Lessons From a Former Self Care Failure

by Carol Chandler

The first thing I discovered about self care: It’s very difficult to begin caring for yourself after years of neglecting yourself. This seemed especially true after years of childhood trauma. Focusing on my needs as a child and asking for them to be met often led to some form of retaliation, usually dirty looks or the silent treatment. Growing up, having needs felt like it was nothing less than criminal.

As an adult, both having needs and being unable to meet my needs has, at times, made me feel like I a self care failure.

We all have our breaking point and for me, I hit that point time and time again before it finally began to sink in that I am not the Energizer Bunny. I spent years trying to be the perfect daughter, the perfect niece, the perfect friend, the perfect student. I gave chunks of myself away until I could no longer see my reflection in the mirror.

I wanted so much to feel as deeply loved as I loved everyone else around me, but I didn’t love myself. And I found that giving every part of me away until nothing was left never did bring me any of the things I was searching for.

Now, even though I have come to this realization, it is still hard for me at times to not push myself to just keep going and going and going. It is engrained in me to do what is expected of me by others—that I have to go above and beyond in everything I do in order to keep those I care for satisfied and loving me.

Today, I have many healthy relationships where this type of behavior and unhealthy devotion are no longer expected or required of me to receive love and attention, but how others view and treat me alone cannot shift how I see and interact with myself and those around me.

These changes have to come from within.

Transferring my thoughts and efforts from everyone else and onto myself has involved a lot of telling myself that I am deserving, even when I don’t feel like I am. When I first got started, I found it hard to believe that there was anything about me worth fighting for. The messages coming from within my own mind spoke cruel and demeaning things to me and were doubtful that I could do any better.

Then one day I asked myself these questions: “Would I ever say the things that I say to myself to someone else? Are these voices my own or have I heard them before from someone? Would I ever treat the needs of a guest in my house the way I treated my own on a day to day basis?”

The answer was that I could never fathom calling another person ugly, lazy, or worthless and I would never deny my guests food, drink, or rest or ignore them when they wished to converse with me. When I looked at things from this perspective I could no longer justify the negative self-talk and physical neglect, but making the changes hasn’t been a smooth or quick transition.

Even though I recognized that I needed to care for myself, I found it hard to hold firm to the boundaries I began to draw and I struggled to set limits for myself. I’d spend too much energy on school work all while going up to six days without sleep at a time. I can’t count the number of sessions, emails, and phone calls in which I freaked out to my therapist over the demands of my college courses. I had to take four classes a semester for financial aid, I had to get all As, and I had to prove to everyone that I was capable and that I wasn’t broken.

Being a good student had been the only way for me to receive the positive attention I craved while growing up, but trying to be perfect and make myself appear worthy was consuming me.

I still have a voicemail on my phone from August 9, 2016, of my therapist trying to talk me down from my state of panic over starting a new semester. Ironically I was at the school talking with my advisor when she called.

That semester was a turning point for me though. I dropped down to three classes and began to focus on my healing over my education. Surprisingly to me, when I did this all parts of my life began to improve, including my relationship with my education. My GPA rose and has continued to rise rather than suffering. Each semester since has caused me less and less anxiety and fear.

I keep that voicemail to remind me where I have been and where I am today. It’s encouragement not to go back and not to give up when I falter.

We can’t supply our needs until we know where we are lacking. Fulfilling my needs has meant that I have had to listen to the voices I was hearing and find my one true voice underneath. It has also meant listening to what my body is attempting to communicate to me through sensations.

My first true act of self-care was recognizing my basic needs had gone unmet for many years and that I had fallen into a hole I couldn’t climb out of alone. I lacked a support system, a need which was filled for me by talk therapy. This relationship offered the safety and comfort I had yet to find elsewhere and gave me the foundation I needed to continue building my self care practice on.

I call self care a practice because it is a method of living and feeling whole that is something I am starting to utilize in my daily life. It is also something I continually learn from and grow better at with time, and of course, practice.

There is no need to rush in a practice because there is no finish line. There is no reason to feel like I have failed when I hit a snag along my journey because there is no “expert level” to strive for.

My self care routine is never going to be foolproof and that is okay. Self care is about reaching health and happiness, whatever that may look like for my life, rather than obtaining perfection. I have hit many snags along the way and have landed on my rump a plethora of times as I discovered what self care needed to look like for me. I’ve learned that slipups are going to happen but what is most important is, to be kind to myself when I fall and to always get back up.

