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When “Self Care” becomes Self Indulgence (And How to Spot the Difference)

We therapists are the masters of talking about self care and the worst at actually adopting practices of self care.

How many times have you been privy to (or participated in) conversations that go something like this:

Therapist Ae: Ugh. I have zero energy to do my notes today.

Therapist Bea: What’s going on?

Therapist Ae: I was back to back with clients, I didn’t have time to eat, and I couldn’t sleep at all last night.

Therapist Bea: The worst.

Therapist Ae: Right? I had to process through some things with my partner and I didn’t get to bed until way after midnight.

Therapist Bea: Forget your notes, A! You’ve had a rough day. What you need is a glass of wine and some good self care.

Therapist Ae: Tell me about it! Self care night!

Therapist Bea: Totally! Just take care of yourself.

Fortunately for Therapist Ae, Therapist Bea never asked how behind she was on her notes. If Bea had, she would’ve discovered that Ae was months behind in her notes. Then they might’ve had to confront the terrifying possibility of a professional call-out, which we therapists avoid that like the plague.

So, today, for the sake of our profession and for the sake of You, my beloved therapist, I’m going to do some calling out.

There is a difference between engaging in self care and participating in self indulgence.

Don’t get me wrong, self indulgence (hedonistic, pleasure-seeking) is wonderful, but it is different than the kind of self-care we must adopt in order to do our jobs well. Way too often, we therapists get these concepts confused. And, not only that, but we are masters at condoning self-indulgence amongst each other with the cries of of “Self Care!”

Let’ take a look at the difference.

4 Signs You’re Using the term “Self Care” as an Excuse to Avoid Responsibility

  • You’re impulsively indulging in harmful behavior as a way to cope with difficult times.
  • You lament that you need “self-care” as a way to avoid following through with consistent action (especially when times are hard) in order to reach your ultimate goals.
  • You use the term “self care” to let others know you’re not open to valuable feedback that could lead to change, but rather that you want to be validated in your actions – even when your actions are getting in the way of growth.
  • After engaging in the “self care” activity, you find yourself feeling guilty and seeking validation to absolve you of anxiety.

If you find yourself consistently utilizing the term self-care to justify your nightly ice-cream binges or to warn your friends and colleagues that any attempts at providing feedback will be met with accusations of misunderstanding, or to avoid following through with the necessary functions of running a business – like marketing your practice, showing up on time to sessions or writing notes – it’s time to step back and re-assess.

True self care is a consistent practice that one uses to enhance their capacity to follow through with disciplined action, not to avoid personal and professional responsibilities.

What does true self care look like in action?

  • Charging fees that allow you to participate in activities that lead to increased energy and a sense of well-being.
  • Creating a consistent routine that enhances your emotional and physical well-being and sticking to that routine.
  • Setting up a structure of care that allows you to consistently invite constructive criticism that allows you to move forward.

Of course, there will be times when you simply cannot function and when it doesn’t make sense to do so.

Like when an election turns out vastly different than you thought it would. Or when a sudden medical emergency happens. Or so many other possibilities for loss that out of our control – a death, a breakup, an illness. Or when you simply miscalculated and overwhelmed your sensibilities, such that it is all you can do to make it through the day without binge-eating on that delicious back of BBQ kettle chips.

But, it’s important to distinguish true self-care from the self-indulgent, impulsively reactive behavior that comes when we’re overwhelmed by life.

Look, you as a therapist have the capacity to change lives – which means you have the capacity to change the world. If you are truly intent on making a fundamental difference, it is incumbent upon you to find a way to push through, even when it’s hard. The difference between those who create mighty and lasting change and those who will not is the ability to get up in the morning, follow through on the things you said you would do, have the integrity to keep. on. going. even when it feels hopeless or overwhelming.

I know it’s hard. I feel it, too. I can take strength in the knowledge that my colleagues – you – are out there on the front lines with me, having the strength to consistently care for yourselves so that you can consistently show care for others. Which, after all, is what we need to keep America as great as it can be.

Here are some self-care activities that you can set up as a regular part of your life so you can continue to show up, especially when times are hard:

  • Work out at least 20 minutes a day – even if it’s just a walk
  • Utilize weekly consultation groups to discuss difficult cases
  • If you’re not in your own therapy, get in your own therapy. Jeez Louiz, people!
  • Participate in a business mastermind group to give and receive concrete encouragement to follow through with stated goals
  • Make your meals on Sunday, so you don’t have to worry about it the rest of the week
  • Set up your outfits on Sunday, so you don’t have to think about it in the morning
  • Join a FB group where members have the capacity to express deep empathy, while also getting shit done
  • Set up weekly walks with a friend who is really good at providing empathic and supportive responses
  • AND, set up weekly walks with a friend who you trust to tell it like it is, who isn’t afraid that you might get angry or defensive when confronted with honest feedback

What do you think?! Is there really a difference between self-care and self-indulgence?! Join the discussion in the comment section below!


Photo Credits: Dean DrobotlangstrupCathy Yeulet


When “Self Care” becomes Self Indulgence (And How to Spot the Difference)

Tiffany McLain, LMFT


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APA Reference
McLain, T. (2016). When “Self Care” becomes Self Indulgence (And How to Spot the Difference). Psych Central. Retrieved on July 9, 2020, from