What Does “Self-Care” Actually Mean?

7 minutes Written by Kristen Suleman

“What Does “Self-Care” Actually Mean and Why Am I Supposed to be Doing it on Sundays?”

The term “#self-care” gets thrown around a lot these days. It has become a pretty trendy idea, a buzzword if you will, especially given the impact this concept has had on the wellness industry. The consumer side of self-care has many of us convinced that self-care equals regular spa days, wine in the bathtub, expensive vacations, retail therapy, as well as anything else of the “treat yo self” variety. While I love a good Parks and Rec reference, let me be clear here: all of these things are great and can certainly be aspects of your self-care and self-maintenance, but true, genuine self-care encompasses more than that.

Let me start off by first asking you this simple question: “Do you take care of yourself?” I would bet that most of us will instinctively answer “Yes, of course I do.”

Now, if I ask you a more specific question, such as “How do you take care of yourself?” – well, the response may get a bit more complicated.

In essence, this is what self-care is: caring for ourselves, ya’ll. It is really anything that we deliberately do (or refrain from doing) with our own well-being in mind. It means giving ourselves the same grace, compassion, and care that we give to others.

Raise your hand if you feel yourself slowly starting to cringe. The truth is, a lot of us have a difficult time even considering the concept of self-care. Many of us struggle to wrap our heads around the idea of valuing ourselves enough to intentionally look after ourselves. Doing so can feel like a foreign concept or like breaking an unwritten rule.

Read more advice about self-care from licensed therapists. 

This reaction is partly because many of us were taught to help others and to put other’s needs ahead of our own. While I believe altruism is a virtue, I do not buy into the message that this means we have to live a life spent ignoring our own needs. The truth is, we all have needs – emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual needs. Every single one of us. No one is exempt. Plus, we are honestly no good to others if we are ignoring our needs – we become resentful, exhausted, and ultimately burnt out. Self-care helps us refuel and recharge so we can be there for others. If we are not showing up for ourselves, it becomes increasingly difficult to show up for the people in our lives. I think Audre Lorde said it best: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation.”

Sooo what does this loaded term actually mean then? I mean, is it a noun? Is it a verb? What does it actually look and feel like? Am I doing it the “right” way?

If we strip it down, self-care means that we are checking-in with ourselves and meeting ourselves where we are at. When we do this – when we tune into ourselves – we recognize that we have different needs depending on the situation and depending on the day. These check-ins make us more aware of our unique needs, which in turn help us cultivate the practices needed to rejuvenate us day in and day out.

Self-care means we are recognizing the relationship we have with ourselves and prioritizing it – this means we have to put in intentional effort to sustain it. Sometimes it means calling ourselves out on the things we are doing that aren’t healthy for us. Sometimes it means forcing ourselves to get out of our own way, which is often not glamorous or relaxing. Check out the excerpt below from Hope Rangaswam (Washington Square News):

When we realize that self-care is more than pampering ourselves, we confront a difficult truth: self-care requires work that looks a little different for everyone. Self-care might mean admitting that you can’t heal alone and allowing yourself to accept help. It might mean setting boundaries, and learning that it’s okay to say no to requests you aren’t comfortable with, or it might mean saying yes to new experiences and expanding your comfort zone. It might mean replacing toxic habits with healthier coping mechanisms, like meditation or exercise, or it might mean letting yourself eat an entire tub of ice cream without feeling bad about it. It might mean choosing eight hours of sleep over watching another episode on Netflix, or it might mean watching another episode on Netflix over getting eight hours of sleep. All, some or none of these things might work for you — what matters is focusing on what feels right for your needs”.

Self-care practices are as unique as each of us – there is no one size fits all solution.  The good news then is that there really isn’t a right or a wrong way to engage in self-care – the key is to make sure you are being intentional with these habits and helping yourself in some way by doing them. The more we practice deliberately caring for our well-being, the more resilient we become, which ultimately helps strengthen our ability to cope with and manage whatever comes our way in life. Yes, please!

Now, the fun part. How do we start becoming more conscious and intentional about our self-care? Try and get in the habit of checking in with yourself and listening to what your mind and body tells you that it needs. Remember that it is ok to start small. Is it truly necessary to work through your lunch break? Maybe this can be adjusted. Do you notice that you tend to feel super drained around a specific friend? Maybe re-evaluate the quality of the relationship. Are you beating yourself up for missing your evening workout class because of traffic? Maybe try to find a more realistic time or day of the week to get some movement in your life.

At the end of the day, the relationship we have with ourselves is crucial. Many of us do not stop to think about it in this way, but we will spend more time with ourselves than anyone else in our lifetime.  Would you like to give yourself permission to cultivate more or less of anything in your life? Remember, you deserve the same grace, compassion, and care that you give to others. It’s ok to care about yourself, too.

To summarize, self-care IS NOT:

·      Selfish

·      Self-indulgent

·      Expensive

·      Luxurious

·      A fad

·      Cookie-cutter / the same for everyone

·      A sign of weakness

·      Something to feel guilty about

Self-care IS:

·      Self-preservation

·      Self-love

·      Self-compassion

·      A necessity

·      Fluid / ever-changing

·      Intentional

·      Rejuvenating

·      Nourishment

·      An act of giving yourself permission

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~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~About Kristen:

Kristen Suleman, M.Ed., LPC is a therapist based in Houston, TX. She has experience working with individuals of all ages; however, she specializes in working with younger adults struggling with issues relating to self-worth, perfectionism, life balance, and identity. Kristen enjoys empowering human potential by helping others learn how to show up for themselves and make the most out of this whole life thing.


Avatar Kristen Suleman

Written by Kristen Suleman

Kristen Suleman is a therapist in Texas who specializes in group and individual therapy.