True Self-Care, Defined

Self-care gets a LOT of hype these days. And thank heavens. I’d rather have self-care be part of the cultural discourse than totally off-limits as it has been in the past. But a lot of what self-care is presented as is actually indulgent, irresponsible, and, in the long run, harmful. Let’s get clear about what true self-care is and is not, and how to establish it in your life.

True self-care is attunement with and responsiveness to the self.

Attunement with the self means clearly identifying your core values, needs, and wants. There are many concrete ways to meet this abstract goal. Identify your top two values (like the prophet Brene Brown has taught us). Practice self-compassion through journaling, letter writing, and affirmations. Tune into your body regularly with meditation and body scans. Learn about and practice radical acceptance and loving curiosity with the self. Find a great therapist to provide the space and accountability for your to explore what you value, what you need, and what you want.

Responsiveness to the self means acting on your values, needs, and wants. Identifying them is an important step, and often very soothing and freeing in and of itself. After a little while, though, knowing what you value, need, and want isn’t enough. You must act on that knowledge. Think of it like signing up for a marathon: Just registering for the race can be its own victory, but without putting in the time to train and practice, race day will likely not go well. Again, there are lots of concrete ways to respond to the self. Ask yourself the question, “What would someone with x and y values do in this situation?” It helps clarify your own course of action. Build in some accountability by letting your trusted circle know what you’re working on. (While you’re at it, express gratitude to your inner circle for their presence in your life.) Develop a daily routine, using tools like habit stacking to help you succeed. Give yourself permission to do things differently, to change your mind, to respond to circumstances from values rather than from fear or shame.

True self-care is developed in the daily layering of small acts of self-kindness.

#selfcare is often the caption under pictures of overflowing shopping bags, fresh manicures, tropical vacations, and junk food. There is nothing morally wrong with any of these things. I myself have shopped, gotten a manicure, and eaten junk food this week, which will end in a trip to Mexico. This is not an argument against any of those things. This isn’t an argument against self-indulgence in general. Everyone needs to indulge in their own ways; pure fun and entertainment is an important part of a full human experience.

What this is an argument against is the promotion of self-care as an excuse to numb, detach, or avoid. The term “self-care” has been co-opted by our culture at large to excuse, encourage, and perpetuate unhealthy behavior. AGAIN, shopping/drinking/junk food are not the problem. The problem is turning to those behaviors in the name of #selfcare, thinking we’ve taken good care of ourselves, checking self-care off the list, and never practicing true self-care. This is actually self-harm. Without values-based decision-making, what we tell ourselves is self-care is actually self-neglect. Years of neglect add up to self-inflicted trauma, shame, and complete disconnection from the self (and the people around us). Misery.

Small, daily acts of self-kindness may sometimes mean a values-based decision to buy yourself that new outfit, get that manicure, eat that donut, drink that cocktail, fly to Mexico. The danger lies in limiting self-care to the restrictive box of fun and entertainment. Small, daily acts of self-kindness must also include looking inward and asking yourself: What do I need today? What do I need right now? Assessing the real options (not focused on what you wish were true or wish hadn’t happened or wish would magically happen), looking at the choices you have (you always have a choice), and choosing the best option for you based on your values, needs, and wants. Sometimes this will look like getting up at 5am like you planned and getting a couple hours to yourself before the day begins. Sometimes this will look like turning off the alarm and sleeping for another few hours to avoid sleep deprivation. Sometimes you will return the new outfit you just bought because it doesn’t fit in your budget afterall or you don’t feel good in it. Sometimes you will move some budget numbers around and go back to buy three more of the same outfit because you feel so great in it.

True self-care is up to you and you alone.

Only you get to decide what your values are. Only you get to decide what you need. Only you get to decide what you want. Only you get to decide what your true self-care looks like.

You are allowed to change your mind. You are allowed to make mistakes. You are allowed to take as long as you need to establish your self-care routine. You don’t have to do anything, be anything, prove anything. You deserve to be well taken care of just like your partner, kids, clients, parents, siblings, students, friends, loved ones, and all humans do.

Some resources:

This is What Self-Care Really Means

A quote to help buoy you.

Self-care is selfless. (Believe it or not.)

Self-care is radical.

Do you struggle with self-care? How do you take care of yourself these days? Let’s give each other lots of ideas in the comments. And, as always, thank you for being here.

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