A client of mine asked me recently:
My wife keeps telling me I need better self-care… But it always sounds like hippie nonsense to me. You’re a shrink, what do you think about this whole self-care thing?
My first reaction was to validate my client’s skepticism that, yeah, the term self-care gets thrown around a lot. And often in kind of a semi-spiritual, new-agey way without much detail as to what it is exactly.
And just a few years ago, I think I would have shared much of my client’s skepticism of the idea of self-care—just one more cheap self-help mantra that didn’t actually help anyone.
But over the years working as a therapist, I’ve come around to the idea of self-care. Largely, because I’ve started thinking more carefully about it and trying to understand what it really means and how it can actually be helpful to people.
Let’s unpack what self-care really is, what it is not, and how to do it in a way that really helps.
What Is Self-Care? A Quick Definition
Before we dive into common misconceptions about self-care and ways to start implementing self-care into your life, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what it is exactly.
Self-care is the collection of habits that support and strengthen your mental health and wellbeing.
In other words, self-care is your personal program for taking care of yourself, especially your mental and emotional health.
What most people don’t understand about self-care
The biggest problem I see with the concept of self-care is that the people who recommend it haven’t really thought it through very well.
As a result, they don’t explain it very well—either what it is exactly, or how it can be helpful. Which means people who casually hear about self-care often walk away with an incorrect or unhelpful impression of it.
After years of thinking about what self-care actually is, reading up on it, and working with my own clients to build self-care, here are a few key ideas I think everyone should understand about self-care:
1. Self-care is about consistent habits, not quick fixes.
Most people talk about self-care as if it’s a thing you do every once in a while—like taking a mental health day a couple times a year and just vegging out in front of the tv. Or remembering to schedule a massage for yourself now and then.
Now, I like a good massage or Netflix binge as much as the next person, but neither of these are self-care. And the reason is…
Self-care isn’t something you do every once in a while. It’s a way of life.
Suppose you asked someone, “Do you exercise?” And they said, “Yeah, I hit a gym a few times a month.” Well, that’s fine but it’s not really what we mean by “do you exercise?” Someone who is committed to exercise does it consistently, not occasionally. It’s not just something they do, it’s who they are.
You should think of self-care in the same way. It’s not something you occasionally remember to do whenever you get stressed out. It’s what you do consistently to prevent getting stressed out in the first place!
2. Self-care isn’t mysterious or complicated.
Too often the people pushing self-care are the same ones pushing crystal healing techniques and horoscopes. As a result, self-care has gotten the unfortunate association of being a little mystical or “out there.” But it’s not at all. In fact…
Self-care is remarkably ordinary.
Most people understand that there are certain things we should do consistently to stay physically healthy like exercising, eating well, going to see the doctor annually, brushing our teeth, etc. Nothing mystical there.
Similarly, self-care are the things we should do consistently to support our mental and emotional health like making time for genuine relaxation, getting quality sleep, spending time with people we love and enjoy, etc.
We’ll talk more about specific things we can do as part of a good self-care regimen, but for now just remember that self-care isn’t magical.
3. Self-care isn’t narcissistic or selfish.
A common response I get to the idea of self-care is that it’s somehow self-centered or egotistical.
The quickest rebuttal to this idea is the classic speech that all parents with little kids get before their plane takes off: “Remember to put your own oxygen mask on before helping your kids with theirs.”
While a little counterintuitive, we all see the logic here: You’re not going to be able to help your kid very well if you haven’t helped yourself first.
Well, the same is true of our mental health:
You can’t be genuinely helpful to others if you don’t make the time to help yourself.
If you’re not taking care of yourself, it severely limits your capacity to be helpful to other people in your life:
- How helpful can you be to an aging parent afraid to die if you’re constantly wrapped up in your own worries and insecurities?
- How helpful can you be to a spouse going through a tough time at work if you’re consumed by your own struggles to manage stress and burnout?
Self-care is the opposite of selfish. The best way to be genuinely helpful to other people is to do your best to maintain your own mental health and wellbeing.
4. Self-care is for everyone.
The final self-care misconception I encounter is the idea that self-care is just for rich people with too much time on their hands.
This is the self-care-as-spa-day idea. And it’s completely wrong.
Self-care is something everyone can and should do in whatever way makes sense for their life.
You don’t need lots of money, expertise, or even time to do self-care well. And in fact, many of the more stereotypical self-care activities people think of that involve lots of time and money—treating yourself to a luxurious massage, taking a few days off work for a staycation, buying yourself something nice because, gosh darnit, you deserve it!—don’t really help all that much.
Sure, a massage once a month feels nice. But you know what would be a lot more helpful for your stress levels…? Using your lunch break each day to actually disconnect and take a break from work instead of just working more while you eat.
The point is, often the most effective forms of self-care are simple, inexpensive, and relatively brief. They’re things anyone can do—not just desperate housewives.
How to Do Self-Care Well: 5 Practical Principles
Now that we’ve talked about what self-care is, and hopefully cleared up some common misconceptions about it, it’s time to look at how to actually implement self-care in our lives.
Important: Self-care will always look a little different for everyone because we’re all as unique as our lives and circumstance. There’s no set formula for self-care. And to some extent, you always have to customize it to the needs and details of your own life.
So, instead of recommending specific practices for self-care, here are a few principles that I believe apply to almost everybody when it comes to creating and building a healthy self-care regimen.
1. Take care of your physical health.
Mental health is not independent of physical health. To the contrary, our mental health literally depends on our physical health.
Your brain lives in and depends on the rest of your body. Which means it’s not going to function well if you’re not taking care of your body and ensuring its health.
