What Counts as Self Care?
I talk about self care a lot. This is mostly because I work with women, and women have a tendency to, without mincing words: ignore themselves.
We give so, so much – to our family, our friends, and our clients – that it gets easy to stop filling our own cups. It’s no secret that when we do that, we’re doing a disservice to not only ourselves, but to everyone we support. Including those friends, family members, and clients. When we don’t care for ourselves, we can’t care for others effectively either.
You know the old adage – one cannot pour from an empty cup.
SELF CARE AND MAINSTREAM WELLNESS
So of course, when self care hit the mainstream wellness world, it was great. More and more women have been claiming time for themselves – time to do all kinds of things – in the name of self care.
Great. Brilliant. Fabulous.
Except… (you knew a but was coming, right?) not everything being touted as “self care practice” is actually self care. And not from a “shut up it looks different to everyone” kind of perspective.
From a “taking a rushed bath isn’t self care because everyone needs to fucking wash themselves” perspective. What we ended up with, was another thing added to women’s lists, another thing adding stress, and… another thing left to judge ourselves about.
SO WHAT COUNTS AS SELF CARE?
It may sound like I’m being a tiny bit (or a lot) contradictory here, because I’m saying “this thing we created turned into a monster that adds more stress” while in the same breath saying “and you might be doing it wrong.” But follow me here, because I’m not as much of an asshole as I sound like, and if you stay with me you’ll end up with a clearer definition of what self care actually is, and how to refine your own practices to get there too.
There are a ton of definitions out there, from those focused on personal health, to those more focused on spiritual well-being. My personal definition of self care, and the one that I find to be most complete, is:
“Any activity done with intention, that lowers your overall stress in the long or short term, without the potential of increased stress as a long-term result.”
I want you to pay attention to two of those components, because they’re the most important. “Intention” and “long or short term stress”.
ACTING WITH INTENTION
You know that rushed wash in the tub I just mentioned? I’m going to outline two scenarios, because I find that to be the best way to illustrate the difference here.
You haven’t showered in days. You’ve straight up been too busy, and honestly between your 9-5, editing and shooting photo sessions, and trying to actually eat, it’s really only a priority to bathe when you’re going to see other humans. You know you have an in person meeting in the morning, so you decide you’ll take a shower tonight so that you’re not sporting day three hair in your meeting. So you hop in the shower, throw in some shampoo, lather, rinse, and then hobble back to your desk wrapped in a towel, to edit a few portrait sessions and make some social media posts before leftovers for dinner. (Which you also eat at your desk, before staying up way too late so that you can get some Netflix time in.) The next morning, you’re exhausted, *again*.
You haven’t showered in days. You’ve straight up been too busy, and you know it’s getting to you. You’ve logged off from your 9-5 (which is now remote because the world is bonkers) and you’re planning to edit some photo sessions before you go to bed. Realising that you have an in-person meeting in the morning, you decide that you’re going to treat yourself. You light a candle in the bathroom, grab a book and some leftover Chinese takeout, and draw yourself a hot bath. You realise you’ve got a bath bomb leftover from some stocking stuffers at Christmas, so you pop that in there too. You even set an alarm, knowing that you need about three hours to get the amount of editing done that needs finished that night. You have your leftovers while soaking in the tub, and don’t even end up picking up the book, because laying there and relaxing is nice enough on its own. When your alarm goes off, you feel refreshed, so your editing goes more quickly than you anticipated, and you end up having time to watch the new episode of the Handmaid’s tale before bed.
I’m betting you can tell me which one of these scenarios is the one that was done with intention. In scenario 1, you’re doing a thing that needs to be done, in a hurried manner. And there’s nothing WRONG with that – sometimes that’s the way things have to be. Sometimes you HAVE to hurry, and you should in no way shame or judge yourself for that.
But it’s also not self care. It’s personal hygiene. Not any less important, but also not regenerative or refreshing for your mind or soul.
So, so many people see self-care as overindulgence. Desserts, shopping, lavish vacations, or openly ignoring responsibilities in favour of tasks that feel more fun. And this ends up being reinforced by social posts about designer bags purchased in the name of self care, or online shopping binges in the name of self care, or trips to Bali (you guessed it) in the name of self care.
And for those who are doing (and posting about) those things – maybe it is genuinely self-care activity, because it DOES eliminate or decrease stress, without the potential of adding it. But for so, so many people, all of those kinds of activities actually have the potential to make the situation worse than they do to make things better.
The difference comes down to your personal situation. If the budget is tight, a shopping binge isn’t going to make you less stressed. It might throw some dopamine into your system for a moment, but when the credit card bill comes? Yikes, right? If you’re someone on a diet regimen for medical reasons or for weight loss, that dessert might be tasty, but is it going to cause more stress in the long run? Will spending two hours on Netflix ACTUALLY make you feel better? Because calling it self-care doesn’t make it any less an avoidance of responsibilities than it really is. And when you look back at your to-do list, the guilt monster that you already had looming over you before you binged two episodes of American Horror Story will still be there, staring deep into your soul.
So what’s important here, is determining what, FOR YOU, actually decreases your stress, intentionally. For me? Food self-care is making myself a tasty salad that I actually like. Or a smoothie. Not immense amounts of chocolate or baked goods. Because I *know* that the guilt I’ll end up with after binging glutenous chocolate muffins (and how sore I’ll feel because of my gluten intolerance) outweighs the modicum of happiness I’ll get from pastries. Shopping self-care? It looks like searching for the best reviewed, most effective option for things I use every day, instead of just getting whatever works and calling it fine.
And figuring out that information about yourself is powerful, and important, and it can help you be more productive and effective at your everyday tasks, too. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that you’re more effective when you’re less stressed. It’s a magical snow-ball of mental-health changes, too, because the more you intentionally care for yourself, the more mental availability you have for your work. The more mental availability you have for your work, the more productive you are. The more productive you are, the more resources you have (remember, time is also a resource!) to spend even more time on self-care.
But when the self-care tasks you’re doing aren’t actually decreasing your overall stress, that snowball doesn’t start rolling.
You know that I don’t like leaving you without action steps from the content that I put together, so I want to leave you here with a little challenge.
First, I want you to take a look at the things you’re doing for self-care right now, if any, and ask yourself if they meet the definition I’ve shared. If not, how can you change them so that they do?
And second, I want you to look at adding self-care practices into your daily agenda. It doesn’t have to be things that take a long time, or are expensive, as long as they’re done intentionally, and they decrease your stress in the short or long term. Maybe this means spending three minutes washing your face with a new face wash as a part of your morning routine. Maybe it means taking the time to reorganise your day, so that you can better judge when you have time to go draw that lengthy comfy bath with your leftover takeaway. Maybe it means taking the hard stance of saying “no” to additional tasks, so that you have more time available to you.
But whatever it is, make sure it HELPS, and you don’t find that you’re judging yourself for doing it. Because that’s not going to ease the mental burden of your day, and self-care is about making you feel BETTER, not WORSE.