Sarah Ezrin in the kitchen talking about self-care

Sarah Ezrin photographed by Emilie Bers

How to develop a healthy relationship with our self-care practices

Hi, my name is Sarah…and I am an addict. What kind of addict, you may ask? You name it. Honestly, I am no longer sure I am simply addicted to one thing. When I consider addiction, it’s not so much the substance or the behavior, but the relationship that has become obsessive, compulsive, out of control, self-destructive, seeping into every activity. There is a proclivity toward the “more.” More alcohol, more food, more work, more yoga, and sometimes even seeking more health. Yet it is not healthy. It’s a dynamic in which nothing is ever enough. I keep consuming, trying to fill a never-ending, hungry ghost-like void.

By the time I found myself on a yoga mat, I had already been battling the demons of drug addiction, alcohol abuse, eating disorders, and workaholism. So, it was no coincidence that I took to the pursuit of yoga and healing as fiercely as I did. I would obsess about it, like I had my next score. I would jones for it, like I would my next fix. And I would overdo it, like I had no limit.

The difference (and danger) between being addicted to yoga and wellness, compared to an addiction to illicit drugs, is that yoga and wellness are societally considered “healthy.” It may seem questionable to make the claim that a person can abuse something that is actually good for you. I can tell you first-hand that anything and everything can be overdone, including self-care.

Sarah Ezrin sitting on boulder talking about self-care

Sarah Ezrin Photographed by Samuel Henderson

Is everything we do in the name of wellness automatically healthy?

Whatever we do in the name of wellness is automatically assumed to be beneficial. Because it seems as though our intention is to become healthier. Yet, when we begin to deny our innate desires such as sleep, nourishment, and relationships in our pursuit, the compulsive preoccupation with self-care can actually become violent. I was powerless over my own obsessive pursuit of wellness. I am pretty sure that forcing myself to wake up every day at 5 am, restricting eating meat and good fats to the point of starvation, exercising two +  times a day, and only using organic everything products to the point of crazy-making, would have qualified me for the first step of any addiction program. At a certain point, self-care took over my entire life and there was no room left for living.

There is a fine line between discipline and obsession, compulsion, and addiction. The quest for health can cross over to the dark side to become, ironically, unhealthy when it takes over one’s entire life. When we find ourselves tied into knots and stressed out all in the name of “feeling better.” I have lost count of the number of friend and family gatherings I turned down so I could wake up early to work out. Or the dinners I ditched, so I was not faced with tempting menu items. I would be riddled with guilt for the entire day if I was only able to get one work-out in.

When discipline goes too far

Unfortunately, this struggle is becoming more common. Many on the self-care path have crossed over from discipline to addiction. What were supposed to be acts of personal kindness instead become rigorous schedules that we militantly follow, dare we be left alone with our discontent. It is easy to hide behind the idea that everything we do is in the name of “health.”

For example, orthorexia nervosa is a proposed eating disorder defined in 1997. Outwardly, orthorexia can look like smart eating and regular cleansing. But upon closer examination people are actually obsessed with health food to the point it consumes their life and leads to an unhealthy and overly restricted lifestyle. You can drink too much orange juice, just as you can drink too much wine. A 2018 article in the Harvard Business Review was aptly titled “How Self-Care Became So Much Work.” People are starting to recognize that in true Super-Size Me American form, we have taken wellness and overdone it.

I knew I had gone too far when my life became so small that I had cut off everyone and everything I loved. I would not dare risk my morning workouts to meet new people or see those I love. How would I ever have time to meet a partner and have a family if I only dated between the hours of 11am to 12pm on Tuesdays through Thursdays? I was exhausted, stressed out, and lonely. And what was it all for? To lose an extra five pounds? It was time to make a change and put my practice into practice.

Sarah Ezrin at home self-care

Sarah Ezrin photographed by Emilie Bers

The shift to putting practice into practice for self-care

I learned that a return to balance is possible. I learned that balance had a different look than what I had imagined self-care to be.

In order to make the shift from obsession to balance, first, let us recognize the “why” behind our behaviors. What is our purpose? What are we trying to achieve? To avoid? Through those answers, we can then redefine what it means to be healthy. Because healthy does not necessarily mean six-pack abs or perfect skin. Health can simply mean spending time with the ones you love.

