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  • Writer's pictureKatie Dunnigan

Self-Care and Mental Health: Why Willpower Doesn’t Work

Updated: Jan 5

No thought has any power. You have power. And when you identify and believe in the thought, you give power to that thought" -Mooji

On a daily basis, we are bombarded with messages about using strategies to change. A simple Google search for self-care will reveal things like “5 Self-Care Practices for Every Area of Your Life” and “50 Best Self-Care Ideas for Your Mental and Physical Well-Being.” But many of us know all of the strategies by now. It isn’t like we lack of access to information! And yet, we continue to struggle to create real, sustainable change in our lives. People begin to say to themselves: “I know what I should do…. Why can’t I just take care of myself?” This is an important question since self-care and mental health are interconnected.

One of the biggest issues I see in my work with clients is the continual reliance on willpower. We seem to believe that if we just try harder, focus more, or make a strict rule for ourselves to follow, then we will make the change. There are many lifestyle brands who profit off of this concept. But at some point, people tend to give up. The constant failure evokes shame, and it becomes too painful to even try anymore. This often brings people to therapy where the cycle starts to recreate itself. My clients, in one way or another, are saying to me: “Just tell me what to do!” This is another form of looking for an outside answer to apply intellectually. Even if I did tell people what to do, they probably wouldn’t do it! And besides, how can I ever know what is deeply right for someone in each moment?

What is Self-Care?

Self-care is slowing down and checking-in with ourselves. It involves asking, “What do I need right now?” and then listening to our intuition. The answer is not the same for everyone even if the situation is similar, which is why we cannot use conditioned rules. I have a past blog post you can find here on the difference between using rules versus intuition.

As a mindfulness and transpersonal therapist, I work with people to begin observing their thoughts (and beliefs) related to low self-care. We get curious by asking the question: “What do I tell myself when I don’t do what I know I should be doing?” Spending time in observation is a critical first step, and it’s important to do it without judgement so that we don’t shut down inside. We just watch and notice what comes up. The mind is so powerful and consistent that sometimes we don’t realize the patterns playing out over and over. Here are some examples of what people notice:

Thoughts Related to Low Self-Care and Mental Health

o I’m too busy to take care of myself – if I slow down, everything will fall apart!

o People are relying on me and I can’t let them down, no matter what

o I want everyone to think I am strong and competent, so I never show vulnerability

o If I don’t do things, they won’t be done properly, so I can’t let go of control

o If I try to process my emotions, I’ll become overwhelmed and stuck, so it’s best to just keep going

o I don’t want to think about things because it’s too difficult/painful/scary

o I’ve spent so much time caring for others that I don’t even know what I need

o I don’t deserve to be taken care of – I feel so worthless inside

o I’m on auto-pilot so much, I don’t realize when I am worn down until it’s too late

o I like to be needed so I prefer to care for others – it gives me a sense of identity

o I’d rather stay comfortable, so I continue to distract myself from my real issues

o What’s the point of caring for myself? My life will continue to be terrible anyway

o If I start to pay attention to my mind and body, I’ll have to give up my bad habits/diet/physique

o My needs are not important – there are bigger issues in this world

For a while, we just watch ourselves as the thoughts and behavioural patterns continue. This can be quite painful, since many of us are used to shutting our awareness down so we don’t have to think about our bad habits. The purpose of observing ourselves is not to notice the thought and then use willpower to try to stop it. What we are working on is creating distance between the thought itself and who is noticing the thought. With practice, we start to become more objective and less reactive. We cultivate the ability to slow down inside and we become capable of making a choice in the moment about what to do (for example: do I go for a walk, or do I rest?). This feels very different than reacting to thoughts when we are on auto-pilot, or having a rule that decides for us. Over time, people find that their self-care and mental health begin to improve.

Like any process, there are ups and downs when we start observing ourselves. It is normal at the beginning to do better in calmer environments, and to continue to struggle during stressful situations. In addition to slowing our thoughts, we also have to get comfortable with emotions, deal with real issues, and learn to trust in our awareness to guide us. But this is the inner work that we build on over time, and it can have life-changing effects on our mental health and well-being.

Awareness, self-care and mental health, and personal transformation go together. When we regularly work on opening awareness and strengthening our connection to our self, we become capable of practicing self-care on a deeper level. It is an experiential process that evolves over time and changes how we feel about ourselves, how we treat our bodies, how we handle stress, how we deal with emotions, and how we make decisions. What could be better than developing the inner freedom to choose?

Mindful Awareness Practice 1:

Think about an area of self-care where you continue to struggle. It might be in the category of physical, mental, or emotional self-care. Try to choose something that seems really important for you to do, but that you are unable to stick to. Spend some time over the next week noticing when you think about needing the self-care activity. Then, begin to non-judgementally observe the thoughts (including beliefs) that emerge in your mind about the activity. What is the story that you tell yourself? Are there any rationalizations? Blame? Just watch whatever unfolds in the moment.

Mindful Awareness Practice 2:

The following week, continue to observe as your thoughts arise about the self-care activity. But now begin to pay attention to what you do when the thoughts come up. Do you repress them? Distract from them? Avoid them in some other way? Try your best to get curious and just watch what happens. Do not try to control your thoughts or to make yourself do anything different. Just allow your awareness to open.

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