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Are you Confusing Self Harm with Self Betterment?

There’s a Difference Between Ego and Intuition.

Vanessa Bennett
5 min readAug 20, 2018


Recently I’ve begun adding weight lifting into my workout routine. I’ve been a yogini and a lover of Pilates for many years, but being a woman means that as I get older my bones are slowly and inevitably turning to dust. Lifting weight can actually help strengthen them from within, so I decided what the hell. Also, my boyfriend is a Crossfitter who knows his shit, so it helps. I’m now around a lot of Crossfitters with huge muscles that can lift 3x my body weight but probably can’t touch their toes. A big shift from my normal group of also strong, but wispy, long and flexible yogis who probably get winded from climbing one flight of stairs.

What does this have to do with psychology or self-betterment? Let me explain.

Last week during a yoga class my beloved teacher and friend, Daniel Stewart, asked us to notice when we wanted to get out of a pose and to breath into that feeling. Normal. BUT then he said only we can know when it is time to go deeper or when it is really time to pull back because of pain. He asked us, “at what point are we building resiliency and at what point does it become self-harm?”

This question and the Crossfit mentality of pushing yourself past your physical limits got me thinking. On our journeys to self-betterment how do we know when we are (here comes a list of buzzwords/terms) leaning into the discomfort, doing the work, breaking unhealthy patterns, learning from doing? And how do we know when it’s just ego, and not actually good for us, i.e. self-harm?

I worry that without a strong sense of self-awareness and a real practice of meditation, getting still, and an ability to listen to our body and inner voice any strong fitness can be dangerous. Not just lifting weights but also yoga or Pilates, running or dance. Injuries in yoga are very common. Some develop slowly over time, but many are because we push ourselves to do something we’re not ready for, that our bodies are clearly telling us we are not capable of, but our ego or our teachers tell us to do it anyway. This has always been one of my biggest issues with Bikram Yoga. But that’s a whole other conversation for another time.

“No amount of outer development means anything without inner development.” Jack Kornfield

This doesn’t just apply to our physical fitness, it applies to our emotional and mental fitness as well. I see it in our society’s current throwing around of the term “self-care.” Advertisers use it to push stuff on us that we don’t need. Self-care is not about the outer self, it’s actually about the inner self. Sure, eating healthy, taking care of your skin, and working out is self-care, and one could argue those are for the outer self, but they are about caring for yourself, showing yourself compassion and love. I would argue those are actually about the inner self.

In one of his podcasts, Jack Kornfield says “It’s not self-care, it’s the art of deep discernment.” For those of us who might have to look that up to make sure we have the correct definition, discernment means “the ability to judge well.” So, if self-care is actually the ability to make healthy judgments that come from a state of deep presence and inner knowing, it doesn’t look like us throwing ourselves into headstand without first knowing what the proper alignment feels like in our shoulders, any more than it looks like us going back to a toxic partner over and over again so we can learn how to work through our communication issues (guilty of this one). It doesn’t look like us going to a spin class even though we’re sick because we can’t miss a day of exercise, any more than it looks like us continuing to downplay and hide a friend or family member’s drinking or excessive pot smoking because we’re “protecting” them. It doesn’t look like us pushing ourselves in a HIIT class or on a run to the point of vomiting (this whole phenomenon really freaks me out), any more than it looks like us always saying “yes” and being the emotional savior of our family and friends.

To me, this deep discernment is what can answer my teacher’s question, “at what point are we building resiliency and at what point does it become self-harm?” If we aren’t actively working to build that inner stillness where we can more clearly hear our inner voice or intuition speak up, we won’t know what that line actually is.

So, what are some examples of building resiliency versus self-harm? They are different for all of us, but should essentially start with something we struggle with, be it physical or emotional. Then we lean safely and slowly into those areas. We notice the uncomfortable feelings. We allow ourselves to sit with those feelings, watching, observing, mulling them over like you would a good wine in your mouth. Once we realize we won’t die from discomfort, we might push a little harder. And then we repeat this process of sitting with, noticing, adjusting, and trying again.

  • When you think of communicating to someone that they hurt your feelings does it make you feel like you want to crawl out of your skin? Good. Communicate how you feel and then sit with, notice, adjust and communicate how you feel again.
  • When you tell someone “no” and set a boundary for yourself do you feel guilty? Like you’ve let them down? Good. Say “no” again and then sit with, notice, adjust, and say “no” again.
  • When you do a certain move or pose in Pilates, Crossfit, at the gym, does your knee feel like it’s actually on fire? NOT good. Stop doing that. Start from the beginning of the setup, ease into the movement and notice the point where the pain begins. Pay attention to your alignment. Slow down. Breath. Back off. Potentially realize your body isn’t meant to do this movement and if that’s the case and you do it anyway it’s ego driven and self-harm.

This practice builds our inner resiliency to the uncomfortable and grows us for other challenges, and it also strengthens our inner voice so that we build that discernment. Discernment (or real self-care, as Jack Kornfield says) is being so tuned in to your inner world that you know the difference between being uncomfortable and being in pain. This way you know the signs that you should lean in and do more, or back off and give yourself a break.

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Vanessa Bennett

Psychotherapist, Mindfulness + Codependency Coach. Cohost of the Cheaper Than Therapy Podcast. IG:vanessasbennett