The term "self-care" has been overused. Since self-care is constantly referred to, it can be hard to understand what it actually means!
When you picture self-care, you're probably picturing bubble baths, massages, painting your nails—all the pretty, easy, Instagram-able aspects of self-care. All the aspects of self-care that people on social media constantly refer to.
And while those practices do have a place in self-care, caring for yourself goes much deeper. That's why we're redefining self-care as caring for yourself.
Self-care isn't always pretty and easy. Sometimes, it's not fun. It's boring and mundane.
What is self-care?
Let's move away from the trendy perceptions of self-care, and focus on how the experts define it.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines self-care as: “the ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.”
According to a study published in BMC Palliative Care, self-care means: “the self-initiated behavior that people choose to incorporate to promote good health and general well-being.”
Self-care is essential for people with chronic illnesses and disabilities.
The WHO does a good job at including people with chronic illness and disabilities. However, many other self-care definitions you'll find focus on the prevention of disease or illness. But people with chronic disabilities or illnesses are included in self-care! The International Self-care Foundation writes,
There is an emphasis on the prevention of disease or illness and the maintenance of wellness. In this, the definitions are aimed primarily at healthy people.
This is not to say that self-care is unnecessary or inappropriate for people with an existing disease condition. Self-care in this situation is essential and is sometimes referred to as ‘self-management’ of the condition.
Self-care looks different for everyone.
As we dive into the specifics of self-care and what tasks you can do to practice it, remember that some people have much more to deal with mentally. For example, for people with depression, self-care can seem impossible.
Does that mean if you have mental health problems, you're a failure at self-care? Absolutely not! Of course, try to implement some of these self-care tasks into your daily routine, but if you can't, part of self-care is being gentle with yourself.
Self-care is important for everyone, but it looks different for each individual. Don't compare yourself to others. By even making an effort to focus on self-care, you're already on the right path. You're already doing amazing. I believe in you!
The Easiest way to Think About Self-care
The easiest way to think about self-care is to imagine that you are two people at once. I know I sound crazy right now, but hear me out.
You're the parent, but you're also the child. The parent part of you takes care of the child part of yourself. So when you think about performing self-care on yourself, imagine you are caring for yourself as a child.
This imaginative process is how I dug myself out of years of excessively restrictive eating. I heard someone say, "Think about yourself as if you were the child version of yourself. Would you starve your child-self?"
That made me think about how I would treat myself if I were a child. I would be so nice to my child-self! I would feed her whenever she was hungry. I wouldn't care about how her body looked, because I would think she was amazing in so many other ways.
And this thought process can be applied to every other aspect of self-care. It's easy to be hard on your adult-self, but I guarantee you'll want to nourish, love, and cherish your child-self. Think back to the love and care you needed as a child, and give that to yourself.
Pillars of Self-care
Self-care can be broken down into a lot of different branches. Many sources define the pillars of self-care differently, so I'm just going to pick out the ones that speak to me the most!
Let's start with the physical. Of course, your physical body is your only home on this Earth.
I'm not saying go on a crazy diet or exercise for 3 hours every day. Throw out the ideas of what social media paints as self-care. Because sure, while eating healthily is self-care, so is letting yourself eat something you enjoy! While exercise is healthy, overdoing it can be awful for your physical and mental health!
Of course, eat healthily and exercise. But find a balance. And remember that for you, your self-care needs are different than someone else's needs.
For you, if you're recovering from restrictive eating, self-care may just be making sure you eat 3 meals a day. For your friend who eats fast food 6 times a week, self-care may be cutting down the fast food, opting to cook meals at home instead.
Same with exercise. For someone who overexercises, self-care would be taking more rest days to recover. For someone who never exercises, self-care would be trying to find movement that brings joy to practice 3 times a week.
Physical self-care also includes getting enough sleep, or even just making sure you're eating all 3 meals. Going to get regular physical check-ups. Going to the doctor and getting help when you need it. Taking your medications. Drinking enough water. Stretching. Keeping up with your hygiene.
Make your physical body, your home, enjoyable to live in.
Again, your emotional and mental self-care is going to look different than what others need. For example, if you're struggling with mental health issues, self-care means considering therapy. Remember when I said self-care isn't always fun or easy?
