Over the last year or so, I’ve witnessed the definition of self-care steadily devolve from a credible mental health exercise into nothing more than a buzzword to preface cute Facebook statuses about excessive Netflix binging or poor eating habits. I don’t necessarily take issue with the misuse of the term, you gotta do what you gotta do for those Facebook likes–I know that as well as anyone. However, I do worry that people are actually mistaking these detrimental practices for being true examples of self-care. Allow me to redefine this once-useful bit of jargon by describing what does and what doesn’t constitute ‘self-care’.
Self-Care is an intentional action to take care of your mental, emotional, and physical health. However, in this blog post I will narrow the scope to talk mostly about the mental health aspect. This definition may seem vague and encompassing at its surface level, but there’s more of a science to it than you’d think. To get a better idea of just what is and what isn’t a form of self-care, I’ll break things down into more specific examples.
Self-care is experiencing, acknowledging, and attempting to understand your emotions.
You’re simply not going to alleviate symptoms of anxiety or depression by ignoring the more dynamic, short-term emotions that they facilitate. Trust me, I tried it for years. It’s much easier to pretend you’ve simply been misfortuned by a consecutive string of bad moods and that things will turn around in time than it is to accept that there’s a greater, more deep-rooted issue at hand. Allow yourself to feel these emotions. Allow yourself to feel these emotions, but not without acknowledging them. Acknowledge these emotions as the unfavorable, unwanted states of being that they are. It would be foolish to expect any sort of solution to a problem that you shy away from identifying. Only once you’ve acknowledged these unwanted emotions can you begin to dissect, understand, and invalidate the irrational anxiety that drives them.
Self-care is treating yourself well.
Treating yourself well means taking care of yourself. It means setting yourself up for success. Treating yourself well is eating healthy. It’s finding time to be outside. It’s getting plenty of sleep. It’s providing yourself an outlet by making time for the things you’re passionate about. Write. Draw. Sing. Dance. Wear tiny glasses on the brim of your nose while you assemble a ship in a bottle. Whatever productive activity gives you that feeling of relief and enjoyment, do it. Treating yourself well is exercising regularly. It’s finding more time for positive relationships and spending less time in toxic relationships. It’s being heard by others and it’s being heard by yourself.
These practices are not cure-alls for depression. Concerned-yet-oblivious people in your life will suggest otherwise, but they simply aren’t. These practices will, however, leave you better equipped to fight your battle. They provide a boost in energy, satisfaction, and self-esteem–resources that are particularly scarce in the midst of depression. Treating yourself well means taking every advantage you can get in this fight. It means being committed to progress, even when it’s in the form of baby steps rather than instantaneous restoration.
Self-care is striving to be someone that you can feel good about.
In this respect, self-care is more than just an action. Self-care is a process. It is a culmination of many actions and behaviors that are for the benefit of your well-being. In time, self-care becomes a mindset. It is knowing what’s best for you and having the discipline to do it. I can attest that self-care is a process. It wasn’t any single action that led to some miraculous overnight transition. In a sense, it was a bit of a ‘fake-it-til-you-make-it’ progression.
I didn’t feel good about the person I was. I wasn’t necessarily doing anything bad to justify that feeling, but I also wasn’t really doing anything good. I was a bitter person. Friends often dismissed it as purely sarcasm, but there was at least some level of negativity swirling beneath it. Though I didn’t always display it, I often found myself feeling jealous of others’ successes and occasionally feeling joy in their failures. It was an unenjoyable and exhausting way of living.
I didn’t want to feel that way. I made a conscious effort to be nicer to people. I had many slip-ups, I still have some slip-ups, and I will continue to have an occasional slip-up. That’s OK. Still with every positive interaction, I felt a little bit better about myself. The better I felt about myself, the easier it became to have these positive interactions and the more joy these positive interactions provided me. It became a self-sustaining feedback loop. It eventually reached the point where this behavior became a large part of my self-image. I became someone that feels no greater reward than seeing a friend succeed, and someone that feels no greater hurt than to see a friend hurting.
You just have to put in the groundwork to get there. Be kind. Compliment strangers. Volunteer. Go out of your way to help people. Be there for your friends. It will pay off splendidly.
Self-care isn’t necessarily isolating yourself and avoiding large social settings.
That’s not to say it can’t ever be a wise decision, though. If you’re feeling low, obviously going to a party and getting wasted isn’t going to do your physical, emotional, nor mental health any favors. It’s not self-care. But neither is isolating yourself. There’s no shame in losing battles to social anxiety from time to time. I’m not suggesting that staying at home and missing out on a few parties is some kind of terribly destructive behavior. However, it’s important to see the situation as it is.
Undoubtedly there are many instances that warrant it, but framing every ‘staying-in’ night as an act of self-care gives yourself an intrinsic excuse to settle into the comfort zone dictated by your anxiety whenever it pokes its head out. Self-care isn’t letting anxiety go unchecked. Self-care is recognizing anxiety, understanding the role it plays in your life, and knowing that its voice of discouragement doesn’t have to speak for you. Your anxiety is not you. It is an intrusion of you. Don’t let it make your decisions for you. Before opting for a night alone on the couch, make yourself thoroughly answer the question:
“Exactly how would this be a form of self-care?”
Self-care is NOT turning to vices for the short-term relief of negative emotions.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting there’s no therapeutic value in an end-of-the-day glass of wine or whatever your legal-in-30-states poison may be. Far from it. These things in moderation can do wonders for shaking the unnecessary burden of stress that remained latched to your shoulders through your evening commute home from work. I’m talking about something different here. There’s using a vice to shed stress that is past its expiration date, such as in the previous example, and then there’s using a vice to suppress the stress or emotions associated with a still ongoing battle. The latter example is a dangerous game of denial that is begging to drag you into a downward spiral of substance abuse and instability.
Look, I get it–facing adversity, conflict, or confrontation sucks. You don’t want to do it. No one does. But drowning the anxiety and apprehension with alcohol or drugs won’t do anything to resolve the underlying issue. It’s still going to be there tomorrow. And the next day. And every day after that, until you finally face it head on. Using vices in effort to ignore a problem’s existence won’t drive that problem into extinction. It will, however, drive you into extinction if you use it as a coping mechanism for long enough.
Self-care is forgiving yourself.
Progress is a bumpy path. It won’t all be smooth sailing. There will always be highs and lows, the goal is just to get those highs to outnumber the lows. Mistakes, slip-ups, and regrets are inevitable. This doesn’t mean you should simply dismiss them, but you shouldn’t beat yourself up too much about them either. Identify them, learn from them, and grow from them.
There’s just as much opportunity to learn from the bad as from the good. It’s all part of the process. Reward yourself for good work. Take pride in it. Consult yourself about mistakes. Figure out how you can avoid making them a second time. Focus your mental energy on doing better in the future, not on condemning yourself over the past. Forgive, but do not forget.