Feeling Burnout? Part 2 – Why Self-care Is Not Enough

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02/06/2021

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02/06/2021

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Self-care

This is the second post in a series about coping with burnout. Do check out the rest of the series.

In my first post of this series, I hinted that I will be busting some myths about self-care and why we need more than that to truly recover from a burnout episode.

I guess I was wrong (about the myths part, at least). Self-care is essential to recover from a burnout.

What changed my mind was reading this article on Everyday Health. It is medically reviewed and updated, hence a reliable source to understand what is and isn’t self-care. The World Health Organisation (WHO) also defines self-care as “the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider”.

Self-care is the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.

– World Health Organisation

According to Everyday Health, doing self-care right will lead to better mental and physical health, overall well-being, and even longevity. Here are some of their recommendations for self-care:

  • Eat a diet rich in fruits and veggies
  • Be kind to yourself
  • Get enough quality sleep
  • Meditate
  • Spend time in nature
  • Start a gratitude journal
  • Exercise
  • Take dedicated break from electronics
  • Live in the present moment

Source: https://infogram.com/ideas-for-how-to-practice-self-care-1hdw2jrk03dx6l0

Looks pretty ‘legit’ and commonsensical, no? I can agree with many of these tips on the list. Getting enough quality sleep and regular exercise is so crucial for me in restoring my mental health. My wife’s no. 1 way of self-care is to visit nature parks, and my family built many wonderful memories with our time spent there.

Spending time in nature is a fantastic way to do self-care.

So what’s not to like about self-care, that prompted my remark in the first post?

Our human tendency is to turn self-care into self-obsession

Even the writer at Everyday Health starts the article by saying, “Let’s clear up one common misconception from the get-go: Self-care is not synonymous with self-indulgence or being selfish.” The truth is that we are so prone to confuse the two, and for good reasons. Anything that makes us happy can be justified in the name of self-care. The nature of the activities does not seem to matter. While the article did acknowledge that “there are plenty of examples of self-care that seem to tread a fine line between a health-enhancing behavior and self-indulgence”, how that line is to be drawn is pretty much left to your own discretion. Binge-watching Netflix? Surfing social media (hint: too much of it can actually lead to anxiety)? Book a getaway trip (not during COVID times, of course)?

As Christian blogger, Tim Challies, wrote about our tendency to turn self-care into self-obsession, “It does not take great self-knowledge to know that in most cases, our temptation is to love ourselves too much, not too little.”

Of course, these are not words for someone with a martyr complex. If you have been overworking yourself and burning yourself out, by all means, go for self-care! Just choose the routine that actually enhances your health. Not all self-care is self-care.

An antidote to self-obsession? Grow your self-care into ‘others-care’.

Tim Challies rightly suggests that there is an appropriate level of self-care, and that we best extend care to others when we have cared for our own physical, mental, spiritual, and relational health. In so many ways, the care we offer to others flows out of the care we’ve taken for ourselves.

There is a balance we need to maintain, and though it would be foolish to assign exact standards or ratios, it seems to me that this self-care should be enough to equip us to properly and dutifully care for others, but not so much that it tips over into obsession with ourselves or neglect of others. This kind of self-care should be aimed not just at personal fulfillment but the fulfillment of our God-given duty toward others.

Tim Challies, Should Christians “Self Care?”

Self-care is not the ‘be-all and end-all’ solution to burnout

Chill yourself with a cuppa coffee, tune in your favorite show, and all your problems will go away. Or will it?
(Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay)

Here’s another qualm I have about seeing self-care as the quintessential answer to the burnout problem: it’s not.

To be fair, proper self-care gets you to the place where you can address the deeper issues with your burnout. Issues such as whether you are caught in a rut at work, or tangled in life-depleting relationships, or having to making stressful decisions.

But it does not address the actual issues. Marshall Segal, in his article “The Insanity of ‘Self-Care’”, even calls it a ‘diversion’:

It’s all diversion… It’s medication by distraction, not redemption. Practicing forgetfulness, rather than pursuing forgiveness.

These tactics do not even pretend to address your needs or to offer a cure. If you think that a tune, a labyrinth, or a squirrel are going to heal the things that haunt you, you are more helpless than you even realize.

Woah. Strong words. But true. And that was why I ended my first post with the strong sense that self-care, by itself, can never solve the problem of our burnout.

Fortunately, Segal didn’t leave us with just a rant about the shortfalls of self-care. He invites us to think about the care that we really need:

The care you really need is not buried somewhere deep inside of you, waiting to be unlocked by some dessert or diversion. No, you need the healing, forgiving, restoring, and transforming grace of a God who loves you. Only Someone stronger than your greatest weaknesses, bigger than your worst failures, and brighter than your deepest darknesses could address the things you fear or regret.

Self-care is important, but it is not the cure-all for our burnout. To experience true healing from our weaknesses, failures, and darknesses, we need to enter the loving presence of our Creator God.

From self-care to Sabbath rest

We can all agree that self-care is necessary to our recovery from burnout and that it has its limitations. Without God, self-care may become nothing but a Band-Aid solution for temporary relief. But how does one direct our journey towards God? How may we elevate our self-care to a God-glorifying others-care?

I am convinced that the real answer to our ‘burnout epidemic’ is in the biblical practice of Sabbath rest – a God-centred, disciplined and holistic rest. Yet it is a topic of such richness and forgotten wisdom that a single blog post could never do justice to it (much less the remaining space we have). So I’m saving it for the next post in our series, hoping that it will enthuse some of you to search out its gems more deeply.

I’ll also need some time to practice what I preach. Between this post and the previous one, we teachers in Singapore were coping with a school lockdown due to the COVID pandemic, and movement to online lessons. There were long periods of time where I was not able to observe my Sabbath as properly as I would. I hope to take the June school holiday to instill some needed Sabbath rest.

Meanwhile, I’d like to hear from you! What do you think about self-care? Do you feel that there is more to be said for its importance in our stressed-out lives? How do you do self-care, personally? Drop me a comment below!


This post is part of my column on Called to Teach, which primarily discusses the joys and challenges of teaching as a calling. Feel free to check out my other blog posts on teaching and other professional-related topics.

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