But mental self-care can also mean rejecting negative and critical self-talk. To differentiate yourself from your negative self-talk, you can give your mean inner-voice a name. For example, people with eating disorders often call their mean inner-voice "Ed." When Ed starts to get bossy and take over, they'll mentally reject the voice. They'll say, "Shut up, Ed." It seems weird, but it's powerful.
For me, positive affirmations helped me in a way I never expected. I always thought people that boasted about the power of affirmations were full of it. But in the end, what's the harm in trying? What's the harm in leaning into positivity?
Mental and emotional self-care also means setting boundaries. Whether that means with your boss or your friends, you need to be there for yourself first before you can be there for anyone else. Give yourself permission to take a break at work. If you have a friend who won't stop emotionally dumping on you, set boundaries with them.
Think about it like this: if you don't even take care of yourself, you can't take care of others. Just like on an airplane, how you have to put your mask on before you help someone else. You have to make sure you're okay before you can help others. That includes mentally and emotionally.
If you had asked me 3 years ago, I would've told you I was atheist. 2 years ago, I would've said I was agnostic. Now, I definitely identify as spiritual. Just because you don't believe in something now, doesn't mean you never will. Be open to change.
I don't believe in any certain religion, and you don't have to either. Or you can. Whatever you believe in, try to find something. Spirituality doesn't have to be complicated. It can be whatever you want!
If you believe in a certain religion, attend religious services regularly!
Maybe to you, nature is magical. When you're in nature, maybe you think, "Hey, maybe I'm here for a reason. Maybe life is a miracle." If that's true for you, make an effort to get into nature! For me, I love looking at pictures or watching videos of space. It really gives me a sense of awe.
Find whatever it is that makes you think, "Wow. Life is really special." And lean into it!
Spiritual self-care also includes meditating. Personally, I'm not the biggest fan, but why not try it? Some people love it! There's tons of science behind the benefits of meditating. Every now and then, I try it again. Sometimes I enjoy it! It doesn't have to be a daily 1-hour session. Try it for 10 minutes once a week. See what you think!
You can also just try incorporating regular acts of kindness into your day or volunteering.
A personal favorite of mine? A gratitude journal. At my lowest points, writing about what I'm grateful for always helps. Even when it's really hard, you can find something to be grateful for, such as the fact that you're breathing and alive. Or the fact that you have water and food.
In the mainstream media, taking risks is often glamorized. Especially when you're watching shows that paint drug usage, excessive alcohol intake, or otherwise risky behavior in a positive light. But here's where thinking of yourself as a child comes into play.
Would you let your child-self use drugs?
Now think of yourself as a teenager. Would you encourage your teenage-self to have unsafe sex? Or drive recklessly?
Just like you'd lather up your child-self in sunscreen, put it on yourself. You wouldn't care if your child-self was tan. You'd care that they were safe and protected against skin cancer. Take care of yourself in the same way.
Risk avoidance is a critical, but often overlooked, aspect of self-care. Avoiding diseases and injuries is essential to your wellbeing.
How can you implement self-care into your life?
Make a list of self-care activities. Include active activities that make you the happiest. For example, scrolling on social media or watching TV is passive. In contrast, reading or writing is active.
Maybe you don't really know what activities you enjoy, which is where trying new things comes into play.
Also, include the activities that are not fun or enjoyable, but help you feel the best. For example, set a bedtime and stick to it. Make your lunches for work the next day. Clean up your space.
Here's a list of activities you can include in your self-care list:
Call a friend
Create something just for the sake of creating, not for the final product
Color in an adult coloring book
Find enjoyable movement
Listen to music and dance around your room
Walk in nature
Watch a sunrise or sunset
Go grocery shopping
Get up early enough to prepare and enjoy breakfast
Do chores (do the dishes, laundry, clean your closet or everyday bag)
Pampering activity (massage, nails, facial, hygiene)
Write 5 things you love about yourself (non-physical)
Do a digital detox
Read inspirational quotes
Create a bucket list or vision board
Every day, try to do 3 self-care activities. You can mix the activities up by incorporating both fun, enjoyable activities and boring, tedious activities!
Remember, you're the parent taking care of your child-self. Take the hand of your child-self and walk bravely through life together.