Perhaps it’s an antidote to our current age of anxiety, but the self-care movement is having a moment. Everywhere you look, therapists, life coaches, yoga teachers, and others are emphasizing its health benefits. But what is self-care, really?
On social media, where the term is often associated with images of lavish desserts and rose-petal bubble baths, self-care may seem to be about self-indulgence. Perhaps you prefer to view it as a periodic escape from reality: an afternoon at the spa or a Saturday morning spent binge-watching TV.
In fact, the term has roots in medical care but gained more of a following with 1960s political activists, who championed personal wellness to balance the stress they experienced as a result of their work.
In recent years, however, the notion of self-care has struck a chord with a wider audience. In addition to the aspirational, consumer-centric way the phenomenon is often served up in the media — think pricey face masks or luxurious beach vacations — its appeal no doubt owes much to our need for respite from the always-on, hyperconnected environment in which we live.
“People in our culture are waking up to the fact that they have been living incredibly stressful lives,” says Minneapolis-based integrative psychiatrist Henry Emmons, MD, author of The Chemistry of Joyand The Chemistry of Calm. He notes that modern lifestyles conflict with the ways humans are naturally wired to live and thrive, which creates significant physical, mental, and emotional discord.
“It’s not in our nature to be sedentary. It’s not in our nature to sleep six hours or less per night. And it’s not in our nature to eat a lot of really high-calorie foods for long periods of time,” he observes. “Self-care is largely about following the dictate of our evolution; it’s about doing the kinds of things our bodies really want us to do.”
So, while a bubble bath may indeed deliver short-term relief, it’s committing to consistent, personalized, healthful actions that will ultimately help you navigate life’s stressors and make choices that support the life you want to live.
Self-care is quite literally about caring for yourself.
In order to care for yourself, it helps to identify what activities will address your deepest needs — in other words, what makes you healthy and happy. The goal of your personal self-care practice will depend on where you’re starting and which areas of your life you’re hoping to nurture. But, no matter where you are now, turning inward is a good place to begin.
“Self-care starts with self-awareness,” explains Seattle-based productivity and mindfulness coach Sarah Steckler. “The more self-aware you are about your needs, about your emotions, and about what’s coming up, the more able you are to respond versus react to things.”
That means you’re probably not going to find your best self-care ideas on Instagram. Instead, says Emmons, “it means paying attention to how you’re spending the bulk of your waking hours, whom you’re spending them with, whether the work you do is satisfying on the whole or just outright stressful, and the choices you make with regard to money.”
It also means paying attention to how you feel after you eat, and whether choosing healthier foodsmakes a difference. It means noticing your energy levels when you get more or less sleep or when you move your body more or less during the day.
Embracing added structure in your life — going to bed and waking at regular times, for instance — is often a good place to start. These actions anchor you throughout the day and provide regular opportunities to notice how you feel, says Sarah Kucera, DC, founder of Sage Center for Yoga and Healing Arts in Kansas City, Mo., and author of The Ayurvedic Self-Care Handbook.
“It isn’t about being rigid,” Kucera explains. But it is about discipline.
“There’s a crossover where self-care and self-discipline are the same things,” she argues. “Like in the discomfort of getting up in the morning when you want to lie in bed a little bit longer, but then you realize how good you feel because you didn’t lie in bed longer.”
The most effective self-care strategies will emerge from an ongoing process of exploration. Journaling, for example, can help you recognize areas in your life that could use some attention.
“A lot of people resist journaling, but I encourage people to try it anyway,” says Steckler. “When you tap into your stream of consciousness through freewriting, when you actually turn your thoughts into something tangible on paper, you tap into the possibility of a solution.”
Emmons recommends setting aside a few uninterrupted hours as a “mini retreat” to identify self-care needs. “Give yourself a chance to respond to a few good questions,” he suggests. “Anything that can take you to a deeper, more reflective place.”
These questions might include: What kinds of foods do I find most nourishing? Which relationships really feed my soul? How do my finances support my well-being? What kind of movement feels good for my body? What do I like to do for fun?
Even if practicing self-care is a wholly new concept for you, chances are you already have some helpful tools in your toolbox, Emmons says. “Most of us are actually doing quite a few good things for ourselves already. It’s really just a question of which side of ourselves we are paying most attention to.”
5 Truths About Self-Care
The popular buzz often presents a narrow view of self-care. If you think that self-care looks a certain way (or that it applies only to a certain kind of person), it’s time to reconsider. Our experts offer their perspectives on five key truths about self-care for all.
