Three “Catholic” Myths About Self-care (and How to Debunk Them)

Everybody in any kind of recovery knows how cunning and patient those old thought patterns are, just waiting to sneak back up on us in the middle of a stressful day. So it really wasn’t any surprise to me when, on one of those recent stressful days, I was passing by one of my fast food trigger places, and the voice of my eating disorder whispered to me from the back of my mind.

You’ve been working hard. It’s time for some self-care.

That voice wasn’t wrong. I had been working hard. I had lost touch with my needs. I could have used some self-care.

Go on, the voice continued as I drew closer to the glowing “drive-thru” sign. Treat yourself. You deserve it.

Thankfully, that word “deserve” brought me up short like a bright yellow “danger” sign.

Before recovery, so many of the faith-based bloggers I followed would remind me that all the “good Catholics” have decided that the culture’s idea of self-care is one of wasteful self-indulgence, selfish, and self-centered. Intellectually, those accusations made sense, given the images social media feeds us under the hashtag #selfcare: luxury cocktails, expensive salon treatments, and don’t forget the sumptuous foods.

With my particular twist of the mind, I somehow managed to convince myself that since my eating disorder involved foods best classified as fast, cheap, and easy, my fast food stops weren’t like any of those wasteful things the “good Catholics” disparaged as faith-destroying self-care. I could stuff my face (not to mention my feelings) with drive-thru delights and still manage my family, home, work, and prayer life, right?

Where was the harm? Didn’t I deserve a break?

I was right, and I was oh, so wrong. I did deserve a break. I wasn’t able to get the type of break God longed to give me, however, until recovery debunked for me these common misconceptions about what self-care really is.

Myth #1: Self-care Is Self-indulgent

Hashtags on social media tell us to overspend on things and experiences, geographical solutions and sensory delights. That’s not to say that things, experiences, and adventures are in and of themselves bad. They are gifts from God. They only become poison when we use them improperly.

Reality: Self-care Is Self-awareness 

Self-indulgence is what happens when we try to exchange this moment’s discomfort for the next moment’s distraction, no matter that distraction’s price tag. When we instead pause and accept both what is in front of us and inside of us, we connect with reality, with the God who is Truth.  

God is the one who then puts us in touch with our actual needs because God is the one who places those needs inside of us. Our conscious contact with Him is how we discover what those needs really are. Doing the next right thing is how we get those needs met. As a food addict, that awareness is vital to keeping me on my program. When I reach out to God, He gently reminds me to make sure my heart, mind, and soul, and not just my stomach, get the nourishment they need.

Myth #2: Self-care Is Selfish

Before recovery, I often skipped things like workouts, balanced meals, time with supportive friends, and prayer. I told myself I was too busy for those things. I was giving my time to my family, which made it something I was doing for my God. Round and round and round I would go, telling myself that taking time from my family to do those health-promoting things would be “selfish.”

Reality: Self-care Is Selfless

Self-care is selfless as in not thinking less of myself but thinking of myself less. The real selfishness was depleting myself of the healing opportunities God was giving me. I then showed up for my family as an impatient, perfectionistic, and even physically sick wife and mom. Thanks to recovery, I now get to enjoy being peaceful, stable, and secure. I know those gifts are a direct result of making time to work my program: meetings, outreach calls, accountability texts. I thought those things would take time away from my family. The miracle is that, now that I’m experiencing less focus on what I don’t have and more focus on what I have been given, I’m able to make the most of the time I do spend with my loved ones. Not only do I now have time to spare, but I have time to share.

Myth #3: Self-care Is Self-centered 

Somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that doing anything for myself was a sign that I wasn’t a good person. I suspect that this belief is rooted in my adult-child issues of having been raised in the role of the family scapegoat—and the pain of that role is something I medicated liberally with food.

Of course, this faulty concept is the foundation of codependency: that we cannot do for ourselves, and we must rely on what others want to do for us if we are to belong. The sickness of that mindset creates an unsustainable enmeshment. We disconnect from the people God made us to be. In such a system, we can only be self-centered, because we survive by focusing on how to manipulate others to get what we want.

Reality: Self-care Is Self-supporting

Now that we are adults, we get to support ourselves, not just financially. Support means giving ourselves what we really deserve. We don’t deserve the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual pain that our eating disorders give us. We do deserve peace, joy, patience, self-control, kindness, and so much more. If we are not giving ourselves those gifts from God, we cannot receive them from anyone else.

For decades, that idea of “what I deserved” had driven me to binge on treat foods, comfort foods, convenience foods, really, any food at all. Thanks be to God, 12-step recovery has taught me what self-care is, what it isn’t, and how to move towards both knowledge of God’s will for me and the power to carry that out—rather than carrying out another sack of binge food from yet another fast food drive-thru.

I used to think it was my job to “treat myself” at every opportunity. Now I know every day is an opportunity to treat myself well and to drive past the drive-thru.

Erin McCole Cupp is grateful to be recovering from compulsive overeating, binge eating behaviors, and developmental and betrayal trauma. She writes and speaks about mental health and addiction recovery from a Catholic perspective. Look for her course “Filled With Good: Theology of the Body for Food Addicts” at erinmccolecupp.com.