Self-care has been a word for a while – but is it the right one?
When it’s not being sold to us through Instagram ads in the form of candles or plush pajamas, self-care is taking over our TikTok FYP through the “Everything Shower” app. it has become our excuse for every indulgence. A fun time after a bad day at work? It’s all about self-care. Brunch, followed by euphoria-inspired mani? Self-care, baby! Splurging on a luxurious tropical vacation after the hell we’ve been through for the past two years? Yourself. Hyphenated. Caring.
But it seems the amount of attention we pay to self-care online actually doesn’t match reality. A recent survey found that more than half of women (54 percent) say their mental health is suffering from work-related burnout. The latest American Psychological Association’s Stress in America Poll shows that stress and anxiety continue to be at an all-time high, with 42 percent of adults saying they have relied on unhealthy habits to get through the past few years. For example, one in five respondents said they drank more during the pandemic.
Statistics like these raise the question: If the “treat yourself” approach to self-care is working, why are we still so tired and fatigued? Well, according to the experts, we’re all missing the point a bit, says WH consultant Dr. Chloe Carmichael: “Self-care is really about taking the time to understand your true needs, not your impulses,” says Chloe Carmichael, Ph. says Dr. Michael. “It’s about seeing yourself on a deeper level.”
Not that vacations or happy hours aren’t a worthwhile form of self-care, Dr. Carmichael says, but sometimes it’s necessary to “be kind to yourself. But the truth is, if that’s all you’re doing, you’re missing out on the real benefits. Read on for a step-by-step course on strengthening your relationship with taking care of yourself.
Defining what self-care means to you
Real talk: There’s no single meaning to this word. It’s an evolving concept that is constantly being updated, for better or worse. “Self-care” as a cultural phenomenon was first coined by feminist writer Audrey Lord in her 1988 book of essays, says Omolara Thomas Uwemedimo, an assistant professor at Northwell Health in New York. “For her, a black, cool child woman, self-care is about self-preservation. It’s about being able to see who you are outside of the white gaze and coming back to who you are. It’s not about what’s good, it’s about what keeps you alive.”
Since then, self-care has been dominated by marketing experts eager to sell idealized versions and the overpriced candles that come with them. But now, finally, we’re starting to go back to the drawing board – and build on Lorde’s original idea, adds Dr. Catherine Cook-Cottone, a professor at the University at Buffalo whose research focuses on self-care with positive thinking. People recognize the holes in the commercial adaptation and are seeking a deeper understanding of what it can do. “Self-care is not something you buy,” Dr. Cook-Cottone said. “It’s a positive approach to taking care of the internal aspects in the context of external pressures.”
How these three women learned true self-care
According to Dr. Barbara Riegel, a professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania who studies chronic disease, self-care is about “taking control of your body and controlling what’s happening to you.” For Dr. Uwemedimo, self-care is about “creating space in your life to remember who you are and what your purpose is.”
So, the semantics are up to you. Remember, it’s a lot like nurturing yourself, which means your job is to focus on what you need, not what you want in the moment. This isn’t always easy. An example: social connections are important, but maybe you just moved and don’t know anyone, so it feels scary to reach out for help. You can tell yourself that staying home and watching Netflix is self-care (and it may make you feel good at first), but Netflix can’t meet your needs. “Self-care is taking an honest look at what you need to function best – not only today, but in a broader sense,” says Dr. Carmichael.
Figure out how to feed your mind, body and soul
One of the most difficult aspects of self-care is that it is so personal. “There’s no litmus test where certain behaviors always count as self-care,” Dr. Carmichael says. “It depends on the individual.” So the question remains: How do you know what you need? How do you find the balance between pushing yourself outside your comfort zone and comforting yourself when you need it?
Dr. Cook-Cottone suggests that remembering the acronym ART can help you decipher whether you are doing the right thing in self-care. For example, do you know what you really need? Does this behavior meet that need? Will you follow up?
If you encounter problems in the first part, you may start adding time to your daily life to do nothing but reflect. “Breaks are important for raising awareness,” says Dr. Cook-Cotton. This may mean taking regular bubble baths (you’re welcome), but when you’re in the water, ask yourself: What do I need to feel my best? What’s working in my life right now – and what isn’t? If you don’t have a lot of time, you can use the time you spend on other activities to achieve the same goal – like folding laundry or working out – by focusing on your breath and simply listening.
Instilling time to stop in your day should let you know what (if anything) is missing from your daily life. It’s also a good habit to learn what is needed in the moment. You may learn that you should pay more attention to physical forms of self-care: getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, taking prescription medications, etc. Or managing stress is an area that requires work and will eventually lead you to positive thinking practices or more time in nature. Maybe you need to do something creative or something that contributes to your community, like volunteering for a cause you care about.
Friendly reminder: As a complex being, you have complex needs. Not that you can choose one self-care activity and call it a day. Think of it as diversifying your retirement portfolio. “You need to diversify your self-care portfolio,” says Dr. Cook-Cotton. Some activities will contribute to your physical health; others will support the mental and social aspects of your life. From there, all you have to do is make sure you make time for self-care on a regular basis.
So, yes, that means you want to have structure, but there’s also room for spontaneity. Include small daily practices like saying a loving word to yourself while brushing your teeth and formal practices like regular meditation. Scheduling a variety of activities-fitness classes, meeting with friends, whatever makes you happy-can allow you to make some decisions. Dr. Cook-Cottone says that creating plenty of opportunities and practicing a variety of ways to take care of yourself will help you “become more agile and responsive in the moment.” In other words, when stressors arise, it’s easier to tap into your toolbox and rely on exercises that have become routine.
Set boundaries in new ways
This can have multiple applications and implications. First, you want to set boundaries that protect your own time, such as refusing to go out at night when you really crave a sweat or a bad day with friends. You also want to set boundaries for what you accept as appropriate for your life. This means setting rules for the type of therapy you tolerate in your relationships or at work. Note: The second type of boundary is usually harder to set because of how our culture rewards women for being able to overcome anything.
The upside is that when we set boundaries for ourselves, we are also protecting others. We are making it easier for other women to set similar boundaries. “It’s easier to do that in a community, so you don’t feel like a weirdo,” Dr. Uwemedimo says.
It’s too easy to make self-care the last thing on our to-do list. But without it, you’ll lose yourself in the constant stress – and who wants to live like that? Plus, self-care is more than just a mental benefit. if you ignore it, Dr. Riegel says, you’re setting yourself up for serious health problems, from burnout to real chronic illnesses like depression, diabetes or heart disease. “It’s not something that can wait.” All the more reason to start putting yourself first.