Understanding Self-Care: What It Is & What It Isn’t

Self-care is a very popular concept right now, but it’s one that a lot of people misunderstand. The term might seem fairly obvious, the Oxford Dictionary describes self-care as:

The practice of taking action to preserve or improve one’s own health. The practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.[i]

Despite the apparent obviousness of what self-care is though, many people end up engaging in negative activities while claiming it’s for the sake of self-care, all the while making them more stressed out than they were before. Although the idea of self-care is simple, in execution it is far more complicated than some might expect.

The next time you plan for a little self-care time, consider these important points to make sure you’re not falling into one of the common self-care traps that people fall into.

Self-Care Means Doing More & Doing Less  

Most of the lists of self-care advice you’ll find online will recommend that you take the time to add little rituals to your life that can help you feel better. The trouble is that some people have schedules that are so over-stuffed with work that there’s very little room for them to unwind. Even if they can fit 30 minutes of meditation or yoga into their schedule, it often runs back-to-back with work or other obligations. Over-extending yourself is the exact opposite of self-care, and even if some of the many things you are trying into your busy schedule are meant to be relaxing, that doesn’t change the fact that you are not giving yourself room to breathe.

Rather than just add activities to your schedule that are meant to prioritize fulfill your physical and emotional needs, you also need to time for those activities. This means that along with doing more self-care activities, if you also have to do less of other things. Granted, not everyone can take time away from work to expand their self-care routine, if you want to take care of yourself, you need prioritize your health and well-being over other things. Sometimes the greatest act of self-care that you can perform is just saying “no,” refusing to take on additional responsibilities so that you have the time for yourself.

Self-Care Doesn’t Mean Indulging In Bad Habits

Something to be aware of is that just because something feels good and comfortable doesn’t necessarily mean that its good self-care. For some people, vegging out in front of the TV for a Netflix binge might count as an act of self-care, but while there’s nothing wrong with doing so every now and again, it is important not to treat your own bad habits as acts of self-love. Sometimes when we’re depressed, we get urges to crawl under the covers, vegetate in front of our screen of choice, or overindulge in comfort food.

Self-care isn’t just about momentary pleasure though: it’s about recharging your batteries and building up your physical or mental capacity so that you can carry on in a more focused, intentional, and joyous manner. So when you decide to take a “mental health day,” ask yourself if what you’re doing is a momentary distraction or something that will help you in the long run.

Self-Care Isn’t Selfish

One reason that some people don’t bother with self-care is that they consider it to be inherently selfish to focus so much on their own individual needs. Sometimes even people who do engage in self-care have this attitude that it’s all about themselves. Yet this is far from the truth: first of all, there is nothing wrong with prioritizing our own needs. Everyone has personal needs that have to be met, and if you can’t count on yourself to meet those needs, who can you count on? Also, even if you are the type to focus on helping others, you cannot effectively take care of people if your own needs aren’t being met. It might be called “self”-care, but it’s never just about you.

This also applies to how you spend your self-care time: while there’s value to be found it giving yourself “me time,” but our relationships are a big part of self-care as well. Not only is spending time with our friends and family is incredibly important for our mental and emotional well-being, but one way to ensure that you have enough time for self-care is to get your loved ones on board as well. It’s easier to make time in your schedule for yourself when those around you understand how important self-care is.

Self-Care Isn’t a Substitute For Professional Medical Help

Perhaps the biggest mistake that some people can make regarding self-care is believing that it can serve as a substitute for professional mental health care. Obviously, it is important for us to take care of ourselves, but there comes a point where meditating and journaling just aren’t going to be enough to make you feel better. As Shayla Love wrote in her article ‘The Dark Truths Behind Our Obsession With Self-Care,’ “you cannot…treat an anxiety disorder with a bubble bath or a meditation app, and the supposition that you can is a dangerous one.”[ii] If you are suffering with depression, anxiety, or some other mental health condition (or suspect that you do), it is essential that you seek out professional help.

Self-care will ultimately mean different things to different people, and in order for it to have a positive impact, it needs to be meaningful to your day-to-day life. What might work for one person might not be helpful for you, and vice versa. But as long as you are mindful of the kind of help that you need, you can create a self-care experience that serves your needs and leaves reinvigorated, ready to face the rest of your day! 


[i] Self-Care. (n.d.). Oxford Dictionary on Lexico.com. Retrieved from https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/self-care

[ii] Love, S. (2018, December 11). The Dark Truths Behind Our Obsession With Self-Care. Vice. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/zmdwm4/the-young-and-the-uncared-for-v25n4

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