If you’re like most people, you first heard of “self-care” in one of three places: from your therapist, from your friend who sees a therapist, or on the internet. At its most basic level, self-care means tending to personal needs that are within your control. This generally applies to maintaining health: working out, eating balanced meals, getting a full night’s sleep, and showering regularly. These are simple tasks, sure, but easy to forget, rush through, or fulfill mindlessly. A rudimentary approach to self-care can be especially beneficial to people experiencing mental illness or trauma, for whom it can be difficult to pause and nurture oneself.
But the categories of self-care have also stretched to include habits that are more rooted in personal relaxation, reaffirmation, “treat yo self” pampering. This mindset means giving yourself permission to breathe deep and derive comfort and fulfillment from life - to not merely provide for yourself, but also to be generous with yourself.
I’m a huge believer in the value of self-care, and I’m encouraged to see it getting widespread attention. But I’m also wary of its new catchphrase status, prone to being misunderstood or abused. For example, as self-care reaches deep into the digital realm, the self-caregiver finds room to detach, arguably missing out on the long-term rewards of presence and relationship. Like a recent BuzzFeed piece by Scaachi Koul explores, increasingly popular and convenient tools for self-care, such as supportive apps and soothing videos, lack the risk and reciprocation of true intimacy or even introspection. (A tough admission, as I too follow those kinetic sand accounts on Instagram.)
Then, there’s the warped tendency I’ve observed within myself to perform “self-care” as a distraction, procrastination, and an escape hatch from my responsibilities, anxieties, or relationships. When self-care comes at the cost of public-care or people-care (as my friend Jenilee once described it)… well, that’s just careless. Or maybe selfish. But not self-care.
So, recently, I gathered some brilliant women of different backgrounds and ambitions around my table to talk about all of this (meaning, I had brunch with some good friends - which, coincidentally, is some pretty effective self-care on its own). I wanted to know what their experiences with self-care have been and what it means to them, in the hopes that, together, we could better identify what self-care is not .
This is where that conversation led us.
Self-care is not reactionary.**
There will be times when circumstances, external or internal, force you to halt and reconnect with yourself. But sincere self-care is more deliberate than a knee-jerk reaction; it’s an honest practice with regularity and intention through chaos or mundanity.
“For a lot of people, self-care is this grand reaction to feeling stressed out, as opposed to becoming part of a routine,” said Lauren, whom I met when we worked together at a mental health non-profit. “Self-care tends to fall into two camps: You either use it as a practice or as an excuse.” One tactic that works for her is scheduling a hair appointment and a massage every six weeks - and she treats them as non-negotiable. (A by-the-way bonus: I think Lauren’s hair always looks very shiny.)
Promising yourself pockets of time may even need to be a daily thing. “I’ve had to schedule workouts. Otherwise, I’ll feel off,” said Kathryn, a designer and stylist. “Knowing I can let out that energy and set my mind right for the day is what I need - or maybe going home and just having a ‘home night’.”
Ultimately, the foundation of self-care in all its forms is managing time well and cultivating healthy patterns, rather than “waking up and just letting things happen to you,” as Cadence, a writer, called it. “True self-care is caring for yourself enough that you’re able to show up for your life.”
Self-care is not lazy.
The Enneagram was mentioned more than once or thrice with my brunch panel (if you haven’t yet, you should dive into it ). It reminded me that, as a Five - a painfully cerebral creature - my self-care needs to be fairly active, ideally physical. My counselor has recommended making a point of taking neighborhood walks, applying essential oils, or cleaning my house. If not for their obvious benefits, then for a sensory, tangible ritual that might get me out of my head (and off my couch), grounding me in the present.
The myth of languid, absent-minded self-care is a far-reaching one. “Self-care, in my mind, used to be associated with a lazy choice, like you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing; you’re kind of checking out,” shared Cassidy, an artist. That changed for her when she was taught to frame self-care as being filled. “I realized that self-care for me was choosing things that I wanted to do. I needed to do one thing and be proud of myself for doing it.”
In Cassidy’s case, that “one thing” usually involves a paintbrush, but the consensus was that most “one things” should probably be productive, creative, and occasionally courageous - in short, worthwhile. Follow through on that idea you keep setting aside. Get up early to journal or pray. Stroll (instead of scroll) on your work break. Volunteer on your day off. Attend the important dinner, even though you just want to be in your pajamas. Make that sensitive phone call to your relative. Self-care is often spoken of as learning when to say “no,” but I wonder if it might have more to do with learning when to finally say “yes”.
**Self-care is not just about you.
Though self-care may blossom in the quiet, Lauren cautioned against making it synonymous with introversion (a term that’s been misused enough on its own). “As much as we invest in other people, we need to invest in ourselves,” she added. “That give and take is a huge part.”
Thus, self-care methods alone may need to be more social than the word implies. Kathryn highlighted how she craves one-on-one time, especially if more substantive conversations elude her in large groups. “If you don’t take that time with those people who do know you and love you, your sisters or brothers, you can be doing all these other things [for self-care], and still not be known.”
I’ve seen a cycle play out in my own life: When I show myself kindness - a sacred act, I believe - it first leads me to better ideas, deeper sleep, richer conversations, and stronger confidence. But inevitably and most importantly, I then can bring my full self to my work, my friendships, my marriage. In execution and in consequence, self-care can’t be limited to “me time.” As Cadence explained, “Self-care can almost be like an excuse to close in, but I think when we’re practicing compassion with ourselves, we have more abundance for other people.”
Like Henri Nouwen put it in Reaching Out (additional props to Cadence here for noting how Nouwen’s work on contemplative spirituality relates to the topic of self-care), “The solitude that really counts is the solitude of heart; it is an inner quality or attitude that does not depend on physical isolation… Without the solitude of heart, the intimacy of friendship, marriage, and community life cannot be creative.”
Whole-hearted participation in the world is too significant for soft interpretations of self-care. Impulsive movie nights and mud masks are well and good, but the best self-support system will offer consistent opportunities to live with purpose—not just making concessions to fragility, but accepting invitations to be strong.