What is Self-Care?

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We hear the phrase self-care a lot. We see it on Instagram posts of large cups of tea set next to a pile of books. We see it in TikToks of people running bubble baths and pouring themselves glasses of wine. We hear it on podcasts, and for those of us who still occasionally listen to linear radio or watch linear television, we see and hear presenters using the phrase, but what is it?

Self-care seems pretty self-explanatory: it is the process of taking care of oneself. So what does that actually look like? Is self-care the practice of curating the perfect bubble bath, or brewing the perfect cup of tea to drink while you are reading?

How do you really take care of yourself?

Let’s unravel some of the mystery around what self-care actually is, and what it could look like.

From what I have noticed – on social media in particular – self-care is often conflated with treating oneself to time alone and doing so in some kind of luxury. Make no mistake: taking a bubble bath is quite a luxury for a lot of people. What some of these posts on Socials seem to miss is that self-care rituals are as unique and varied as the people practicing them. In short, there really is no such thing as “self-care goals” but only the goal of self-care. And don’t get me wrong here, I am not condemning people who choose to unwind by relaxing in the bath. If that works for you and your mental, physical and emotional wellbeing then who am I to judge. My issue is with the conflation of curating a luxury setting and the idea of self-care.

There is also something a little unnerving about the performative nature of those self-care posts that you sometimes see on social media. For those of us that struggle to practice self-care regularly (or at all), seeing posts like these can overwhelm us. That overwhelm can make things so much worse for somebody who is still trying to figure out what it is that they need to do in to properly take care of themselves. It’s easy to forget that the average person who doesn’t have thousands of Instagram or TikTok followers watching their self-care rituals is likely one of the people who struggle to find the time to put themselves first. Seeing these kinds of rituals can sometimes do more harm than good because they act as a reminder that “good” self-care is somewhat out of reach.

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Let’s be as clear as possible here: self-care is just the practice of taking care of yourself – whatever that may look like. If you’re one of the people who sees these kinds of posts on your social media feeds and feels a cocktail of inspiration, envy, and overwhelm, then you’re definitely not alone.

Think of self-care as providing yourself with some kind of warrant-of-fitness (no, I don’t mean exercise). You are doing something that will enable you to operate at your best, again, whatever that may look like. If you’re able to prepare elaborate bubble baths as part of your self-care practice then that’s great, and it means you’ve got a grip on ways that you can recharge your personal battery. That being said, if you’re not able to emulate what you see on the internet then that’s ok too. Your self-care needs to work for you, within the parameters of your life as it currently is.

If you’re ever stuck as to what self-care really is or need a reminder every now and then, then use the following as a sort of “checklist” to bring you back to reality.

Some Things Self-Care is NOT

1. Drinking wine in the bath

This is such a common image we see associated with the phrase self-care. If this is a way that helps you to unwind, then that’s great, but the act of drinking wine in the bath is in itself not self-care. When you consider what is self-care, think about the ways that it benefits your mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. Alcohol is not overly beneficial for your physical health (regardless of whether it is only one glass in the bath), and it also impacts your mental and emotional well-being if you are working on your mental health, as alcohol is a depressant. So, although something ass simple as a glass of wine may bring you momentary peace, treating yourself in this way does not necessarily make it self-care.

2. Posting pictures of you you drinking wine in a bubble bath on IG or TikTok

As I mentioned earlier, there is something rather performative about posting your self-care routine on social media. Though you are not responsible for how other people interpret your social media posts, it is fair to remember that adding a caption or hashtag that relates your content to the practice of self-care doesn’t make it so. Creating a space of luxury for yourself may be your version of self-care, but the process of posting it on your social media accounts is not. You’re not really gaining much from other people’s validation or envy of your time for yourself. It ties the worth of your self-care and the routines you use to maintain it to other peoples’ validation.

3. Spending money during “retail therapy”

A lot of people consider the idea of retail therapy to be a means of self-care. It isn’t. Treating yourself and self-care are not the same thing. They’re not interchangeable. Treating yourself can be self-care, but self-care is not treating yourself. This kind of association ignores the fact that sometimes self-care doesn’t always produce immediate satisfaction. Taking care of yourself in ways that benefit you long-term can sometimes conjure complicated emotions and unease. Retail therapy is often an immediate and short-term solution thanks to its immediate gratification payoff. Retail therapy is not self-care.

4. Complaining about your life to a friend, family member, or the void of the internet

It is very healthy to talk about the things that are bothering you to somebody you trust, or to somebody who is able to offer you support in working through complicated emotions or situations. Complaining about your life is not one of those situations. There is a difference between venting and acknowledging that you are blowing off steam, and complaining. Complaining about your life doesn’t offer you an opportunity to evaluate your emotional wellbeing in the same way that venting might. Venting provides an opening to assess your state of mind, whereas complaining may not achieve anything beyond prolonging your emotional distress. By no means does this mean you shouldn’t complain – I’m not here to throw some toxic positivity shade at you if you need to complain about something. Feel your feelings and let it out. Just try not to mistake complaining for the process of working through your emotions.

Some things that Self-Care IS

Being mindful of your physical, emotional, and mental needs

To function well, you need to think of your health as many moving parts that work together to help you be at your best. Each of these aspects of your wellbeing is equally important, and being aware of what you need to feel fulfilled in each one of those spaces is important. What you need physically, mentally, and emotionally may not be what you want (the “retail therapy” example comes to mind here…). Some areas that matter here are how you eat/take care of your physical health, and knowing what brings you joy and what might cause you distress. When you take the time to get to know yourself a little better, you are already in the process of practicing good self-care. 

Setting routines

Regardless of whether you are the kind of person who wings it with everything you do, or has set, rigid routines, every person has established routines to help them through the day. Setting routines is a good way of practicing self-care because your routines help to set you up to operate in a better frame of mind.

Setting boundaries

As I mentioned above, sometimes self-care can conjure complicated emotions and unease. Setting boundaries is one of those aspects of self-care that doesn’t always make you feel great, but that is a necessary part of caring for your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. Setting boundaries helps you to navigate your space with agency and confidence to get the best out of yourself emotionally, mentally and physically.

Having strategies to manage stress

Being able to manage stress is an art. Not everybody can do it, but everybody can learn how to when they have the right strategies. Stress management is a major factor in developing good mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. As you may know, stress doesn’t just impact the ways that we are able to organize and process our feelings and priorities. Stress can manifest in ways that can significantly impact our physical wellbeing: fatigue, weight gain or loss, hair loss, etc. Having strategies to manage stress is one of the best ways to practice self-care.

It is important to remember that regardless of what you incorporate in your self-care practice, that self-care isn’t a bandaid solution or a temporary fix to immediate stress. Going beyond the treat-yourself mentality will help you take better care of yourself and become more in tune with what you need to do for yourself. Think about what you are doing that is self-care already, and celebrate that you’re already on your way!

Read about five easy ways that you can include self-care in your day here.

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