Ditch self-care. Try values instead.

“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”
– Jack Kornfield

I have a secret, one that I hide from most of my other therapist friends and colleagues. I hate the concept of self-care. There, I said it. My name is Jenna, I am a therapist, and I say f%&k self-care! That could get me booted from many professional circles I run in, especially here in Portland, Oregon where it seems like everyone is talking about the importance of “taking time out for yourself” and having a “self-care routine.” But hear me out on this. I personally think there is nothing more important than caring well for those we’re in relationship with, which includes the relationship we have with ourselves. But caring well for ourselves isn’t the same as “self-care,” at least not how it’s usually described.

One problem I have with the concept of self-care, is that it’s usually talked about as being somehow distinct from how we care for others and how we normally behave in the rest of our lives. It is the exception rather than the rule. Self-care, as normally understood, is analogous to what my mother would call a “Disneyland parent.” The “Disneyland parent” is the one who is never really present in their kids’ day-to-day lives. They might show up for the big game, but they don’t bother to take their kid to practice. They are absent for the thankless tasks of driving their kids to the dentist or sitting with them as they cry their way through their first breakup. Instead, once a year, they swoop in and take their kid to Disneyland, as if that’s what will make them a “good” parent. But how you care for your kids or your partner or your self isn’t really about the big exceptional things you do. Our values are lived out in the day-to-day moments, how we treat ourselves and others on an ongoing basis.

Rather than trying to carve out time from the normal way of caring for yourself to engage in some one-off “self-care,” you might consider using values to guide the way you interact with yourself on an ongoing basis. Values are about who we want to be in this world and in our relationships. And those relationships include our relationship with ourselves, since we’re the person we spend the most time with. Values have a consistency and integrity to them that’s not there with intermittent self-care “breaks.” They are the consistent compass that can guide all our interactions, including how we relate to ourselves.

So, go ahead and take that Wednesday afternoon yoga break. Get a massage once a month. Take that annual ski trip with the guys or gals. And by all means, take your kids to Disneyland if you choose. But if you really want to care well for yourself, consider what your values might tell you about how you would interact with yourself on a daily basis.

You might reflect on the following questions to explore how your values might guide how you would choose to care for yourself:

  • How would I choose to treat others I care about? If those are important values to me, would I choose to embody them in all my relationships, including my relationship with myself? How would this look in terms of my relationship with myself and how I treat myself?

  • What would my values tell me about how I would want to respond to myself when I feel I have failed or fallen short in some way? What would this look like when I am struggling or having a difficulty? What might be the impact of responding to my failures in a values-consistent manner rather than responding with self-criticism or some other punishment? 

Just imagine what it would be like if you treated yourself the same way you treated others you love. This isn’t a one time “treat” you give yourself; it’s about being consistent in how you want to be in all your relationships, including your relationship with yourself. What kind of impact could this have on your life and on those you care about, including yourself? 

Author: Jenna LeJeune, Ph.D

Jenna LeJeune, Ph.D. is co-founder and President of Portland Psychotherapy Clinic, Research, and Training Center in Portland, Oregon. As a clinical psychologist, Jenna specializes in working with clients struggling with relationship difficulties, including problems with intimacy and sexuality, trauma-related relationship challenges, and struggles people have in their relationship with their own bodies. She is the co-author of the forthcoming book, “Values in Therapy: A Clinician’s Guide to Helping Clients Explore Values, Increase Psychological Flexibility, and Live a More Meaningful Life.” Jenna is also a peer-reviewed ACT trainer and provides ACT trainings to professionals around the world.

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