Over the last few years “self-care” has become a media buzzword, health phenomena, and multi-billion-dollar industry. It seems inescapable.
And yet, I’m not confident many people know what it means.
When I talk to people about self-care, at best, they share things like having good hygiene, exercising, and caring for loved ones. While these things can be self-care, they are frequently preceded with words like “I should” or “I try.” When the narrative is peppered with disappointment, guilt, or shame, the activities cease to be restorative.
I’m sharing my personal definition of self-care for the purposes of restoration. Here are a few rules, as well as some suggestions to get more from your self-care.
What is Self-Care?
Self-care is a deliberate practice of restoring your mind, body, and spirit so you finish the activity feeling better, whether that be calm, happy, or motivated. Self-care comes from the assumption that sleep or vacation are not enough to recover from life’s stress. It seems silly to say, but I encourage you to look at your schedule. Is there any time when you are resting? If yes, are you truly resting or just being unproductive?
Resting is different than being unproductive. One of the biggest culprits of this mix-up is “doom-scrolling” social media. I think most of us agree that endlessly looking at the internet with little direction or purpose is not a fruitful use of time, nor does it inspire pride or joy. Many people associate it with guilt, labeling it a “bad habit” that seems impossible to break. The reason why so many people can’t break it makes sense. It’s the only time we are not working or doing something for others beyond bathroom business (sorry to all the moms who don’t even get that precious bathroom time)! This lack of productivity feels good, but it is not rest. Self-care is any activity that is deliberately done for the purpose of rest*. Let’s go over the guidelines that transform an unproductive activity into one that promotes self-care.
Rules of Self-Care
- Be deliberate and resist the word “should.” Unproductive activities usually get labeled as self-care after the fact. This rationalizes the time spent not being productive. Be deliberate in labeling an activity as self-care before you do it. But when deciding on your self-care, be on the lookout for productivity sneaking back in disguised as self-care. A common example is exercise. Some people genuinely love exercise. For them it is self-care. For the rest of us, exercise is something we’re aware we “should” do but dread actually doing it. This is not self-care. Remember, self-care needs to come from a place of reducing pressure and creating joy.
- Create boundaries and practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is another buzzword you have likely seen. It’s frequently paired with self-care. Mindfulness is the deliberate internal acknowledgement of all thoughts and feelings without repressing or exacerbating negative thoughts/feelings. Meditation asks you to clear your mind, while mindfulness acknowledges a clear mind is a tall order. Instead of trying to stop thoughts and feelings, the goal is to stop caring about the thoughts and feelings; another simple, albeit difficult task. Mindfulness gives you the space for self-care to genuinely restore. If you take up painting only to find yourself constantly thinking of unanswered emails or shaming yourself for time away from family, painting will only be a waste of time and money. When thoughts about other things start to pop up, set a boundary. Kindly inform your thoughts (or interrupting people) that you will get back to them later when you are better rested. This is paint time.
- Consider who you are doing it for. Caregivers frequently fall into the trap of creating “self-care” activities that serve, uplift, or heal others, but not themselves. This is a source of pride – not self-care. Enjoying self-care with others is possible (more on that later), but successful relaxation and joyful fulfillment of yourself cannot be contingent on the happiness or health of others. Why? Because those metrics of success are out of your control. Your self-care should always be in your control. When you choose a self-care activity, consider who it directly benefits. If you only indirectly benefit, keep moving.
For example, take cooking. You may love to cook because of how your loved ones respond. But if their responses are the only thing that gives you joy, that does not work. If cooking gives you joy and you get the extra perk of your partner digging it, that works.
Suggestions for Self-Care
Back to basics. If you are strapped for time, you can apply the above principles to things you are already doing. This can be night or morning rituals that calm you before sleeping or working. Create boundaries so you can stay present and have more deliberate use of your time. This means refusing to answer emails before work, after work, or during lunch. When spending time with someone, resist turning on distracting electronics.
Many people with poor boundaries feel that setting them would be catastrophic. There’s a good chance someone in your life is more understanding than you think. Others, I agree, will be less flexible. I’m curious: why does that person earn a place in your life? It is inevitable that you will disappoint people in the short-term when you create boundaries. But it is the best course in the long-term. You will be more rested and less resentful of others. Building distress tolerance skills is key to successful self-care.
Add counter-weights. Even with the best boundaries, life can still feel unbalanced. I encourage people to start adding self-care practices that make them as much of a priority as those stressful, immoveable boundaries. For people with careers that have strict, overlapping deadlines with high external criticism (lawyers, non-profit workers, teachers), consider an activity with little structure, no deadlines or final destinations like yoga, journaling, or painting. For jobs with high burnout because of emotional labor, non-existent deadlines, unclear success (parenting, health care workers, military), try a creative hobby with clear, short-term successes like climbing, knitting, or book club.
When trying something new, practice self-compassion by quieting the critical internal voice telling you to do something “right” or “well” immediately. Again, this is productivity trying to sneak back in. There is no right or wrong way to do things (there’s a safe way to do physical activities but not a judgmental “right” way) so make your own rules! I frequently have clients stop journaling because they couldn’t fill a page or didn’t know how to start. Write in bullet points or as if you are talking to someone. Search for prompts that help you get started. Make it an audio recording if you hate writing. Just get started and give yourself permission to feel silly.
Share self-care. You can do self-care activities with others. Again, the success of the activity should not be contingent on the other person’s reaction. In fact, instead of trying to find an activity that fulfills both of you, try to find two activities. Each one should great fulfil one person, while the other person enjoys/supports it.
One model I use for discussing restoration within a relationship is the routes to safety model. These are different suggestions based on typology to help you feel restored after a fearful incident. “Fearful,” in this circumstance, extends beyond things that are scary to include things that are anxiety, anger, or stress-provoking. It combats them with self-care or other activities.
There are more examples, outlines, and lists of self-care suggestions you can explore. Ultimately, self-care starts with self – you. What works for others may not work for you. Take the next few weeks to try approaching your personal choices from a place of joy and restoration rather than shame and external pressure.
*Note: Self-care is anything done for the purpose of rest that does not cause harm. Vices such as caffeine, alcohol, smoking, gambling, or excessive shopping or exercise should not be used for self-care.