The term “self-care” is more and more present in our everyday life. You will hear about it literally everywhere – though it seems that there are many ways to understand what it actually is. You will find lots of posts around social media inviting you to practice self-care, presenting tons of self-care tips, routines, and ideas. And that’s all great! Keep in mind, though, that a lot of what you will find refers to a tiny part of self-care that we can call “pampering” – not even “self-maintenance”. Think bubble bath, massage, or breakfast in bed kind of thing. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those – it’s just it’s best to put it in context.
Self-care is therefore often seen as something superficial or a luxury. As something special that we LET ourselves do once every now and then. In this article, I will argue that we could think about reframing self-care and maybe recognizing it as a necessity similar to what we tend to think about self-maintenance. I understand self-care as an umbrella, under which you will find a lot of categories - we'll go back to that a bit later.
I’ll also try to answer some of the interesting questions about self-care, like: “Is self-care selfish?” or “Can self-care prevent burnout or depression?”. You will also learn that self-care isn’t expensive. In fact – it doesn’t have to cost you a penny.
Read more to learn about the journey to discover what’s what. Let’s start with what self-care is:
WHAT IS SELF-CARE?
Self-care is what we do for ourselves, our ability to take care of ourselves and maintain our overall well-being. It can be something as trivial as brushing our teeth, getting dressed, or getting enough sleep. However, fulfilling our spiritual needs and taking care of our mental, emotional and psychological well-being also fit under this umbrella.
It’s all those little (and big) things we do to feel better connected with ourselves and with the world around us. Self-care stems from self-awareness, being able to feel what we need and who we are on many different levels.
When mental health professionals talk about self-care, we often mean several categories:
emotional, physical, social, spiritual, mental, and practical. Swipe this Instagram post to see examples for each category:
WHAT CAN SELF-CARE LOOK LIKE?
IS SELF-CARE SELFISH?
The short answer is “absolutely not”. A long answer is – “it depends”;)
When we understand self-care in terms I highlighted above – it’s not at all selfish – on the contrary – we need it like oxygen. Would you say breathing selfish? ;) That is if our overall goal is to live, be well, find fulfillment, and be in good relationships with others and ourselves.
But keep in mind – us humans - we can spoil almost everything;) So it is possible to go too far with the focus on ourselves – no matter the intentions. It is all very individual, but if our days are spent coming up with ways to self-indulge, if we’re in the race to gain more and more pleasure, if we tend to choose ourselves, and our comfort over anything else – it may be time to reevaluate. That is, of course, if we want to live a somewhat balanced life – where there’s room for other people, our community, a purpose and meaning we give our life other than… well – us.
SELF-CARE AND BURNOUT PREVENTION
Self-care and mental health relationship is a two-way street.
If we’re able to gain self-awareness and practice self-care, it’s enabling us to better cater to what we need to grow and be well. It doesn’t mean we will keep our mental health intact in every situation. Self-care is not a vaccine for all life’s sorrows – there are many things we don’t have control over. It’s more like good nutrition. We all need to eat, and it does matter what our bodies run on. Mindful self-care equips us with specific skills and abilities to better maneuver life and possibly sail smoother even through our lowest lows. Needless to say – a good self-care strategy will effectively help you prevent burnout. Because self-awareness helps you better address your needs and take care of your overall life balance. This is psychology 101.
On the other hand – certain mental health conditions will make it very difficult to practice self-care – depression, trauma, PTSD, anxiety, and burnout – are some of the most common ones that will impact our capabilities of being there for ourselves. So one of the signs it’s time to talk to somebody will be when it’s difficult to practice self-care. Think about problems with setting boundaries, self-defeating thoughts, shame, loneliness, and so on. (Worst-case scenario – it will be the inability to take care of yourself physically, but that’s a story for another time.)
SELF-CARE STRATEGY OR SELF-CARE ROUTINE?
We don’t need a glamour self-care routine that will only last for a couple of days or weeks that only touches the surface; we need a long-term solution – a strategy we can incorporate into our everyday life.
And on that note – one of the superficial ways to understand self-care is that we need to stay positive and get rid of all the negative aspects of our lives. What self-care then becomes is just pampering and the inevitable loss of touch with reality. If we want to take good care of ourselves, the solution is to confront reality and build on that.
There’s this funny thing about reality - we can’t contextualize the good without the bad, without touching the sad and the angry and the lonely and all those other ‘negative’ emotions. It really is about acknowledging reality as a whole. It may mean we need to address our inability to talk to people, or issues with entering relationships with the wrong people, or difficulties with assertiveness, and so on.
What self-care sometimes looks like is real work. It’s blood, sweat, and tears. But each time we make time to understand and ultimately heal ourselves – it feels nourishing. It’s not a part of the weekly ‘to-do’ that you have to check, though it often will be present in our everyday lives.
WHAT IS SELF-MAINTENANCE?
A common understanding of self-maintenance is all those mundane activities we do to keep ourselves alive and function adequately in society. We do it on autopilot, and better or worse -we get it done. Without it, our life would feel miserable. Think about not washing our hair, not brushing our teeth, and eating junk food every day. It does seem a lot like basic self-care, doesn't it?
Not feeling ok is part of being human – our bad days and our anxiety are part of being human. Toxic positivity or simply self-maintenance won’t keep us out of harm’s way. Nor will trying to suppress our so-called “negative emotions”. We need them all, but we also need resilience and self-awareness, kindness, compassion, and the ability to function well in interpersonal relationships. And that is precisely why we need mindful deep self-care.
The thing we could borrow from self-maintenance is its everyday presence in our life. We really need more of that.
We can think of self-care in terms of a system that consists of intentionally chosen habits. Those habits and behaviors work ‘like a muscle’ – and to train the muscle, we need mindful repetitions.
So “no” – when it comes to mindless automation – but YES when it comes to everyday mindful presence.