practice and courage. 

People who are used to us agreeing to meet their requests generally don’t like it when we start saying no, and in general, the agreeable souls we are prefer people to be happy with us. Getting comfortable setting boundaries is a learning process, and it’s incredibly common for us to be good at setting boundaries with one person and terrible with another. Family members are notoriously tricky to set boundaries with. Just ask any mom with a tantruming toddler or adult child with an emotionally needy parent. 

A transitional way to say no is to use the “yes, yes, no, yes” method of saying no. What’s lovely about this approach is that you get to cushion that no in a pile of positive statements to ease yourself into a boundary and out of the demand on you. For example, “Sharon, I’d love to help with the prom committee and I’m sure it’s going to be a fabulous night for the kids. I can’t, unfortunately. Try me again next year!” 

As you might have noticed in the “no” statement above, when you keep it a simple “I can’t”, it’s a winner. There’s no excuse for you to remember, no problem for the asker to troubleshoot, and it’s deeply empowering to not apologize, over-explain, or have to think on your feet. Follow that up with a question or statement that changes the subject (otherwise known as distracting your listener) and odds are you won’t need the next tactic below.

Another boundary-setting trick is to be a broken record. This works great with toddlers of all ages. All you do is simply put your “no” on repeat each time the request is made. You don’t have to be creative and come up with new no’s. Recycle the one you’ve got — it’s still valid. “No, I can’t serve on the committee this year.” “No, I still can’t serve on the committee this year.” “No, I will not be serving on the committee this year.” Following a few of these statements with a topic change or a warm goodbye is totally appropriate. 

Being proactive with your boundary — saying no before the ask — can stop a boundary pusher in their tracks. “Mom, we’ve discussed our holiday plans for this year and have decided we are taking the kids skiing instead of coming home. We need a getaway for just our little family of four to have some fun and this is the only time we have to do it. We will see you at Easter.”  

Simply put, the better we become at setting boundaries, the more likely we will not feel the resentment, guilt, anger, frustration, and exhaustion that comes along with over-extending ourselves. And ironically, in turn, the happier and more enthusiastic we will be about the relationships we are a part of.

Saying a real “YES!” is only possible if we can say a real “No!”

Meditation for non-meditators

Meditation for non-meditators

“But I can’t meditate…”

Yeah, me neither.

What we can do, though, is set an alarm reminder to sit ourselves down once a day. And then we can set a timer for as long as we think we can stand it. We can close our eyes (or let our focus go soft with eyes open), drop our shoulders, unclench our jaw, and breathe.

Our brains are going to do what they do. We will hear our mind chatter, whine, criticize, and remind us there is dinner to make and an overdue report to work on. We will find ourselves listening to the kids arguing inside over the remote or the neighbor’s dog going berserk. We will realize we are rehearsing that perfect comeback to the snark our boss dished out that we were too tongue-tied and intimidated to find in the moment. We will sigh, shift, and try to go back to dropped shoulders, an unclenched jaw, and focus on our breathing.

Rinse, wash, repeat

This doesn’t mean we are doing it wrong, or that we should give it up. It just means we are human, our brains are still humming with electrical signals, and we aren’t accustomed to slowing down. We live in a world that rarely lets us sleep in; how in the world can we expect ourselves to turn off?

Even if we never reach the bliss of an empty, still mind, we are still reaping the benefits by trying. Lowered stress hormones, increased self-awareness, longer attention spans, improved sleep, fewer GI symptoms, decreased blood pressure, reduced anxiety and depression, and frankly, teaching ourselves and the world that it can get along without us for 20 minutes is worth it.

We don’t have to be good at it. We just have to do it.

So download that app. Request we do a guided mediation in session that we record for you to use on your own. Use this as an excuse to go down a YouTube rabbit hole to find some free favorites. Or even just queue up a Spotify playlist that reminds you of that amazing vacation when you lost yourself in the moment.

My noisy mind acknowledges the noise in your mind. And believes that there is also light, healing, and calm under the clatter. Namaste.

Tackling a big change

Tackling a big change

Maybe it begins as a wordless sensation, like a gnawing in your belly. It could be a recurring thought in your mind. Or is it a feeling: unease, fear, dissatisfaction, boredom, irritation, anger. It may feel like a wanting, a yearning, for more from life.

At first, you ignore it. You turn away when it presents itself, distract yourself from it, or numb it.

It’s whatever. Not going there today. I don’t have time for this. (Pours glass of wine and scrolls Instagram.)

It may disappear for the moment, but after a while you recognize that the feeling returns and ignoring it is just a Band-Aid. You find yourself looking for explanations (or maybe excuses?) for what you are feeling.

I’m just stressed.
It’s this never-ending *#$% pandemic.
Things will slow down at work soon.
He/she/they will get it together eventually.
I just need to be more grateful for what I have.

This works…for a while. But sooner or later, you find yourself facing the thoughts and feelings because they simply are not effectively held at bay by your efforts. No longer to be ignored or shushed by your explanations, they insist that maybe, just maybe, something has to give.

