I have a love-hate relationship with the word “self-care.” On the one hand, I value its importance and am passionate about helping people find ways to engage in these practices themselves. On the other hand, however, I’ve noticed that the increased popularity of this concept has caused it to be “watered down,” so to say. Suddenly, everyone’s bragging about “doing self-care” when they might, in fact, be engaging in practices that are just the opposite. Or, doctors, therapists, and other health professionals will start telling people to “do some self-care” without participating in any dialogue about what this looks like. So, today I thought I’d write a post about what self-care means to me, and how you can create routines that are the most beneficial for your mental and physical health.
What is self-care?
To me, self-care is about engaging in practices that help you achieve a sense of peace so you can reconnect with your values, interests, and authentic self. There’s a LOT going on with that definition, so let’s break it down:
1. Achieving a sense of peace: though it’s easy to recognize when we’re in a peaceful state versus a stressed one, it can be harder to pinpoint how we know this. For example, I’m more compassionate with others and myself when I’m relaxed. I’m less likely to throw a hissy fit at myself (or someone else) when something small happens. I also feel like there’s room in my brain to think when I’m relaxed. Conversely, stress makes me feel like my brain is about to burst with information—to-do lists, reminders, grocery lists, and other insignificant babble. When I’m at peace, I am better able to compartmentalize things rather than constantly feeling overwhelmed. We need to be able to differentiate between these two states so we can keep track of how stressed we really are. In my case, when I start to notice I’m becoming impatient with others and myself and like I can’t have a single creative thought because my mind is too “full,” I know it’s time to take a step back and engage in self-care.
How to do this: everyone has different ways of finding peace, but once we know how stress specifically affects us, it’s easier to identify what peace-inducing activities might be most helpful. For example, if you’re someone who experiences stress physically—that is, through feeling very tight in your body (which is also something I experience)—doing activities that help you physically feel at peace will likely be helpful. This could include having a bath, giving yourself a massage, sitting in a steam room or sauna, or doing a really hardcore boxing workout to release some of that tension. If your stress manifests itself as racing thoughts, doing a guided meditation, journalling, venting to a friend, or creating a game plan for how you’re going to tackle the stress can be helpful.
2. Connecting with your values, interests, and authentic self: it’s really easy to forget the important stuff when we’re stressed, like what we care about and why. We become so consumed with getting that work project done that we forget to spend time with our partner, even though we deeply care about them. We put eating healthy and working out on the back burner because we feel like there are “more important things to do.”
How to do this: first we need to remember what our values are. Here’s a list of some common core values if you’ve never identified yours before. Then, engage in activities that help you re-connect with those. If one of you values is friendship, maybe you ask a good friend to go for coffee that you haven’t made time to see in awhile. The next step involves reconnecting with interests you have that provide a sense of pleasure. Some of my interests, for example, involve music, art, exercise, and nutrition, so I might do a new craft to stimulate my artsy side, play the piano to stimulate my music-loving side, or try a new recipe.
What Self-Care is NOT
Self-care is not an excuse to do something horrible for your mental and/or physical health in the name of “treating yourself.” Getting so drunk you have a three-day hangover is not a form of self-care. Why? Because it actually leaves you feeling worse mentally and physically. On the flip side, having some drinks with friends would be a form of self-care in my books because you’re reconnecting with your value of friendship and finding a sense of peace through having good conversations with them. My point here is that it’s not necessarily the activity itself that we need to pay attention to, but also the impact of that activity.
Let’s take the other all-too-common example of people binging on awful foods “in the name of self-care.” No. Downing three Big Macs and a bag of party-sized Smartfood to yourself is not self-care; the word you’re looking for is gluttony. And let’s remind ourselves of what typically happens whenever people do this: they might feel “at peace” in the moment, but they engage in relentless negative self-talk the next day about how they “don't have enough willpower” or how they’ll “do better next time.” This is not self-care; this is a form of torture. Through engaging in activities that leave us feeling ashamed, embarrassed, or guilty, we’re actually doing the very opposite of self-care. So, if an activity leaves you feeling worse rather than better, it’s a sign you need to add some new tools to your self-care toolbox.
Here are just some activities I think are great for self-care, but of course you can add as many to the list as you’d like:
Getting a massage or giving yourself one at home
Having a bath
Prepping meals for the week (this allows us to feel physically and mentally better throughout the week!)
Showing your body some love and respect by doing a good workout of any kind
Putting in some headphones and listening to your favourite album with no distractions
Giving yourself a manicure or pedicure
Spending some quality time with your pet by taking them for a walk, playing with them, or grooming them
Writing down a list of the good things in your life
Going out for coffee with a friend
Doing a craft
Calling a family member you haven’t chatted with in awhile
Doing something that mentally stimulates you, like learning a new language
Reading a good book
Organizing your closet so you feel a sense of accomplishment
Doing a kind deed for someone else
Cooking yourself your favourite meal
The Bottom Line
Self-care is about engaging in activities that make you feel at peace so you can reconnect with your values, interests, and authentic self. It is not about assigning new labels to your horrible habits so you feel better about yourself, which is what many people do. If your “self-care” activity leaves you feeling guilty or ashamed and takes energy rather than give it, you need to come up with some new skills. Remember things you used to enjoy in the past that brought you joy and start implementing those into your life whenever possible. And most importantly, remind yourself of the importance of these activities for your long-term health. After all, an important part of self-care is giving yourself permission to not work on that project after-hours and have a bath instead. This act of permission-giving is a daily practice and hard work, but your mental and physical health will thank you. I promise.