What are your struggles with self care? Please share below and remember to subscribe to the comments so you don’t miss any of the discussion. You can post anonymously and emails are never shared publicly.

Carol Chandler is a senior at the University of Michigan where she is majoring in psychology with a minor in women and gender studies. She is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, assault, and emotional abuse and uses these experiences to fuel her passion for helping others who have experienced trauma. Along with her work with activism she enjoys literature and is both an avid reader and writer. She is an animal lover with two cats and several betta fish and feels at home with nature which is duly noted by her growing collection of orchids, her love of gardening, and her hobby of raising butterflies. Her hope for the future is to continue on her healing path and to use her voice to further help herself and her extended family of survivors along on their journeys.

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Lessons From a Former Self Care Failure
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14 thoughts on “Lessons From a Former Self Care Failure

  • February 11, 2018 at 5:16 am

    I’m 47 and almost all of your words resonated. I say this because I am so impressed you are witnessing and articulating your very own healing so well at such a young age. Bravo to you dear Carol. I wish you continued peace as you unpeel the layers. Thank you!!

    • February 11, 2018 at 3:16 pm

      Thank you for your kind words and warm wishes! I am glad that my words resonate with you!

      Carol C.

  • February 11, 2018 at 6:15 am

    I relate to your issues with college and self-care. I ran the gauntlet in this fashion for six years and burned myself out.

    In the end, I lost my NASA fellowship and had to drop out of graduate school.

    Now, thirty years later, I am back in graduate school (mathematics) and trying to practice moderation. Anxiety still rules my world, though.

    • February 11, 2018 at 3:25 pm

      I also still have lots of anxiety and days where I have to talk myself down, but practicing moderation and self-care has been helpful. Returning to school is challenging, but I hope you will find it rewarding! Thank you for sharing with me!

      Carol C.

  • February 11, 2018 at 8:29 am


    This is my favorite part:

    “There is no need to rush in a practice because there is no finish line. There is no reason to feel like I have failed when I hit a snag along my journey because there is no ‘expert level’ to strive for.”

    YES! Thinking about it that way takes all the stress out of the pressure to be at a particular place in self care. Brilliant!

    Thanks for sharing your experience and story with us.


    • February 11, 2018 at 3:26 pm

      Thank you Christina!!

    • February 11, 2018 at 9:16 pm

      “There is no need to rush in a practice because there is no finish line. There is no reason to feel like I have failed when I hit a snag along my journey because there is no ‘expert level’ to strive for.”

      OH, how I wish this were true in my life!

      Unfortunately, in my field, there is definitely an Expert Level. Students are rated by exam grades alone. Professors do not take into account that, because there are people who crumple under pressure, there are many wonderful budding mathematicians who might not look so great on paper.

      So, there is often so much pressure, I just cannot relax. The pressure feeds my PTSD.

  • February 11, 2018 at 4:14 pm

    Thank you for such Frank openness. I had not thought that one sign of our self-hatred is not taking of our bodies. Food. Water. Rest. Supportive relationships- from a therapist if our friends cannot be there for us. I haven’t thought about what I needed- that was the ultimate non-Christian way. We are supposed to sacrifice all, right? I just had hernia surgery. I’m taking off 4-6 weeks because I can’t lift stuff. I don’t want friends to come around who want to talk more than they want to listen. That just reinforces my self-perception that I am boring and insignificant. And I say no more to that. I am going to think about what my body needs, what my emotional needs are and how I can get them met. I know that struggle to prove to Somebody that we have value, and it’s impossible. Your words help me shift out of I have to I have to I have to…. to what do I need, without doubting that those needs are valid and appropriate. Just because.

    • February 11, 2018 at 9:18 pm

      “I don’t want friends to come around who want to talk more than they want to listen.”

      I understand – but could it be there is a silver lining? They come to visit because they like you. 🙂

      You are a person of worth.

    • February 15, 2018 at 8:32 pm

      I am glad to hear you feel a shift and that you are wanting to take care of your needs. I hope you recover quickly and that you continued to feel empowered by self-care.

