What Really IS Self-Care?
Michelle Konstantinovsky
Illustration of a black person swimming in a teal background

Since 2011, July 24 has been known as International Self-Care Day, a 24-hour period that’s meant to encourage all of us to make room for activities and practices that enhance our well-being or happiness. But for many people, the term “self-care” has connotations that may not resonate with their own desires to feel healthy or fulfilled. If you search the #selfcare hashtag on Instagram, you’ll find hundreds of thousands of influencers promoting high-end skin serums or even companies rooted in diet culture co-opting the phrase to sell products.

But “self-care” isn’t a product and it doesn’t have a price tag. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), self-care is a critical practice that has serious implications for the health of ourselves, our families, and our communities: “self-care is what people do for themselves to establish and maintain health, and to prevent and deal with illness. It is a broad concept encompassing hygiene (general and personal), nutrition (type and quality of food eaten), lifestyle (sporting activities, leisure etc), environmental factors (living conditions, social habits, etc.) socio-economic factors (income level, cultural beliefs, etc.) and self-medication.”

The International Self-Care Foundation — the creators of Self-Care Day — break the concept of self-care down into seven pillars:

  1. Health literacy (which means obtaining, processing, and understanding basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions)
  2. Mental wellbeing
  3. Physical activity (practiced in a moderate and appropriate way that’s healthy for you)
  4. Healthy eating (having a nutritious, balanced diet with appropriate caloric levels)
  5. Risk avoidance or mitigation (which means quitting tobacco, limiting alcohol use, getting vaccinated, practicing safe sex, using sunscreen, etc)
  6. Good hygiene
  7. Rational and responsible use of products, services, diagnostics, and medicines

You may notice that that comprehensive list doesn’t include the use of high-priced skin care products. “We're often exposed to a very narrow depiction of what self-care looks like: something luxurious like a face mask or spa day,” says Equip’s lead peer mentor, Maris Degener. “In reality, we all have different resources, needs, and interests that affect how we care for ourselves.”

Degener points out that for many people, certain acts of “self-care” may not look particularly luxurious or fancy — or even be particularly “pleasurable” in the moment. What constitutes “self-care” is really the underlying drive and action for improved overall health and happiness. “For many, self-care is taking medications, setting boundaries with the people in our lives, or taking a few minutes to tidy up our workspace in the morning,” Degener says. “While I wouldn't want anyone to feel bad for taking bubble baths or getting a massage for self-care (I know I'm lucky enough to engage in these from time to time), I wouldn't want anyone to feel that they are not practicing self-care ‘correctly’ if their unique practices don't look like this.”

“There are a lot of people promoting an idea of ‘self-care’ that focuses on things that are calming or relaxing, so the go-to image is a massage, a bath, a spa day, etc.,” says Equip’s VP of Clinical Programs, Cara Bohon, PhD. “Maybe mindful practices of yoga or self-reflection exercise of journaling come to mind. And those are all well and good options for people if their basic needs are already met.”

While there’s definitely nothing wrong with finding serenity or peace in a manicure or face mask moment, prioritizing those momentary feel-good moments over the fundamental building blocks of proper physical and mental health isn’t true self-care — and may actually mask any issues that need to be resolved.

“If you’re struggling to get a solid night of sleep on a regular basis, a bath or a yoga class are only going to go so far,” Bohon says. “I like to think of it as a recipe for cake: you aren’t going to get very far with icing alone, although, of course, icing is delicious. But to actually make a cake, you need a solid base before you even start with the icing.”

Riffing on that baking analogy, Bohon says there are several non-negotiable ingredients that are really at the core of a strong self-care practice: “Balanced nutrition — remember that all foods are good foods, including cake! — hydration, joyful movement that feels good, and the key ingredient that many are lacking: sleep,” she says. “For people who are not able to have those basic needs met, then self-care should start there.”

That means that although an hours-long Netflix marathon may feel like a restful way to spend an evening, if all that TV time actually cuts into your sleep — a required ingredient in your proverbial self-care cake — then your attempt at self-care may actually backfire and leave you feeling drained and under-resourced. “If your sleep is solid and you are eating a variety of foods throughout the day, then maybe adding on extra strategies to manage stress may be the right next step,” Bohon says. “Those strategies may very well include the bath, journaling, yoga, or more, but could also include meeting other needs like creative ones via art or music.”

“First of all, self care isn't ‘selfish,’ ‘lazy,’ or ‘self-indulgent’ — I hear variations of this a lot,” says Alyssa Mass, M.A., M.F.T. a marital and family therapist based in La Jolla, California. “We're all familiar with the concept of recharging a phone battery — think of self-care as a way to recharge or gain balance.”

One crucial aspect of self-care that often goes unmentioned is its open-ended definition; yes, self-care should be rooted in the pursuit of enriching your overall wellness, but that can mean a lot of different things, and those things can change depending on the circumstances. “Somewhere along the line, it seems like the term evolved to mean a bubble bath, lighting candles, soft music,” Mass says. “Those things are all great if they work for you, but there is no set prescription to taking care of oneself.”

But what if you don’t know what actually works for you in terms of self-care beyond the basics of proper nutrition, rest, and daily feel-good experiences? What do you do if all your basic needs are met but you still feel like you need some extra TLC? According to Mass, experimentation is key. “Try different things, develop a variety of options,” she says. “Think of those old crayon boxes with 56 colors —you open it up and can pick anything for the mood you're in and what you want to create.”

In order to access your own Crayola set, Mass recommends asking yourself some starter questions to figure out which action (or color in this metaphorical case) will make the most sense in your current scenario: “An important question to ask yourself — or to work with your therapist on together — is ‘what are you recharging from?’” she says. “Now think about creating counter-balance. For example, if you're somebody who has been staring at a screen all day, the counter-balance would be turning off the screen and engaging your senses in a meaningful way. On another day, perhaps you've been outside all day and just want to play some video games when you get home — that's still a counter-balance.”

Once you settle on an activity (or non-activity if that’s what feels appropriate), take stock of how you’re feeling as you experience it. “Check in with yourself — how do you feel before, during, and after?” Mass says. “Write down what works so that you remember! The same things may not work every single day.”

If you’re struggling to figure out how to integrate intentional self-care into an already jam-packed schedule (and the thought of packing more into that schedule is more stress-inducing than relaxing), you may want to consider calendaring appointments with yourself, just as you would calendar meetings or events with others.

“Be specific about time — as much as you can — just like you schedule other things in your life, it's okay to schedule time for you!” Mass says. “It doesn't need to be hours, even just a few minutes. “Maintaining balance throughout the day is a beautiful thing, rather than having to swing in extremes. If you check in with yourself and what you're doing isn't working, pick something else off the menu. Creating a menu takes time, patience, and experimentation — have fun with it!”

In the end, “self-care” is a highly individualized practice that can look different for every single person — and may even look different for the same person on different days. It turns out that trying new things and getting to know what makes you feel your best is actually the highest form of self-care you can practice. “Self-care is different for everyone and very much depends on what individual needs are,” Bohon says. “For people in recovery from an eating disorder, one of the best self-care steps they can take is getting support for treatment, as it can be vital for any of the other self-care concepts to have positive effects. If your nutrition is suffering, other self-care efforts will only go so far.”

Michelle Konstantinovsky
Equip Contributing Editor
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