It seems like self-care has been one of the buzziest words of the last decade. And while it doesn’t take much to convince most folks of why self-care is important, there’s still a lot of misunderstanding around what self-care actually means (and what it doesn’t) and how to make it a real part of your everyday life.
So today, I’d like to give you an overview of what self-care truly looks like (spoiler alert: it’s not about bubble baths or dark chocolate).
According to Oxford Languages, self-care is defined as “the practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.”
A holistic, nuanced understanding of self-care comes down to much more than scheduling a pedicure, lighting some scented candles during your bath, or scheduling that long-overdue haircut. It’s also about restorative rest, social connectedness, spiritual enrichment, and care for your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. As Oxford suggests, it’s a practice and a way of life, not merely a to-do to check off your list.
Full disclosure: Eric and I are self-proclaimed failures at self-care. Our culture does not set aside time for self-care, not to mention rest, connection with our communities, or even quality time with our families. We really need more of all of the above.
Rest is paramount. You’ve heard of the siesta, no doubt. Not too long ago, everything used to be closed on Sundays. Muslim and Jewish cultures observe 24-hour rest periods.
But most of the world barrels through life, week after week, year after year, never stopping. We don’t nap or use up all our vacation time or unplug from the noise of our lives nearly enough.
We Americans wear our busyness as a badge of honor. (And, as we’ll unpack in the coming weeks, this tendency is often rooted in our inner child that wants to please others and doesn’t know how to easily say no.)
But what if we were able to take a real rest?
In his book, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry: How to Stay Emotionally Healthy and Spiritually Alive in the Chaos of the Modern World, John Mark Comer extols the benefits of an unhurried life. (I highly recommend it if you’re looking for your next great read.) Many spiritual forefathers have also written about this.
Instead of just moving through time and doing the next thing… and the next thing… (rinse- repeat), what if you stopped? What if you admitted to yourself, “I am the only one who can control how well I’m rested. I am the only one who can focus on my own personal health. What do I need in my life — mentally, emotionally, physically, environmentally?”
That’s a biggie: environment. And so often, we take that for granted as well. We don’t think about how important it is to have a place that feels really good to rest. Do you have a space you can go to that is inviting and calming and comforting? A place that helps you say “yes” to rest? If not, try to create that space for yourself.
What do you need to feel mentally and emotionally well? Maybe you can get up in the morning and meditate or do yoga before starting your day. These things can do wonders for your mind, as well as your spiritual life.
Recreationally speaking, ask yourself how you are infusing your life with fun. Are you making time to enjoy the outdoors? Meet up with friends for a game? Pursue your hobbies?
Paying attention to our recreational health can also be a boon to our social well-being. Being intentional about getting out of the house and making plans with others helps us not to self-isolate. Coming out of the pandemic years, I find that many of us have forgotten how to socialize. It’s so easy to stay home and keep watching the next thing on your favorite streaming service. It’s easy to be by yourself; it’s harder to be in community. But that connectedness with our tribe is essential to our health, and it has been since the beginning of humankind.
To truly practice self-care, you need to look at all areas of your life and figure out what it is that feeds your soul.
Focus on just one or two areas at a time (i.e. emotional and physical health). That might look like ending your day with a hot shower and going to bed early every night this week. For your physical health, can you make time to shop for fresh, quality food and make healthy meals for yourself? Can you practice being mindful in these two areas this week? Small adjustments, practiced over time, can make a big impact.
We’ve talked a lot about what self-care is. But it’s essential to understand what self-care is not.
Self-care does not mean pouring yourself a glass of wine every single night because (like me) you have a hard time not putting others before yourself all the time. (When a glass or two of wine every night becomes a habit, that’s the opposite of self-care.)
Self-care is also not comfort-eating (having too much of a good thing runs counter to taking care of yourself) or scrolling TikTok for hours a day.
It’s important to be responsible. Especially if you work from home, it’s easy to find yourself taking too much time for yourself during work hours. Don’t mistake self-sabotage for self-care because it will catch up with you. (If you find yourself wanting and needing more time away from your work, it’s time to stop and seek deeper help.)
If you feel like you’ve gotten into negative patterns masquerading as “self-care,” it can be helpful to see a counselor or coach to help get out of that rut.
And, because it bears repeating, rest. It’s okay to hit pause.
I was recently at a physical therapy appointment, trying to be a good patient and pushing through my struggles. My therapist said, “Sabrina, your body is inflamed, you’re fighting a lot of stuff. How about we just put this on pause for a little while?”
I was totally caught off-guard. “I can DO that?”
“This prescription is good through March. You’ve done five of your 12 sessions. Give yourself permission to rest. It’s okay to just rest.”
So rest. Check in with yourself. Pay attention to your body. Listen to what it says you need right now. And then do a few small things at a time to take “an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness.” The little things will add up.