  • February 12, 2018 at 5:55 am

    Ben, Please don’t take offense. I notice friends when they complain about their ex, or sister, or mother, and I for the most part say “yeah. That’s hard. It must be so tough on you”. But when I complain about what so and so did, I’m told, oh surely they don’t mean it that way, or it’s probably not as bad as you think. Or maybe they come because they like you. I am trapped in a double bind/ on the one hand, professionals say “trust your gut, learn to read your body sensations.” Other professionals CBT say “ stop mind- reading. You don’t know what the other person is thinking.. think rational thoughts. “ Ok. I’m starting to get really irritated when professionals or friends assign motives or intentions to people they don’t even know. They are mind/reading, not me.. and regardless of what that other person did or did not mean, they are not in the room. Speculating about their motives is pointless. On the other hand, I am there in the room. If you ask me to say more, to explore my reaction, to ask how do you want to handle this- ahhh. Now you hit pay dirt. Now we can get somewhere. Now we are in an area where things can change because the person affected is the one making discoveries, connections, and choices. That’s where action can take place- not in the imaginary place of some invisible person’s head!
    When I say “this doesn’t feel good to me.” They say, oh you don’t understand. You are taking it the wrong way. Or maybe they like you. Don’t you get it? This is what happened all my life!!! I would hesitantly say “I don’t like this. I don’t want him to do that anymore.” But instead of the adult listening to a child, they brush me off- oh, he’s just playing. It’s just his way of showing he likes you.” I feel wrong, guilty, ashamed for having said anything at all, and you better be sure I will not open my mouth again. Or if I as adult tell another adult, isn’t it minimally expected I should be allowed the same courtesy of complaining? Shouldn’t I get an “uh-huh. I hear ya. Or tell me about it?’ But no. I hear, he doesn’t mean it. You’re a good person. He likes you. Well, he has a funny way of showing he likes me, and I can’t read his/her mind so I don’t know if s/he likes me or not. I can’t trust my uneasy gut if at the same time you are telling me to make myself assume good intentions. It’s not just you. I get this a lot. I really think there is where blindness,…we don’t even see we are denying our own discomfort or that of others…makes us blind to abuse that goes on and on and on. It would be much more helpful if you gave us “3 Questions to Ask the Other to Determine Their intent/Motive” and then follow that with “3 Questions to Ask Yourself to Determine what Feels Good in a Relationship” and follow that with “3 ways to Start a Conversation When Their Intentions Do Not Match What You Want or Need”. Like maybe you play Memory, and the card they turn over “I come see you because I like you” has to match your card that says “I feel liked when somebody asks what I think or feel and listens to my answer.” I get it that you want me to value and appreciate myself and know I am likeable. But I really don’t want to keep getting messages that say “you don’t count. What you think doesn’t matter. Being heard is irrelevant.” Actions speak louder than words, and even if I’m with a friend who goes on and on about her life, not interested in mine- what message am I giving her by smiling, staying quiet, and being nice? Did I not do that with mom and dad, hoping for 40 years I could “nice” them into stopping their abuse because surely they really liked me, regardless of …. anything? I want to scramble so fast and reassure you I’m not attacking you! This is a message I’ve heard for 65 years- and I finally see it as it really is. So maybe a 65 year old splinter got touched, and I’m reacting out of years of frozen voiceless pain. What I’m trying to say is this message isn’t helpful, but there are things you could offer that would be more helpful- how to discern discomfort? If it’s a mistake or unconscious in either person, what kind of conversation can bring resolution to both people? Otherwise, it goes back down into appease, deny, and smile.

  • February 13, 2018 at 9:42 pm

    What a great article, Carol! I too loved the part about there being no finish line and no “expert level.” That idea brings a lot of relief. I am slowly learning how to care for my physical needs as well as to pay attention to my feelings and thoughts to see what they are telling me. Slowing down my pace in life has been crucial. I’ve found I miss so much when I’m going 100 miles per hour. Self-care is still very much challenging, but I’ve recently noticed that my own self-compassion towards myself is beginning to feel a little like a stable, safe haven. Thank you so much for sharing! I know you will heal fully and you will become the woman you are meant to be!

    • February 15, 2018 at 8:38 pm

      Thank you Rachelle! I too can relate to that feeling of self-care and self-loce creating an oasis. It can be challenging and doesn’t always go our way, but I have found the outcome worth the ups and downs. Thank you for sharing!

  • September 17, 2018 at 10:50 pm

    I’m a 40 year old Male and also found solace in your words. I have struggled with self care much of my life and am now taking the time, effort, and energy to truly care for and love myself and what a beautiful thing it is.

    Thank you for taking care of yourself and sharing your learnings with the rest of the world. I am very proud of you.

    Many Blessings.


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