1) Self-care isn’t selfish.
If you’re a parent, a caregiver, or anyone else responsible for the well-being of others, taking time awayfrom those duties can feel inappropriate or even selfish.
“But the truth is, the more we make time to take care of ourselves and the more we put on our own oxygen masks first, the more we empower ourselves to feel fulfilled,” says Sarah Steckler, a mindfulness and productivity coach. And the more fulfilled you feel, the more you have to offer to those who need you.
This mindset applies to your to-do lists, as well. “Taking a break and resting will actually result in your being more energized and more productive,” says Ayurvedic practitioner Sarah Kucera, DC. “People have a hard time seeing this. They see that they’re not getting something done in the short term, but the mental shift to seeing the bigger picture is huge.”
2) Self-care isn’t necessarily relaxing. Or easy.
Self-care may entail sticking to a budget so you can manage your debt. Or maybe it’s modifying your diet and lifestyle so you can wean yourself from medication. It could involve leaving a toxic relationship or learning to establish healthier personal boundaries.
Self-compassion is key to this type of self-care. Far from coddling, self-compassion means cultivating a clear understanding of your situation and facing it with curiosity and kindness — and without judgment.
It also requires understanding that, like everyone else, you are imperfect. Self-compassion supports the disciplined behaviors you practice to create a life that you want. (For more on this, see "Cultivate Self-Compassion.")
In practicing self-compassionate self-care, says Steckler, “we honor the moment that we’re in and give ourselves permission to be there with ourselves, even when it’s uncomfortable.”
“Change of any sort is difficult,” adds integrative psychiatrist Henry Emmons, MD. “When you’ve been in a less-healthy state, you have created a certain homeostasis. Things are the way they are, and even changing for the better can feel uncomfortable. If you really stick with this, you’re creating a new normal for yourself.”
3) Self-care is for everyone.
The soothing benefits of self-care are certainly not just for those who can afford monthly manicures and massages. Emmons recommends simple sense-awakening practices, like aromatherapy or listening to calming music, as tools available to almost everyone. “Those things are not expensive, and they don’t take a whole lot of time,” he says. “You just have to be present for them.”
And though self-care practices are typically associated with women (Emmons and other experts concede that women make up the majority of their clients), men absolutely benefit from actively tending to their needs, as well.
“Men are hurting in our culture today,” says Emmons, who envisions a not-so-distant future when more men will become receptive to the notion of self-care.
Steckler adds that men have been coached to be productivity-focused, and not taught to explore what lies beneath their feelings of stress or being overwhelmed. For her male clients, she often frames self-care in the context of productivity.
“I would encourage men to consider this: What do you need to do to feel your best, to really feel like you’re at your optimum state?” says Steckler. “Just start there.”
4) Self-care is unique for everyone — and different at different times.
“We are not made the same,” says Emmons. “We have different temperaments and mind–body types, and so what’s right for me in terms of self-care might be the opposite of what’s right for someone else.”
Further, what could be problematic if done long term may be exactly what the doctor ordered in the short term. “Zoning out in front of Netflix for a half-day might be just what you need if you’ve been pushing and pushing yourself for days or weeks,” he says.
“I think the word ‘accumulate’ is really important,” adds Kucera. “If I don’t take care of myself today, maybe that’s fine, but if I don’t take care of myself today, tomorrow, and then this month, and then next month — and we know it’s easy to get out of rhythm — then all of a sudden we think we need to do a cleanse.”
Finally, note that the self-care you need today will not necessarily be what you need tomorrow — or next year. “Self-care is a cycle,” Steckler says. “When going through a big life change, for instance, we may need to come back down to the baseline levels of self-care, almost like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We may just need to ask ourselves, Am I brushing my teeth every morning? Am I getting some movement? Am I drinking enough water? And then work our way back up.”
5) Self-care is best practiced in real life.
Many of us garner social-media validation for our self-care efforts (thumbs-up for that perfectly composed veggie bowl!), but there’s a difference between what we do for public consumption and what we do for ourselves. If you’re performing your self-care strategies for social-media likes, odds are they aren’t serving their intended purpose in your real life.
“Self-care is not just doing things in order to do them, to check them off, to talk about them on social media,” Steckler says. True self-care is about what nourishes us and sustains us — even when no one is watching.
Your Self-Care Story
Consider how much time, energy, and intention you devote to the following areas of your life:
Is there one category that needs more consideration? What’s one thing you could do to tend to that part of your life?