Self-care is popping up all over the place lately – everywhere from our newsfeeds to our social calendar; our board meetings to our medical appointments – but what the heck is it?! A mani-pedi? A shopping spree? A green juice? A 3 week yoga retreat in Bali?
Answer: Yes… No... Sometimes... For some people... In some circumstances... But not usually.
Better answer: Self-care is any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health.
Self-care is not a particularly complicated concept, though it can often be overlooked and undervalued, which is where things can get problematic over time. Rule #1 about self-care is that there is no one right way to do it, but there are a few general requirements, which are necessary to incorporate when figuring out your own version of self-care. Here are the 5 requirements of practicing self-care:
1. Self-care: The vitamin, not the pain reliever
In my therapy practice, I often notice that people seem to get two similar concepts confused: coping skills and self-care. Both of these are similar in that they are actions that we take to care for ourselves. Sometimes they can even overlap in the specific activities or behaviors. The difference is how we use them. A coping skill is something you use to help you get through or recover after difficult or stressful time or event. For instance, you might be under a lot of pressure at work and book a massage to help you relax. You might go for a jog if you’re angry about something. You might journal if you’re coping with a breakup.
Self-care though, is a regular practice. It’s done preventatively (as opposed to reactively), to maintain your state of wellness and to reduce your susceptibility to more intense responses to everyday stress. When it comes to work, self-care can help reduce burnout. When it comes to relationships, it can help to avoid big, irreparable fights, when it comes to your health it is the preventive approach of scheduling annual physicals and flu shorts, rather than the reactive trip to urgent care after that unaddressed splinter/cough/headache has turned into a full-blown infection/flu/chronic migraines.
Self-care is the preventative daily vitamin. Coping skills are the pain reliever we take when we have that inevitable headache and need something to feel better in the moment. Both are important, but different.
2. Self-care is: Multi-dimensional + holistic
When we responded to the first question about self-care with our very broad answer of “Yes. No. sometimes. For some people. In some circumstances. But not usually.” It’s because yes, a green juice, a manicure, and yoga are all ways we can take care of ourselves, but these are all examples of only one category of self-care: physical self-care. When we are setting intentions around how we take care of ourselves, it’s important to look at our holistic selves; we are more than just physical beings. I like to look at self-care across 5 domains: (1) physical, (2) emotional, (3) spiritual, (4) social, and (5) professional.
Examples of emotional self-care include: taking time off when you need it, expressing your feelings, maintaining a comfortable home environment.
Examples of spiritual self-care include: spending time with nature, reflecting on personal values, participating in causes that are important to you.
Examples of social self-care include: spending time with people you like, asking others for help when you need it, saying no to extra responsibilities regularly.
Examples of professional self-care include: exploring ways to improve professional skills, taking on projects that are interesting and rewarding, taking breaks throughout the workday.
Some less trendy and less talked about examples of physical self-care include: eating regularly, wearing comfortable clothing, and going to preventative medical appointments.
[For a complete list, download the self-care assessment here.]
Important note! To be a good self-caregiver, you do not need to do all things in every category every day! (More on self-care planning in #5)
3. Self-care is: Intentional + mindful
If you take this self-care assessment, you might find that you’re already practicing a lot of self-care! One thing that can take us from self-care novices to self-care gurus is incorporating intention and mindfulness into our practice.
I’ll use the example of a manicure to lay this one out:
Having intention around a manicure as self-care is scheduling one ahead of time and perhaps at regular intervals if it’s something that makes you happy. By scheduling it ahead of time, you are intentionally giving yourself the benefit of looking forward to the activity and ensuring it’s during a time where you can truly appreciate it as 30 minutes of time dedicated to making you feel good.
Being mindful about your manicure means that you’re present while you’re there. You’re not checking emails as you switch hands. You’re valuing this as a relaxing time for yourself. Noticing all the wonderful sensations that come with sitting still, grooming your body, and relishing a 30 second massage, on each of your ten digits.
These qualities can be infused into any of your efforts toward self-care. The opposite of mindful and intentional is mindless and unintentional!
5. Self-care is: A plan that evolves over time
The best self-caregivers have a plan to incorporate regular efforts of self-love. The best plans are ones in which self-care practices are evenly distributed across the different categories, and laid out at various, realistic frequencies. That looks different for everyone. For some, journaling might be an every day thing. For others it might be a weekly practice. For someone else, they might not ever journal. All of it is okay. This is about what works for YOU.
Self-care plans are not rigid!! You might need to revamp your plan every once in awhile to adapt to your changing needs. Maybe you start a new job and your schedule changes. Maybe you’re planning a wedding and have different needs and stresses. Plan to check in with yourself and reflect on if the plan makes sense.
Because I am a wedding therapist, I have developed a self-care assessment and planner with a whole new category on wedding-focused self-care. Examples of wedding self-care practices include: carving out [intentional] time to work on wedding-related tasks; avoiding pressure from social media about what you should do or have at your wedding; setting healthy boundaries with friends and family. For the full list, download my wedding self-care assessment here!
Self-care Isn’t: Selfish
Our favorite self-care metaphor is that you have to put your own oxygen mask on before helping the person next to you. This means that if you don’t take care of yourself, how can you ever show up for the people you love? Deliberately taking care of our mental, emotional, and physical health helps to combat burnout, enhance relationships, reduce stress, and boost self-esteem. It’s not a one or two-time thing. It’s a practice built and adapted over time.
Need some help getting your self-care plan started? Therapy can be a great place to explore that! Want to build your self-care plan with a group of health-minded people? Host a Self-Care Workshop with AisleTalk!