What is Pseudo
by Ami Kunimura, MA, MT-BC • March 2019
Pseudo self-care is one of those things where once you know about it, it’s like a light switch got turned on and you start seeing it everywhere.
It’s likely you already know what it is, but you didn’t know it had a name.
Before we get into what pseudo self-care is, it’s important that you know – EVERYBODY DOES THIS. This includes you and this includes me.
So, what is pseudo self-care?
Pseudo self-care is behavior that is justified as being self-care, but is actually behavior manifesting from numbing, avoidance, distraction, procrastination, perfectionism, or self-sabotage.
Years ago, I came up with this term after observing it in every client I’ve worked with, and in myself. Pseudo self-care is best described with some real life examples.
NOTE: As you read through these examples, be gentle with yourself. There’s lots of opportunity here for self-judgment and self-criticism. Give yourself some space to be imperfect and be human, and use this information as a reminder to be kind to yourself. Again, we all do this.
Here are four examples of true self-care vs. pseudo self-care.
Example #1: Comfort vs. Numbing/Avoidance
Say you’re having a bad day. One of those days where things just aren’t going right. Your mood is declining with every hour, and you’re feeling frustrated and irritable. To give yourself some comfort, you treat yourself to some ice cream.
Having a scoop of ice cream, and enjoying it, can be self-care.
However, eating an entire pint of ice cream in one sitting while staring at the TV, phone, or computer, and then feelings terrible about it after – that’s not self-care. Instead, that’s pseudo self-care in the form of numbing or avoidance.
Usually what we’re doing here is numbing or avoiding difficult feelings, situations, or realities that are difficult to face. Numbing and avoidance are common human responses to stress and often times involves food. This also happens with alcohol, drugs, sex, shopping, and technology. Even healthy things like exercise can be pseudo self-care in excessive amounts or when done for the wrong reasons.
It can be easy to confuse numbing or avoidance as an act of self-care, and most of us do this from time to time. Doing this once in while might not be big deal, but numbing and avoidance can be harmful when you’re consistently repressing emotions, neglecting relationships, or abandoning true self-care.
If you relate to this, use this information as a reminder to be kind to yourself rather than a reason to criticize yourself.
Example #2: Connection vs. Distraction/Procrastination
Say you’re feeling anxious about something. Maybe you’re waiting to hear back from someone, or you need to make a decision about something that you’re having a hard time with.
Instead of taking a few deep breaths, or taking a walk, or reaching out to someone for support – you pull out your phone and scroll through social media, for a long time.
Social media can be a great tool to connect with people, make new connections, learn, and interact. It’s great to stay connected and social media can make communication easy and fun.
However, scrolling through social media mindlessly as a distraction or form of procrastination is not healthy. Have you ever done this? Maybe it’s an email that you’re having difficulty writing, or there’s some kind of chore that needs to be done, and instead of tackling the task at hand, scrolling through social media is used as procrastination.
I’m not saying don’t use social media, but be mindful of the intention behind your use and the state of mind you end up in. Sometimes we scroll through social media to find connection with others but end up feeling disconnected to yourself.
Sometimes authentic connection can be difficult when it involves being vulnerable with your feelings, asking for help, or being the one to initiate a heart to heart talk. True self-care can often be more difficult to initiate than pseudo self-care.
Example #3: Discipline vs. Perfectionism
Say you made a goal to go to a yoga class every Wednesday, and you scheduled it in your calendar this week. But then, the next Wednesday you get sick. You stick to your goal and go to yoga anyway even though your body aches, you have a fever, and you have to constantly blow your nose.
Sometimes self-care means sticking to your goals with discipline even when you don’t feel like it. But, not always. Neglecting what your body actually needs or putting other people’s health at risk is not self-care.
Self-care does require discipline in order to keep your goals on track, yet allows for some degree of flexibility and consideration of the present moment. Perfectionism brings in all-or-nothing thinking that can be critical, demanding, and unrealistic to maintain. Instead, aiming for progress over time can be a healthier approach.
Example #4: Reward vs. Self-Sabotage
Say that after a long day at work you come home feeling exhausted, and at the end of the day you finally have a little time to yourself. To wind down and decompress your mind, you put on your pajamas and turn on Netflix to reward yourself with watching an episode of your favorite show.
This could be excellent self-care if after one or two episodes you called it a night and gave your body the sleep it needs to recoup after a long day.
However, when one episode turns into another and another and you end up binge watching half a season and staying up way too late despite the fact that your body is tired – this is pseudo self-care in the form of self-sabotage. Instead of being a reward, this deprives you of the sleep you need, and causes you to be even more exhausted the next day.
Self-sabotage can happen in so many ways and is a huge topic in itself. What we want to pay attention to here is confusing self-care with self-sabotage. Even though it might seem like distinguishing one from the other would be obvious, sometimes it not always so clear.
Remember, pseudo self-care is something everyone does sometimes, it’s normal, and is okay every so often.
I also don’t want to take the fun out of life. Binge watching Netflix and eating a lot of ice cream can be really enjoyable and if it means you can have a fun night of laughing and allowing yourself to indulge without guilt.
However, when pseudo self-care starts to become a pervasive pattern and blocks your true self-care, then it’s time to do something about it. When it comes to pseudo self-care, our goal is not to totally eliminate it, but to recognize your patterns to see where change needs to happen.
So, what do we do about this?
First, what NOT to do:
1. Beat yourself up about it or shame yourself. This will just make it worse and possibly perpetuate the cycle.
2. Become preoccupied with guilt that leads to more pseudo self-care.
3. Give up on your actual self-care practices and goals.
Here’s how handle pseudo self-care:
1. Recognize it when it’s happening. Stop, and take a breath. This takes practice, and you can recognize it by asking yourself, “is this what’s best for me right now?”
2. Be willing to compassionately call yourself out on it.
3. Own up to it and tell someone. Don’t let pseudo self-care be a shameful secret you’re keeping. You don’t want to keep this as a secret or it will have power over you and continue to drain your energy.
4. Set a boundary with yourself, and try to do better next time.
5. Get support. It can be difficult to break these patterns on your own.
It’s unrealistic to completely avoid pseudo self-care behavior, but we can work on reducing it, especially in times when true self-care is needed – such as being emotionally overwhelmed, exhausted, when you’re sick, or when you’re dealing with grief or acute stress.
So remember, self-care is not an excuse or way to justify behaviors that are not good for you. Self-care is a choice to do what’s best for you.
Sometimes doing what’s best for you isn’t the same thing as what is easiest to do, and what’s best for you takes more effort. You’re worth the effort.
Ami Kunimura, MA, MT-BC is the founder of the Self-Care Institute and the creator and facilitator of Resilience Over Burnout: A Self-Care Program, an in-depth online program that guides professionals out of burnout and stress cycles through research-based self-care practices. Ami has presented on self-care and professional burnout at international events and conferences. Ami (pronounced ah-me) was born in Hawaii and currently lives in Southern California.
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