When self-care leads to loneliness

Almost before my friend’s invitation was out of her mouth, I knew what my answer would be. “A few friends and I are grabbing drinks after work. Want to join us?”

“No.” My explanation, ready to hand from years of reading about self-care and boundaries, came as easily as usual. “I’m a little tired and want to take the evening off. I’ve been so busy lately.”

She understood, of course, and I settled in for another evening of Downton Abbey under a blanket.

It’s a common enough story, and it’s hardly the story of an evening gone wrong—but I started thinking about what I’d given that social time up for. Don’t get me wrong, a few hours of the escapades of Lady Mary and company have their place, on occasion. But that chance to grab drinks with a group of new friends came and went, unlike the glowing Prime Video icon on my screen.

As busy modern women, we’re told over and over to say “no”—to commitments, events, responsibilities, or anything unrealistic that comes our way. While I’m a strong believer in boundaries, and certainly don’t want to push anyone to become overwhelmed, I’ve started questioning the automatic “no” in my life. How many times have I said “no” to a visit with an unfamiliar group of people or pushed a coffee date with a new acquaintance to the bottom of my priority list, just because I’d rather curl up with my cat and browse Pinterest? Sometimes that’s boundaries; but sometimes, if I’m honest with myself, it’s putting what’s immediately comfortable over self-care.

Self-care is going for a run, taking a well-earned bath, making healthy food, or investing time in a relationship. As much as I wish I could believe otherwise, self-care does not (usually) consist in scouring Amazon reviews to find the best possible phone case or watching a fourth episode of The Office. Of course, there are exceptions—sometimes you just need to turn your brain off. Sometimes you’re sick. Sometimes you genuinely need a new phone case.

But I often forget the obvious reality: if it’s not work-related, the majority of my time spent in front of screens is entertainment, not self-care. They might seem like the same thing, but they’re not. Entertainment is fleeting. You walk out of the movie theater or leave the live performance perhaps refreshed, but not revived. Entertainment can become a mindless vortex—I don’t feel much different after the second (or third) hour on Pinterest than I did after the first few minutes, which would certainly not be true after the second hour of Pilates (though I wouldn’t know that from experience!) Self-care should be deeper than that, oriented toward our flourishing as human beings.

As I stepped back and examined my habits, I realized that I had a default answer to every outside suggestion for spending my time, especially in ways that made me mildly uncomfortable: no. It wasn’t always the answer, but it was the default, the word that kept me back from writing letters to faraway friends, getting drinks with unfamiliar coworkers, or volunteering in a local production of a play. And the reasoning behind that answer was the panacea for avoiding what I didn’t want to do: self-care.

This didn’t come out of nowhere. Like many women today, I’ve lived the overcommitted life (there was a period in college when I had thirteen regular meal dates a week. Thirteen). And I really, really don’t want to go back to that life—it’s not a good way to live.

So I started to say no, to give myself more time. And how did I use that time? Well, browsing Pinterest. Recently, I’ve taken a step back, not just to examine why I say “no,” but also to think about what I say no for. What did I turn down drinks for? How am I using the time not spent in that dance class? How do I spend the evenings that I’ve deliberately kept free of obligations? 


Sometimes, the answers to those questions really are examples of self-care: working out on a regular basis, getting a decent amount of sleep, or doing some reading. But I think I’ve reached a point that self-care is not the answer to all the problems in my life. I might need to start saying “yes” again.

Friendships are part of self-care

Americans are more and more lonely, and friendships take work to develop. Especially in young adulthood, it’s hard to recover from the ready-made friend groups of college and realize that, if you don’t open yourself up to relationships, they won’t just show up in your dorm room or at the cafeteria. As millennials grow increasingly lonely and distanced from one another, we’re forgetting how to make friends, how to build relationships.

I don't always see friendships, especially building new friendships, as a high priority, because I forget so easily that friendships are self-care. Friends build you up, they give you new ideas, they offer a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on or a fresh perspective. But to get those friendships, we have to start making choices in favor of what’s uncomfortable in the moment.

So I’m trying something new: saying “yes” to one thing at a time. While the regular dinner dates and plethora of weekly commitments that characterized my college days are off the table, I started to realize that lots of opportunities, like those drinks with acquaintances, are a one-time deal. There are no strings attached. If you don’t like swing dance club or no one talks to you at game night or that one coffee date is super awkward, you never have to do it again.

When my friend moved to Europe, in fact to a country where there was a significant language barrier, she told me she was setting herself one rule: to say yes to everything. Yes to the random post-church get-together, yes to the book signing, yes to the creative writing group. And it bore fruit: a marvelous adventure unfolded thanks to her saying “yes” over and over again, and I heard the stories of her travels with amazement at the wonderful and hilarious things that happened to her.

If saying “yes” to everything seems like too much of a commitment, what do we have to lose from saying “yes” just once or twice? When I move to a new town, I’m challenging myself to say “yes” to every one-time invitation that comes my way: my vision is that, rather than being overcommitted, I’ll learn what I really love through a few one-time experiences.

But this challenge doesn’t have to be extreme at all. You can do it even if you already feel overwhelmed: try saying “yes,” just every once in a while. Say “yes” to one thing a week, or one thing a month, and treat it as an experiment. How do you feel after connecting with other people? Do you still feel overwhelmed, or did anything about the experiment actually ease your stress? Do you have less time for true self-care, or do you find that it was entertainment that made way for these connections?

We maintain healthy boundaries to avoid overwhelm and burnout. But, in our effort to avoid these things, we sometimes open ourselves up to loneliness, and, consequently, don’t really care for ourselves. I think there must be a better way: if we think about what we are saying no for, and if we are intentional—and sometimes generous—with our “yes,” our one-time decisions could bear fruit in years of strengthened friendships and true human connection.