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What Self-Care Is (and What It Isn’t)

By this point, we’ve all heard about self-care. For the past several years, self-care has become an important player in the self-improvement conversation—and for good reason. When self-care is done right, it can help you live a happier, more fulfilled life. The problem is that the phrase has become so widely used that its meaning has become watered down or distorted. It’s time to remind yourself what self-care is (and what it isn’t) so you can be sure you’re practicing self-care in a way that actually benefits you. 

Why self-care matters

Real quick, let me just list some of the benefits of practicing self-care

  • Physical health
  • Emotional wellbeing
  • Less stress
  • Higher self-confidence
  • Increased productivity
  • Improved immune system
  • Increase self-awareness
  • Greater sense of purpose
  • Better relationships

Basically, taking care of yourself can have a positive impact on almost every area of your life. 

What self-care isn’t

Since there are many misconceived notions about what self-care is, I first want to go over what self-care isn’t. 

Self-care isn’t restricted.

Self-care isn’t something you’re only allowed to do occasionally. In fact, a best-case scenario is doing something to deliberately care for yourself on a daily basis. It doesn’t have to be a weekly treat or an occasional indulgence. It can be small, simple, and regular. Self-care can be whatever you want it to be, and you can do it as often as you want.

Self-care isn’t (only) pampering.

One of the most common misconceptions I hear about self-care is that it equates to pampering: a long bath, a day at the spa, a massage, a pedicure, and so on. While those things can be done for self-care, they are by no means your only options. Self-care can be time to yourself, time with friends, a quiet moment to meditate, or treating yourself to lunch. 

Self-care isn’t elaborate.

Along those same lines, self-care doesn’t have to be elaborate. In fact, some of the best self-care practices I know of are extremely simple: things like getting enough sleep, eating a healthy meal, drinking enough water, meditating, going for a daily walk, etc. These things are very effective self-care practices because they are so simple. It’s easy to do them as often as you need to, even every day. 

Self-care isn’t selfish.

More than anything else, self-care isn’t selfish. It’s self-preservation. Think of a newborn baby. A baby comes with a lot of demands and needs. If those needs aren’t met, the baby is going to be unhappy, and is going to demand (via crying and/or screaming) that someone take care of them. Is that selfish? Is it selfish to ask for something you need?

We all need to be cared for, and unlike a newborn, we can’t rely on other people to do it for us. We need to know how to take care of ourselves.

What self-care is

Now that we’ve established what self-care isn’t, it’s just as important to understand what it is. When you understand this, you can make decisions that will help you truly care for yourself on a deep and meaningful level, rather than a forced or shallow one. 

Self-care is meeting your own needs.

At its heart, self-care is meeting your own needs. That requires:

  1. Knowing what your needs are
  2. Taking steps to meet them

The question “What do I need?” is not always an easy one to answer. We all have long-term, abstract needs (such as love, support, security, confidence, or decisiveness), but we can also have short-term, concrete needs (food/drink, sleep, rest, medicine, movement, sunlight, etc.). 

Knowing what you need at any given moment can be difficult. I suggest starting by asking yourself what you want. Your wants and needs may align more closely than you think, or maybe what you need is to indulge yourself a bit by giving yourself what you want! Either way, it can shine some light on the situation.

Once you know what you need, it’s a little easier to fulfill that need. Remember that your needs matter, and it’s worth putting in some effort in order to get yourself what you need.

Self-care is recharging. 

Self-care should leave you feeling recharged and “filled.” If it’s not doing that, you’re not truly caring for yourself. 

This is interesting, because you have to really know yourself in order to know when you’re doing something to recharge and when you’re doing something to zone out. For example, sometimes when I binge Netflix, I walk away feeling recharged. It could be because of what I was watching, how long I watched it for, or simply the relaxation I got from the experience. However, I can do the exact same activity—watch Netflix—and feel numb when I’m finished.

The difference is subtle, but important. Recognize how certain activities make you feel, and what usually recharges you versus what makes you feel like you simply “zoned out” for a while.

Self-care is different for everyone.

The activities that recharge you are probably going to be different from the activities that recharge me. Exercise is self-care for a lot of people, but it’s a necessary evil for others. I know people that love to relax and recharge through reading, and others who would rather listen to podcasts or watch documentaries. 

The trick is to not feel guilty or ashamed about what works for you. You’re taking care of yourself; you should do exactly what you need to do and not worry about what other people are doing.

Self-care is deliberate.

Unfortunately, self-care doesn’t just happen. While some things can become habitual (giving yourself an early bedtime, following a certain eating plan, etc.), some of your needs will never be met if you don’t take deliberate steps to make them happen. 

For example, setting boundaries in relationships is powerful. It’s important for each of us to establish boundaries in our relationships in order to avoid being taken advantage of or otherwise hurt. But those boundaries don’t set themselves. You have to recognize the need, set the boundary, and communicate the boundary to the other person. 

Part of the magic of self-care is deliberately recognizing that you are taking care of yourself. That sends a powerful message to your subconscious: I matter. I am worth taking care of and I am capable of giving myself what I need.

Make decisions in your own best self-interest. Be your own strongest advocate. Show self-love. Deliberately work to care for yourself and your needs. That’s how you practice true self-care.

Self-care is a powerful tool that can help you “create happy” in your life, but only if it’s done right. When working to improve your self care, keep in mind what self-care is and what it isn’t, and you’ll be able to set yourself up for success. 

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