Recently, longtime contributor to Verily, Julia Marie Hogan, MS, LCPC published the book It’s OK to Start with You, an excellent resource on the topic of self-care. We spoke with Julia to discuss some of her new book’s content, and how self-care done right is really about self-worth.
Mary Rose Somarriba: As a psychotherapist, what roadblocks to self-care do you commonly encounter with your clients?
Julia Hogan: I think probably the biggest roadblocks that come to mind are people say I’m busy, I don’t have the time to practice self-care. I think that comes from an unconsciousness idea that self-care is a no-no. There is an aura around or misunderstanding about self-care that it requires to somehow drastically alter your life. In my book I talk about how you don’t have to go on a long beach retreat or go live on a mountain to practice self-care; you can do it in your busy life.
And then there’s this idea that self-care is selfish. Why should I make time to take care of myself when I should take care of my family, or there’s work, or I can’t take time from my other obligations? I don’t want to do that. This is especially powerful in Christian circles.
But I think that linking self-care to selfishness is actually covering up something deeper. It really means I don’t think I’m worth the time or effort that self-care demands to practice. I’m not worthy of being in healthy relationships; I just need to take what falls, I’m not worth standing up for.
MRS: Can you elaborate on this connection between self-care and self-worth?
JH: Self-worth is the internal feeling and self-care is the external expression of that self-worth—if you recognize your true identity and that you’re worth taking care of. A lot of people I see think other people are amazing and my life is a worthless piece of trash that isn’t worth taking care of. If the internal feeling is I'm not worth it, the external expression will be I’m not going to take care of myself. I’m going to be in an unhealthy relationship because I don't think I deserve better; I’m going to stay in a toxic job because I don’t think I'm worth making my dream a reality. It’s a common cycle: I don’t like the way my life is, so I don’t like myself, and that cycle keeps going.
For those whose internal sense of self-worth is strong—they believe this: As a human being, I have equal dignity and worth as every other person on the planet. So if I'm telling my friends they need to get more sleep, or they need to break up with this guy because they’re in an unhealthy relationship, then I need to treat myself the same way.
MRS: How much can someone in a rut “fake it ‘til they make it”? How much can they go from self-care to self-worth?
JH: I talk about taking small steps in my book. The first step is challenging your inner critic. We all have that voice inside our head that says you’re not good enough, you’re not pretty enough, why would any want to be with you. Recognize that inner critic voice and learn how to challenge it. If your self-worth is very low and you’re in the valley, recognizing the inner critic’s voice would be step one, recognizing that 100 percent of what it tells you is a lie. That can help you fake it ‘til you make it.
You have to kind of take it on faith for a little bit, until you realize that the inner critic in your head is telling a bunch of lies. Once you start to get that glimpse of the possibility, it becomes more real. When we don't recognize that voice, we can just get stuck in a cycle of negative self-worth.
MRS: How can people differentiate self-care from self-indulgence or unhealthy coping mechanisms such as emotional eating or shopping addictions?
JH: Yes, a common misconception is that self-care equals selfish habits that involve expensive purchases, and so on. I get news alerts for articles on self-care, and so many articles today are using that misconception about self-care—offering suggestions like: watch your favorite TV show, get your nails done, get a massage. Those examples work under certain circumstances, but they don’t define self-care at its most authentic definition.
One of the easiest ways to know if it’s self-care and not self-indulgence, is to realize it’s actually a discipline. It’s something that you have to do all the time. It means going to bed at the right time, which can be really hard to do when you want to watch an episode of favorite show. Or it can be getting up early to exercise when you don't really want to. Once you realize it’s discipline—you can see it’s very different from thinking, I can just do whatever I want because it’s all about me.
The second thing that helps is identifying your motivation. It is true self-care if your motivation is to be a better person—the best version of yourself in your own particular circumstances—in your relationship, at work, to yourself. If you’re doing something because you feel like it but ignoring your other obligations, it might not be self-care. But if you’re going to bed early, and it helps you do all your other vocational obligations well, it’s more likely to be self-care.
MRS: How does one start a self-care plan?
JH: One of the biggest things I talk about in my book is the goal to make self-care achievable and sustainable. So it doesn’t bring a sense of overwhelmingness that you have to overhaul your life, because that can be very hard to sustain. You don’t want it to be like when you haven’t been to the gym in forever, and then you go one day for 90 minutes and feel so sore afterward that you can’t sustain it.
So what I do in my book is I put together an assessment—I break it down into different areas, including physical, emotional, relationships, and so on. There are a series of true/false questions, in areas of self-care, so the reader can see how they're doing in each area.
The purpose in that assessment is twofold—for readers to learn what are they doing well, and what they need to focus on. The goal is to start small and to make sustainable changes in your life.
MRS: What are the limits of self-care alone? When should someone realize they need more help?
JH: I think that self-care is something everybody can benefit from, including myself. But while it plays an important role in mental health, self-care alone can’t treat anxiety, depression, trauma, childhood wounds, and deeper problems like that. For those specific issues, self-care is important to do, but it’s also important to get professional help.