Why Caring for Yourself is SO Hard...and the Scientific Solutions to Make it Much Easier

“If someone comes along and shoots an arrow into your heart, it’s fruitless to stand there and yell at the person. It would be much better to turn your attention to the fact that there’s an arrow in your heart.”
--Pema Chödrön

There are probably many demands on your time and energy, and looking after yourself can easily slip down the to-do list. Perhaps you’re a busy mom, a pressured business executive, or recently bereaved.

When faced with lots of demands, it’s easy to forget to take care of yourself. When you do look after yourself, your feelings of distress begin to turn into positive eustress, and you’re better able to meet life’s challenges with a smile.

Take a moment to think about how caring owners treat their dog. They wash and groom him, give him sufficient and healthy food, ensure their dog is at the right weight, and exercise the dog every day. They make sure they give their beloved animal time and attention and play games with the dog when out and about. At night they make sure their dog is warm enough and has a place to sleep. So dogs are given food, exercise, fun, love, and rest. And in return the dog gives unconditional love to the owner. We humans also need at least the same sort of love and care to meet life’s challenges with enthusiasm and hope.

Before you start thinking how little you take care of yourself, take a few moments to reflect on how much your body already looks after you. All day and night, your body breathes for you. Your heart beats over 100,000 times in a day to pump blood containing oxygen, nutrients, and immune cells around your body. Your digestive system processes 1,100 pounds of food a year. Your body urges you to eat, sleep, and move around to keep you alive and well. So in all these many ways, your body is taking care of you.

But you have a role to play too. Taking care of yourself involves eating a balanced diet, sleeping sufficiently, and exercising your body. And just as important, you need to make time for socializing, having fun, and doing things you enjoy. Exactly what you need to do to look after yourself is unique to you, and only you can know what the right choices are. By being more aware of your body and mind, you can learn to take better care of yourself.

For example, one client of mine started getting painful spots on his legs. He tried to ignore them and carried on with his high-pressure job. Eventually they became so painful he couldn’t walk and had to get antibiotics from his doctor and take time off work. Now he’s more mindful of his body, and when the spots appear, he needs to make a conscious effort to practice mindfulness and take a little time off. He hasn’t suffered from a severe recurrence of the spots ever since.

For you the warning signs may be a headache, a bout with the flu, painful shoulders, or just dwelling on everything that’s going wrong in your life. Use these signs to remind you to be kind to yourself rather than pushing harder or reprimanding yourself for not being perfect.

This week, I invite you to look at your typical daily activities. You can then identify what, if anything, needs to be adjusted so that you’re nourishing your body and mind, not just depleting yourself.

The Challenge of Taking Care of Yourself

If looking after ourselves were easy, we would all be doing it well. But the reality is, there are challenges that prevent you from taking full care of yourself. Some of them are external factors, and others may just be attitudes in your own mind. Let’s look at a few typical challenges and tips to overcome them.

Lack of willpower is rated as the number-one reason we don’t take effective care of ourselves according to the American Psychological Association. If you know you need to go to bed on time or go for a run, but somehow end up wasting time, you may need some help to boost your self-control. 

Here are some science-based tips to help boost your self-care:

  • Mindfulness meditation increases willpower -- even a few minutes a day can start building up gray matter in areas of the brain that control decision making.
  • Exercise -- People who exercise are more likely to quit smoking, reduce alcohol consumption, eat more healthily, and even be more careful with their spending habits.
  • Sleep -- The closer you can get to about 7.5 hours of sleep a night, the stronger your willpower will be.
  • Build good habits -- When you’re under stress, you go back to your habits, good or bad. So by having good habits, you will be better able to handle or even enjoy the stress.
  • Being nice to yourself really works -- When you lapse, being self-critical reduces your willpower. One of the most well-tested areas in willpower research is that self-compassion is the most effective way to achieve good, new habits. Remember that you’re only human and can’t be perfect.

Bonus tip - Think you don’t have enough time?

Lack of time is a common reason people give for not taking care of themselves through measures like exercise or cooking a proper meal for themselves. If this is the case for you, I’d recommend you spend a week tracking how you spend your time, hour by hour. 

When I did this, just the act of setting an alarm every hour and writing down how I was spending my time made me much more efficient. I then managed to get to sleep on time rather than surfing online and exercised rather than working unproductively. 

Many time management gurus recommend time tracking as the first step toward using time effectively.


Self-care is important for many reasons. And one of the best way to boost your self-care is to boost your willpower. 

Mindfulness is one of several ways to strengthen your willpower so you make better decisions and are more caring and kind to yourself. Then your mindfulness is helping you to be kindful to yourself!

This post was adapted from Chapter 10 of my book The Mindful Way through Stress.

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