The term “self-care” has been thrown around a lot lately since it’s become en vogue to discuss the nice things you do for yourself in the name of being your own best nurturer. To help you understand how this concept is applied to daily life, I asked Dr. Kristen Lee — “Dr. Kris” — to give us her working definition. “Self-care can sometimes be confused with self-indulgence or selfishness — but it is neither of those,” she told me. “Self-care is a daily practice, one that is a deliberate and intentional and process of tending to the mind, body and spirit.”
Dr. Kris is the lead faculty for behavioral science at Northeastern University and a behavioral health clinician “devoted to self-care and resilience.” I also spoke to Julie Burton, a self-care and wellness expert, speaker, and award-winning author of The Self-Care Solution: A Modern Mother’s Must-Have Guide to Health and Well-Being. Using wisdom from both these expert women, as well as a bit of scientific research, I’ve compiled a list of seven things that are useful examples of good self care, and seven things that aren’t so much.
Self-care: accepting help
Self-care is often about setting yourself up to succeed in your life, and sometimes that means admitting that you can’t do everything all alone. It can also sometimes mean dropping your quest for that elusive “perfection.”
Burton told me that a good example of self-care for a busy mother, for instance, is to “[say] yes to your mother-in-law’s offer to help with the kids even though she doesn’t do everything exactly the way you like, and using that time to do what you really need for yourself (perhaps a nap).”
And once you accept help, don’t forget to show your genuine appreciation. Creating and maintaining “connections with those around you,” (when possible) said Burton, is a bonus example of self-care in action.
Not self-care: trying to impress people by overextending yourself
According to Burton, “self-care is not about pleasing everyone.” This is one of my favorite quotes from all the research I did, because so many women try to do this, sometimes without even realizing it, at the expense of their own health and happiness. You might recall the recent Vanity Fair interview with Angelina Jolie, where the recently ill actress now famously stated, “Sometimes women in families put themselves last, until it manifests itself in their own health.”
Dennis Portnoy, psychotherapist and author of the book, Overextended and Undernourished : A Self-Care Guide for People in Helping Roles, says it’s a common mistake for caretakers and people-pleasers to be too focused “…on the needs of others at the expense of attending to their own needs.”
Not only is overextending yourself for others not helpful to you, he (and other experts) argues that it can be bad for all parties in the end, since, “In addition to the stress of being in a helping role, [these over-givers] often have habits that undermine their efforts at self-care and increase their susceptibility to compassion fatigue,” making themselves less able to be giving in the end.
Self-care: getting enough rest and relaxation
According to Raphailia Michael, a licensed counseling psychologist writing for PsychCentral, rest and relaxation are definitely part of a good self-care routine. She says, “get[ting] enough sleep… seven to eight hours” is paramount, in addition to doing daily “relaxation exercises,” as well as “at least one relaxing activity every day, whether it’s taking a walk or spending 30 minutes unwinding.” The idea is that you want to get the kind of rest that relaxes and recharges you.
Dr. Kris even recommends coming up with “regular break rituals” for yourself, so you can avoid ever getting tired or stressed to the point where you might have a blow up. “When we wait until that big vacation or for stress to let up,” she told me, “we miss daily opportunities to take short breaks to regroup our brains and bodies.”
Not self-care: zoning out in front of reality shows all night then sleeping late
Imagine you’re coming home at the end of what feels like a very long, busy day, at the end of a long, busy week. If you weren’t able to take regular breaks to decompress and rest, you might be feeling absolutely exhausted by whatever it is life and work have been throwing at you. It may feel tempting to just shut down your brain in front of a Real Housewives of New York marathon, totally zoning out, and only peeling yourself off the couch in time to roll exhausted under the covers, way after bedtime.
Does this seem “recharging” to you? Probably not. The next morning you’ll either have to wake up at a normal hour and function on too-little sleep, or you’ll “get to” sleep late, and lose the productive morning hours of your day.
Dr. Kris told me that “while guilty pleasures… can be enjoyable and bring some temporary relief,” real self-care activities “can actually add up to our health bottom line.” So rather than doing what she calls “zoning out via tv or ‘screen sucking’ to escape stress and exhaustion,” a healthy unwinding activity, like reading in the bath, and then going to bed on time to get enough rest, might serve you much better in the end.
Self-care: dressing in a way that makes you feel good
Dress for success. Dress to impress. Dress for the job you want. The clothes make the man.
There’s no question that having good grooming habits and dressing well are generally thought to be makers of high functionality in our society. And spending time on feeling good about your self-presentation is a way to express that you value yourself, to both yourself and the rest of the world.
Burton told me that doing things to show yourself and others that you “believe you are worthy” is a major component of self-care. But she also reminded me that, “while feeling good and being confident about your [appearance] is very important to your overall health and well-being, physical self-care is one aspect of your overall self-care, which includes caring for your mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual health.” Again, it seems like finding a healthy balance is one of the best self-care strategies, according to the experts.
Not self-care: engaging in “retail therapy” without any regard to your budget
Sure, dressing yourself so that you feel well-groomed and confident is a great example of self-care. But there’s a difference between putting on your best pressed suit or dress when you want to feel like a boss, and going out to buy things you don’t need, racking up credit card debt so you can dress like Beyoncé.
In our interview, Dr. Kris called “shopping therapy” a form of “maladaptive” coping mechanism. “Sometimes we can end up spending a fortune on personal maintenance… clothing… etc. None of these things are bad per se,” she explained, “but if we are living a ‘goods life,’ we will have a harder time getting to what positive psychologists call ‘the good life’… a life characterized by positive relationships, healthy behaviors, gratitude, and mindfulness.”
So shopping therapy comes with baggage even if you do have the money to be constantly buying yourself new stuff. But it’s especially bad if you are going into debt to do it. Debt is a major contributor to stress problems, so unnecessarily digging yourself in deeper is not a good self-care strategy.