The following are five reasons we become addicted to self-care with suggestions for returning ourselves to balance.

We are looking for happiness.

Finding happiness can be one of the biggest motivators for most of us when trying to become healthier. We want to feel good. We associate a notion of what health should feel like with happiness. The problem with this is that happiness is not a permanent state of existence. Happiness is just one of several emotions that we as humans have the gift of cycling through on any given day.

In fact, modern happiness researchers like Dr. Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, are discovering that the more we seek to become happy, the less happy we become. Instead of trying to avoid pain and seek joy, let us learn to embrace all of our emotions. To feel all the feels.

Sometimes we equate self-care with chasing happiness, but self-care is not just doing things that make us happy. Self-care is supporting all aspects of our self. That includes sitting in our sadness and honoring our anger. When we can stop running away from our emotions, we discover a peaceful place that runs even deeper than happiness: acceptance.

We believe that if we look better, we will feel better.

We assume that if our bodies looked better then we will automatically find ease. We think that this ease magically happens if our skin were tighter, our hair thicker, if we wear the right mala beads, and smell like the perfect blend of essential oils. Unfortunately, in this whack-a-mole existence of constant maintenance and upkeep, many of us end up creating more dis-ease.

Self-care is so much bigger than physical wellness. The physical aspects of our selves are constantly changing, yet so many of us spend our entire lives trying to hang onto youth, physique, and looks. This is not to say we should stop exercising and live off chocolate cake (Sorry!), but instead of being motivated by our appearance, let us be motivated by how we feel.

Let us exercise not to lose five pounds, but to celebrate our body’s abilities. Let us use skin products not to hide wrinkles, but to nourish this amazing organ that holds our body together. We are constantly searching for cures outside our selves, but healing comes from within.

We are trying to control life by controlling our bodies.

The world is a chaotic place. It is normal to feel swept around by the tides of life and to try to cling onto the things that we feel we can control. Some of the things we try to control include what we put in our bodies and what we do with our bodies.

Control is at the root of many eating disorders. What appears to be an obsession with thinness is really just an act of extreme control. While there is no cure-all for the changing nature of the world, we can find an anchoring deep within us to help us weather the storm. This includes making choices that help root and ground us, like learning to set limits and healthy boundaries.

The times when I feel the most out of control are when I am spread too thin or when I am overextended. On those days, rather than latching onto compulsive exercise to feel in control, I find it helpful to spend some time in nature and become quiet. Some other wise choices are sleeping in when I am exhausted, enjoying a good meal with my partner, and maybe even savoring that piece of cake.

We think more is better, when less is more.

We know the adages. Keep it simple. Quality over quantity. Slow and steady wins the race. However, applying them to daily living is the real practice.

We live in a consumerist culture. Every advertisement popping up on our screens or looming over our streets is trying to tell us that we need to do more, be more. In a natural response, we tend to overdo everything. We overeat, we overbuy, we over-work out. We are trying to fill whatever hole is inside of us, but it is something that will never be satisfied.

This is because we are already enough. Yes, we are ever-evolving, works-in-progress, but we are also perfect in every phase of this progress. Just as a seed is perfect within its shell, it is still perfect as a sapling, and perfect again as it grows to becomes a tree. If we took half the time and energy we spend on doing more, to be more and put it into accepting ourselves fully in the moment, perhaps we could find the inner peace we seek.

We over-emphasize the “self” in self-care.

Let us try not to allow the “self” part of the term self-care become too inflated. Self-care is a much more meaningful practice than personal fitness. In fact, one of the most healing things we can do is to be of service to others. This is why recovery and 12-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous include being of service as part of the program.

In addition, there is a movement (which I do support) emphasizing that “self-care” is not selfish. But, what kind of self-care are we referring to? For example, boundary-setting and quiet time are both important to personal well-being. However, if self-care takes over our lives and disconnects us from those we love, is that either helpful or caring? Now is the time to broaden self-care so it includes spending time with those whom we love the most as well as taking time to give back to our communities.