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Self-Care Isn’t Selfish or Superficial

Science shows that prevention is less costly than repair.

Self-care isn't selfish or superficial, it's backed by science to help us protect and sustain mental health
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Self-care might at first strike one as another pop-psychology buzzword in this Age of Anxiety, when burnout is being called the “new normal." But science reveals its critical nature.

Self-care is a regular, intentional process of devoting oneself to protecting and sustaining mental health. It is backed by science and not just feel good, self-indulgent sentiments.

The World Health Organization has declared a global mental health crisis and defined burnout as both an occupational risk and a workplace condition. Escalating pressure to do and be everything at work and at home are creating a context breeding exhaustion, overstimulation, and angst.

Most of us are operating with few margins in our lives. Respite, rest, and time off to just be seem like luxuries. In my clinical work, I often find resistance to the suggestion of self-care. It can seem fluffy or self-serving, or unlikely to make an impact when stress is high. It can also feel unachievable in light of the enormous demands around every corner.

Self-care comes in different forms:

  • Cognitive restructuring/reframing. Quieting the inner toxic critic; practicing self-compassion.
  • Lifestyle medicine. Sleep, nutrition, hydration, exercise habits.
  • Community. Spending time with loved ones; having a support system.
  • Leisure and fun. Finding time to relax and take part in activities in which you get lost in time and space and can really enjoy the moment.
  • Quiet space. A place away from distractions, screens, and duties.

The American Psychological Association has stated that we often don’t know that stress is negatively affecting our health until we get sick. In my research, I’ve seen many examples of the vital nature of self-care as a protective factor toward resilience. I advocate for a “universal precautions” approach to well-being: Even if we think we are faring relatively well, prioritizing self-care is essential. Rather than waiting for red flags and wake-up calls, we can attend to ourselves in deliberate ways to sustain ourselves in an ever-increasingly pressured world.

We must all be hypervigilant when it comes to the cumulative effect that self-neglect can create. Self-care can help mitigate the consequences of our demands and roles.

Here are three considerations to make it a regular practice:

1. Small things make a difference. When we are busy, it’s easy to let self-care fall by the wayside. Or if we make too big a plan, we might give up if we can’t find the time and energy to see it through. Break rituals are activities that we embed into our day to help us stay calibrated and avoid mental overload. We can’t falsely promise ourselves that we’ll relax once something gets scratched off our lists, because in the meantime, 10 new things will pop up. Just as when we neglect ourselves there is a cumulative effect on our health, the same is true when we make a regular point to nourish our mind, body and souls.

2. Self-care comes in many shapes and sizes. There’s no one size-fits-all formula. Key activities include lifestyle medicine, creative pursuits, hobbies, time with loved ones, and positive mental dialogue. Science shows the tremendous value in all of these activities to protect and bolster mental health. Engage in a process of reflection (therapists, coaches and loved ones can be helpful in co-creating ideas) that helps you identify high impact activities that can be woven into your routines.

3. Self-care starts with giving yourself permission. Many of us are uncomfortable with the idea of taking time for ourselves. We are used to taking care of everyone else and it’s a big shift to actually focus on you. It feels counterintuitive. This can demonstrate your strong sense of values and pride in serving others, but it can also tie into a deeper martyr complex or sense of unworthiness. When we give ourselves the green light and understand that we are worth our own investment because we are important, we are more likely to maximize the benefits of self-care. You must give yourself permission to take care of yourself, and make sure you are taking break rituals everyday. Sustainability is everything: You are worth it.

Self-care isn’t selfish and it’s not superficial. It’s not just about taking me-time or mani-pedis or treat-yourself days. It’s about protecting your mental health and fostering sustainability. There is no one-size-fits-all, but the research gives us a lot of clues as to what can help sustain us. Lifestyle medicine, regular breaks, relationships are protective factors that help build resilience. Prevention is less costly than repair. We now have the science to show the positive effects on our health.

Pick one activity this week that you think will have high impact for you. Set a reminder on your phone and put it in your schedule like an important appointment. Keep track of your progress (your mood, energy, outlook, focus, etc). Find support to keep your momentum going and construct a strategic self-care plan to protect and bolster your well-being.

LinkedIn Image Credit: La India Piaroa/Shutterstock


Lee, K (2018). Mentalligence: A New Psychology of Thinking: Learn what it takes to be more agile, mindful and connected in today's world. HCI Books: Deerfield Beach.

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