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When Self Care Brings Up Shame

One of the first recovery tools that I was encouraged to use was self-care. There was a long list of benefits, which sounded nice in theory, but in practice was incredibly challenging. In fact, there were parts of me straight out of the gate that were disgusted by self-care, rejecting of the benefits, convinced it didn't apply to me, and overall resistant. My inner critic was especially adept at coming up with reasons why self-care was ridiculous, mostly having to do with me being burdensome for needing any care at all.

I don't think it is that uncommon for self-care to bring up a lot for complex trauma survivors. Like many recovery tools, complex trauma has distorted what is healthy: needs, boundaries, compassion, care. One of the functions of shame, especially when we are young, is to disconnect us from loss and grief. Shame gives us a sense of control in an unpredictable environment where we don't know if or when our needs will be met. We can continue believing that there is something we could do that could improve our circumstances. Without this sense of control, we would be overwhelmed by our dependence on our caregivers and their inability to care for us in the ways we need. In this way, shame serves a protective function. It keeps us from having to confront the depth of our losses.

Care, on the other hand, creates space for emotions to emerge. Care supports the belief that we are loved and valued. Care can connect us with our grief. Care allows us to rest. Care identifies, acknowledges and responds to needs.

We may not be aware of the subtle emotional responses that make self-care challenging. Perhaps we just know it is challenging. It can be helpful to bring awareness to these emotional responses to deepen our understanding of why self-care is difficult and may feel counterintuitive, so we can support ourselves through the challenge of practicing self-care. We can recognize that self-care is challenging, not because we aren't deserving of it, but rather because it speaks to our trauma.

Pink flowers withering on their stems, uncared for.

Here are a few experiences we may have when we practice self-care:

  1. Shame: As I mentioned before shame can serve a protective function and can be a common experience among complex trauma survivors when we begin practicing self-care. The shame we feel could be rooted in a variety of relational experiences, specifically childhood neglect. When we step into care and out of survival, we can trigger implicit/unconscious wounds around being a burden and unworthy of care. When children don't receive the care they need, they often attribute this experience to something being wrong with them, that is one way we maintain a sense of control.

  2. Unearned Guilt: We might have difficulty caring for ourselves or receiving care, if we adapted to neglect by becoming overly responsible for other people and their needs. Growing up, we may have heard that caring for ourselves is selfish or wouldn't be necessary if we were stronger. When we practice self-care, we may feel guilty for taking the time or putting in the effort to care for ourselves. We may even believe that our self-care comes at the expense of others.

  3. Lack Of Safety & Trust: On a somatic level, our nervous system may perceive care as a threat. We might be unconsciously waiting for the shoe to drop or feel strings are attached to care and comfort. Some of parts may not trust the care that we offer to ourselves or receive from others. Some parts of us may feel like we have to earn the care we receive. We can only be cared for after the work is done.  Self-care can feel foreign and unfamiliar. It involves shifting the body out of survival, which initially can feel very unsafe.

  4. Grief: We might not be aware that practicing self-care makes room for past pains and griefs to surface, which can feel threatening to our protective system. For many protective parts, keeping grief buried and suppressed is of utmost importance. I've noticed in moments of need, when care would be very healing, there are parts of me that feel the pull to isolate. Isolating and depravation keep the grief at bay, and often the grief is related to not being cared for.

What experiences or emotions would you add?

Sometimes we might feel that self-care isn't working because, initially, it doesn't feel good. Instead, at first, it can feel like it makes things worse; it can feel like trudging through mud uphill; it can feel counterintuitive; it can feel like you don't deserve it; it can feel like the voice of our inner critic is right. We might take this as a sign that we aren't worthy of care or we will never be able to accept care because we are broken.

But what if we understood that practicing self-care was going to bring up a lot of difficult feelings, and if we can be gentle with ourselves while we feel those feelings AND practice self-care, then self-care will gradually start to feel safe and more familiar?

You don't struggle with self-care because you are broken or because you are incapable of being cared for.

It is normal to struggle with self-care, especially with complex trauma. Breaking cycles of neglect is hard.

It hurts. It brings up painful feelings.

Perhaps the essence of self-care is allowing ourselves to struggle and feel those feelings while we continue to show up and care for ourselves.

Reflection Questions:

  1. Do you resonate with any of the difficult feelings that can emerge with self-care? Which ones?

  2. What kinds of negative messages come up for you when you attempt to practice self-care?

  3. What is one way you're showing up for yourself lately?

Resources That Could Be Helpful:

  1. Curious about growing your self-care practice? I'd suggest Why Is Self Love So Hard? - a guide that teaches about core needs and how we begin to meet them in a slow and gradual way. You learn about the self-love skills map and how we work with self-rejection. ($4)

  2. Breaking Free From The Cycle Of Stuck - this workbook helps you understand the impacts of trauma and how they contributed to the powerlessness and shame. It offers recovery tools and modalities that address the underlying issues to help you move forward. ($12)

  3. Befriending Your Body Somatic Self Care Video Guide - In this guide, we use 16 somatic practices to begin developing a gentle relationship with our bodies and emotions. We work with our protective defenses including the inner critic. We use embodied approaches to deepen self-compassion. (Payment Plans Available)

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Thank you!! ❤️ Can I ask if you have dealt with social anxiety and if you have a post on it?


Guilt and grief are huge. So much guilt asking for anything when I was growing up and then as a mom feeling like I have to be better than my parents. That means I feel compelled to show up for my kids ALL of the time, so I feel guilty if I do something that might take time or resources away from them.

Sara Aird
Sara Aird
6 days ago
Replying to

I relate. I too find myself swinging into the showing up ALL the time for my kids and that coming from the deep grief and losses I experienced. I hear your sincere desire to offer them something better. I try to remind myself that when I’m taking care of myself I’m modeling that for them - that as they grow self-care is important. But wow!! It’s hard!!


Jennica Leather
Jennica Leather
7 days ago

The shame. Oof. The guilt shows up for me when I have a thought like “I wish I could slow down like this more often.” And, as a teacher on summer break, these things are all showing up.

Sara Aird
Sara Aird
7 days ago
Replying to

I hear you. There are so many layers. Sometimes I hear grief in “I wish…” statements too. Like teaching is a tough job with A LOT of demands. It’s hard to find space for breaks and care without support to do so.

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