I believe the most essential thing anyone can do to promote healthy self-care is to make sure they are taking care of their bodies, especially getting regular exercise, quality sleep, and eating well. These are the foundation, and if they’re not solid, good luck building anything on top.
2. Take care of your social health.
It’s a truism that people are social creatures. And even the most extreme introvert needs other people to maintain their emotional health and wellbeing.
The trick is to find the right kind of social interaction. A gregarious, outgoing extrovert might thrive on a multitude of interactions, meeting new people, and spending time with other people while also engaging in activities. A more reserved introvert, however, might prefer a quiet coffee date with their best friend.
The point is, everybody needs some social interaction for their mental health and wellbeing. A big part of self-care involves:
- Figuring out the right kind of social interaction given your temperament and preferences.
- Making a specific plan to get that interaction consistently.
So, rather than merely hoping for high-quality social interactions, a good self-care routine would involve regular, consistent meetups with the people in your life that you enjoy the most.
Don’t just intend to call your best friend who lives 1,000 miles away more often. Set up a calendar appointment that you each agree upon and to it consistently!
3. Make time for ‘pleasure-mastery’ activities.
One of the most important but overlooked aspects of a healthy self-care regimen is pleasure-mastery activities.
The concept of pleasure-mastery activities originated in an approach to the treatment of depression called behavioral activation. The basic idea was that by encouraging people to engage in activities that were either highly pleasurable or lead to a strong sense of mastery and competence, even if they didn’t feel like it initially, those activities would improve their mood and motivation.
And while scheduling pleasure-mastery activities is a highly effective treatment for depression, it’s also just a good idea for all of us to include in our self-care regimens because it’s one of the best ways to “keep our tank full.”
When we make time to do projects or activities that we genuinely enjoy and do them for their own sake, we’re tapping into the same spirit of play that children use so effortlessly (and is also a big part of their seemingly endless supply of energy and enthusiasm). Unfortunately, as adults we often lose the habit of playfulness, and along with it, more than a little of our zest and enthusiasm for life.
Similarly, as adults we’ve often reached a level of proficiency in our work that, while comfortable, isn’t really exciting anymore. When you stop learning and being challenged on a regular basis, it can lead to a sense of “flatness” or “staleness” in your life. The antidote is to deliberately make time for activities that genuinely challenge you and give you a sense of accomplishment and mastery. What’s more, these types of activities also lead to a sense of healthy pride and bolster our self-esteem.
So ask yourself:
- What are some activities I really enjoy for their own sake—just because they’re fun or pleasurable?
- What are some activities that lead to a genuine sense of accomplishment and mastery?
Pick one or two and build these into your schedule and routine so that they become regular features of your life, not just forgotten items on the someday-maybe list.
4. Practice being gentle with yourself.
Ironically, most of us are quite compassionate with our friends, family, and loved ones, but struggle to be compassionate with ourselves. This is especially true when we’re struggling emotionally, which is tragic because it’s exactly the time when we need self-compassion the most!
Most of us default to being hard on ourselves when we feel upset: We criticize ourselves for being weak, reprimand ourselves for self-pity, or try to scare ourselves straight with fears of what will happen if we don’t “get it together.”
The problem is, this combative relationship with our own emotions only makes our emotional struggles worse. In addition to feeling sad, now you’re feeling guilty for feeling sad. Instead of just feeling anxious, now you’re angry at yourself for feeling anxious!
The solution is to cultivate a habit of gentleness with yourself. This doesn’t mean self-indulgence; it simply means treating yourself like you would treat a good friend who was struggling.
A big part of self-care is simply how we respond to our own struggles. Rather than attacking yourself when you’re already down, why not learn to give yourself a little encouragement instead?
5. Make sure you have enough whitespace in your life.
Whitespace is a term in graphic design that refers to space in a design that isn’t occupied by anything else. And far from just empty, unused space, whitespace is actually a key element of visually pleasing and usable design.
For example, this article makes pretty good use of whitespace. Notice all the empty whitespace between lines and paragraphs. Between words. Between section and sub-sections. All of this is intentional because it makes the reading experience easier and more enjoyable.
As a counterpoint, imagine how awful it would be to read this article if there was no whitespace at all between the lines, paragraphs and headings, not to mention the words—it would be virtually unreadable!
Well, this principle of whitespace also applies to mental health and emotional wellbeing.
Many of us unintentionally cram our life full of events and activities and obligations and to-dos, leaving almost no breathing room or margin. Every inch of “space” is occupied and taken up. And like a big wall of text with no spacing or formatting, it makes just getting through the day stressful.
One of the best forms of self-care is to intentionally add whitespace in your life. This means deliberately leaving some room for free-time in your days, weeks, and even years.
For a lot of people, this is a completely alien concept because for as long as they can remember their days have been jam packed. But you don’t have to live that way.
Of course it’s not always easy to add whitespace to your life, mostly because it means giving up on something else. For example, say you wanted more time and margin in your morning routine instead of being rushed every day before work. Well, you might have to get up an hour earlier, which means you’d have to go to bed an hour earlier, which means you’d have to give up an hour of Netflix in the evenings. And turns out, even giving up an hour of Netflix can be tough!
But I promise you, if you’re the kind of person who’s always busy, few things will return as big a dividend to your mental and emotional health as allowing more whitespace in your life.
All You Need to Know
Self-care is neither as mysterious or complex as many of us assume. It simply means fostering healthy habits that support and strengthen your mental health and wellbeing.
It’s not something you do once or try to pack into your schedule when things get stressful—it’s a way of life. It’s the result of acknowledging that your mental health is every bit as important as your physical health or your financial health or the health of your social life.
And that to really be your best self—both for yourself and the people in your life—you need to take care of yourself.