At what point does 'self-care' turn into 'too much self-care'?

This story appears in the Notes from the Field feature series. View the full series.

Notes from the Field includes reports from young people volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015. This is our ninth round of bloggers: Samantha Wirth is the public policy fellow for Good Shepherd Services in New York City and Adele McKiernan is a Loretto Volunteer at Missouri Health Care for All in St. Louis.


After a recent community night that prompted us to think about the intersection of beauty, self-image and physical health, I've been thinking about the ways those and other intersections further translate into our work as volunteers, especially in our communal need for frequent acts of self-care. We have spent a good bit of time discussing how our work makes us more susceptible to vicarious trauma and how sufficient prevention and treatment can keep us grounded.

For many volunteers, the tenet of spirituality is closely linked to our self-defined methods of self-care. For example, someone who meditates to center themselves for the day might attribute much of their strong spiritual energy to that time spent focusing or listening to God. Someone else might prioritize time to relax and watch an episode of their favorite new TV series to clear some headspace. Both are valid, and both are individual. We are at a place where it seems society recognizes this, as well.

Self-care wasn't something I paid much attention to before becoming a volunteer. At least, not by that name. The act of balancing college coursework with a bit of rest and relaxation here and there was the only way I pictured this concept, alongside an emphasis on trying to stay healthy and happy.

After almost two years as a full-time volunteer, the phrase "self-care" has taken on a different meaning for me, one that frequently involves money. Maybe that is because it is easier for me to translate too much rest and relaxation into neglecting my schoolwork or leaving the laundry until I've worn the same pair of socks too many days in a row. In my mind, self-care can quickly entangle with an abundance of "treating myself."

It is harder for me to conceive what too much self-care looks like compared to too much rest and relaxation. How many times a week do I spend my stipend on ice cream cones before I enter that realm, leading to a negative effect on my body and mind? Twice a week? Three times? When am I no longer living in solidarity with those I am privileged to be able to serve? Is that the place I am to avoid? And how can I, as a middle-class white woman, put a numerical value on that?

So at what point do I define "too much" as "too much self-care"? At what point am I enabling myself? Do I always need to place this emphasis on living within the volunteer budget, or is it distracting me from something even more important? Should I make a conscious effort to say to myself each time I am able to eat out or go to the movies that this is a real privilege and outside the concept of self-care and I shouldn't do this?

As my colleagues chose jobs, internships or other kinds of gap-year programs after graduation, I was confronted with my decision to choose a year of intentional service instead. Why did it feel different, and why was I drawn to it in the first place?

If we relegate volunteering to a comparative checklist, it might look like this:

  • Many gap-year programs and internships are frequently unpaid or stipend-based. Check.
  • Many times, you apply to a certain field or program where you hope to gain some long-term experience. Check.
  • You can choose from options all over the world. Check.
  • You may share living quarters with other participants. Check.

So does it come down to the tenets and how we interact with them? For Good Shepherd Volunteers, that means community, simplicity, spirituality and social justice. Having two dedicated community nights per week checks the boxes for community and spirituality because we are all physically gathered together in a space conducive for sacred connection. Other kinds of gap-year programs might not require that, and internships almost certainly do not.

We also engage social justice every day at our placements, but you could look at that as an unpaid internship. And how else do you define the check box of simplicity outside of monitoring expenses (or the cost of using excess water, electricity, etc., if you prefer to think of it that way)?

The other key factor is your mindset. If you are in the mindset of a full-time volunteer, dedicated to your program's guiding fundamentals, you can experience the tenets the way I understand they were meant to be experienced: personal and encouraging growth right where you need it. That space of growth is different for everyone, and it is easy for volunteers to trap themselves into reflecting on their own growth by comparing themselves to the apparent successes of others.

Defining a benchmark for success is next to impossible because it is so individual, just like defining a benchmark for too much self-care becomes counterproductive. When conflicted between the two, how do we function? How do we keep each other accountable to our individual goals in a way that feels genuine and nonjudgmental? Is asking each other to keep us accountable and support us in the ways we most need it the whole goal?

Maybe that's just it. We are going to struggle to define what we need, what success or failure in each tenet looks like, to define when we are overindulging in self-care. That is not for any other community-mate, staff member or co-worker to decide. We can only support one another in the ways we ask, and we can do nothing more. We can't push what feels right for us or how we have seen our own growth in the past on others. Each volunteer will get out of a year of service the growth they need, and other volunteers will benefit alongside them.

The most frustrating part of this is that in the end, I am confronted with the Good Shepherd Volunteers slogan that has been the forefront of my experience for the past two years: "Just Love." Almost agonizingly, I return to its simplicity. All we can do is to do everything from a place of love, and Just Love. When in doubt, Just Love. Instead of focusing on the phrase I so struggle with, "self-care," I need to adjust my glasses and see it as "self-love": loving my imperfections and loving myself enough to know what I need to work on. In the end, that is what makes it a year of service: learning how to Just Love.

Cue the Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." 

[Samantha Wirth is the public policy fellow for Good Shepherd Services in New York City.]