Change is scary. However, as my wise father says, change is the one constant we can count on in life.

Admitting we need to shift course takes courage, the willingness to consider and act from our own agency, and often feels overwhelming. Leaving what we know, even if it is no longer working for us, means departing from the safe harbor of the familiar for parts unknown…usually feeling like we’re on our own, without a map or ample provisions.

So where do we start?

Face the facts and feelings

We have to delve into the reality of what is and admit to ourselves that something needs to change. Maybe it’s your job, a relationship, or a pattern in your life. Write it down, in all its wild messiness. If words don’t come but images do, great. Google Image (Is “Google Image” a verb? Is now!) “great dark pit of despair” until you find something that fits. Maybe it’s the song that you skip every time on Spotify because you just haven’t been able to sit with what it brings up. Hit play with a box of markers, a pad of paper, and a box of tissues nearby.

Does this sound horrible? It might, and that’s 100% normal. But before we know where we need to go next, we need to take a minute to get our bearings on where we are now. Identifying what needs to change is the first step towards figuring out how to make a change happen and what that change looks like. This is how we create that map and figure out what we need to do to make the journey happen.

But it’s also okay to have an exit portal and recovery plan to help us regroup. Make a plan to have a therapy session or cup of coffee with a friend afterwards to debrief. Reward yourself with a movie on Netflix. Plan to throw yourself into childcare or the next work project after you’re finished facing the icky stuff — whatever works.

Allow yourself to envision the change

Where do you want to go with change? What would life be like if change happened? Allow yourself some space to explore and expand your vision of what could be. There are no wrong answers here and no need to be realistic. Life will constrict us soon enough — so dream, and dream big. This is a great time to turn inward to your deepest values and inner compass. What would it look like if your inside vision of your priorities and needs matched the outside landscape of your life?

Talk to people who have made the move

Don’t be afraid to talk to people who have made big changes. The woman in the PTA with you who left her unhealthy marriage. The stay-at-home mom who went back to school. The college buddy who quit the six-figure job to write a novel. These folks have things to teach you. They listened to themselves and took leaps of faith, with and without safety nets.

Start with small, manageable goals

Get started, and if you need to, start small. Some change can be tackled overnight, but other changes may require years of planning. That’s okay. Just get started, even if it’s baby steps.

(Caveat: Leaving an abusive relationship, tackling addiction, and other potentially dangerous changes may require support. If you have safety, health, financial, or other significant considerations intertwined with your change, please reach out to therapists, doctors, shelters, financial planners, attorneys, and other experts to support and guide you. These kinds of changes can feel the most overwhelming and lonely of all, but there are compassionate and knowledgeable people you can put on your team.)

Scientific research on how people can harness their energy for change tells us we need to make our goals fit the “SUCCESS” model. Keep this in mind, and break down those big dreams into smaller actions that fit the criteria.

SUCCESS goal formula

Note that a key component of the SUCCESS goal-setting structure is that the best goals are yours. Not your mom’s, not your manager’s, not your kid’s. Your dream change may benefit others in the long run, but they originate with what is best for you. The next thing to highlight is that SUCCESS goals connect you with others. You share them with your support system, include others in your planning, and are no longer alone in your process.

Maybe your goal is to say goodbye to your corporate grind, tap into your inner creative entrepreneur, and launch a candle-making business by 2024. Your first goal could be to spend two hours each weekend for a month visiting local farmers’ markets with your sister to interview people who are doing what you want to do. Another goal could be to research DIY candle recipes for 30 minutes a day and find three to experiment with at home next weekend. You commit to your partner you will email your results to them in one week. Maybe funding your dream feels like a big and scary barrier, so you should start with putting aside money each month or researching small business loans and you involve your financial planner in this process to set up an automatic withdrawal to a savings account.

Reframe and problem solve your fears

Let’s not minimize how loud our fear can get and how paralyzing it can feel when we contemplate change and start working towards it. But one approach is to remember these fears and worries are just trying to look out for us. They want us to be safe. They can help us pinpoint where we need to go next.

The key is to do things that address the fear: respond with actions to what they have to teach you.

If I leave him, how will the bills get paid?

Great question, me. Way to identify a barrier holding me back. I will learn about how to make a budget, get some skills training if I need it, and find a job.

If I work, who will take care of the kids?

Wow, me, I’m such a good mom to worry about the kids. I will ask about the elementary school after-care program. I’ll make sure I find a job that allows me to work from home if needed, take sick leave, or move closer to my parents.

If I’m single again, how will I manage the loneliness? Will I ever love again? I don’t want to be alone.

Good job thinking about my emotional and relationship needs, me. But let me remind myself that I’m lonely now, in the marriage I have. I will be clearing space for new relationships that I will vet for their capacity for emotional intimacy and connection. And I will heal myself with time and effort. I will become my own best friend.

So listen to your gut, map out your vision, and get started. Even if it’s baby steps. Reading this blog post counts as a baby step, by the way. So congratulations, you’re already on your way!

Reference: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-healthy-journey/201910/beyond-smart-evidence-based-formula-goal-setting