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Self-Care: All Things to All People?

Do you practice true or false self-care? Here's how to tell.

Key points

  • Self-care involves adopting healthy lifestyle habits to promote physical, mental, and financial well-being.
  • Sometimes "true self-care" can morph into "false self-care." Know the difference, and keep bad habits at bay.
  • Use this question to assess whether a particular action or habit is truly self-care or not.
Image by Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels, CCO.
Source: Image by Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels, CCO.

“Self-care” has become an umbrella term for a multitude of activities: Eating healthy meals, getting a mani-pedi, exercising every day, taking a work break, getting a facial, following a good sleep routine, joining friends for a drink, buying a new pair of shoes, talking to a friend, devoting a day to “me time.”

As you read the list above, however, you may suspect that some self-care activities have a dark side. And you would be right. Sometimes, self-care can morph into bad habits or excessive pampering. For example, can you afford to have a mani-pedi every week? Does a glass of beer often turn into three, four, or more? How long does that work break last?

Because bad habits and addictions often disguise themselves as "self-care," it's important to figure out the difference between "true" and "false" self-care.

Is It True or False Self-Care?

A good rule of thumb is this: False self-care gives you a short-term escape from life’s stresses and problems but, in the long run, piles even more stress on top of the original problem. True self-care consists of actions that promote your physical, mental, emotional, and financial health both now and in the future. In addition, true self-care “can help you reconnect with the authentic, genuine you,” as PT contributor Rhonda Freeman notes here.

You might suspect you are practicing false self-care when:

  • You find yourself avoiding the things you need to do.
  • You feel guilty, worried, or anxious about your actions because they do not reflect your values and goals.
  • Your actions and habits damage your physical, mental, emotional, or financial health.
  • You are spending too much time with people who do not respect you.
  • You cannot afford the things you buy.

Examples of false self-care might include:

  • Endlessly checking social media when you need to write a report for work.
  • Finding excuses to avoid exercising.
  • Binging on unhealthy food.
  • Overworking to the extent that you neglect your health or relationships.

By contrast, you are probably practicing true self-care when:

  • You feel a sense of peace because you are acting in accordance with your values and goals.
  • You are willing to give up some immediate stress-relieving pleasures because you wouldn’t feel good about yourself in the long run.
  • You are taking good care of your body, mind, and emotions, as well as the most overlooked aspect of self-care: financial health.
  • You are taking good care of yourself in relationships—seeking out people who care about you and with whom you can be yourself.
  • You are finding ways to have fun that you won’t regret later.

Examples of true self-care might include:

  • A regular exercise program that leaves you feeling invigorated and energetic.
  • Healthy eating.
  • Refusing to buy into harmful diets and restrictive weight-loss programs.
  • Taking time to relax or meditate daily.
  • Putting money into savings every month.

Just asking yourself, "Is this action true or false self-care?" can often help you decide what to do.

Gray Areas

Sometimes the same action can provide true self-care for one person and false self-care for another. For example, Shalonda and Ivy each buy a pair of shoes. Shalonda’s current shoes are old and worn down at the heels—a danger to foot health. I would label her actions “true self-care.” Ivy already has a large shoe collection, but she can’t resist a new pair, even though she is running short on money this month. This action is clearly false self-care. On the other hand, if Ivy can afford it—and that’s an important if—who’s to say how she should spend her money? Unless it gets out of hand, sprinkling moments of pleasure into one's life might even be considered true self-care.

There are also cultural differences in the way self-care is viewed. For example, Brazilians recognize a “right to beauty,” as Sushma Subramanian discovered when her young child endured a fall in Brazil that resulted in a potentially disfiguring cut to her face. An adept surgeon skillfully repaired the torn skin for a minimal fee. In Brazil, cosmetic surgery is subsidized in the belief that an unattractive appearance can cause psychological suffering. Subramanian writes: "...what Brazil’s policy creates is an acceptance that beauty is a form of self-care and that there’s nothing embarrassing about wanting to meet society’s standard for how we should look, no matter our social class."

In the U.S., most people could not condone reimbursement for cosmetic procedures while some people lack even basic health care. But let’s face it—there is an "attractiveness bias" that assumes that beautiful people also have other desirable traits. Attractive people have an edge at work and in life.

The Ultimate Decider: Your Future Self

You are the best person to decide whether one of your actions or habits is true self-care or false self-care. Your decision will depend on your circumstances, your values, your goals, and your sense of self. As you choose, I hope the lists above will be helpful.

But watch out. When you’re in love with a habit or an activity, you’ll be tempted to think of it as true self-care, regardless of the harm it’s causing you. Some habits, such as biting your fingernails, provide false self-care but cost you very little in the long run. However, the cost of many bad habits and addictions is high. Like the people who die each year from smoking, obesity, or drinking, you could pay the ultimate price.

So here's a quick way to judge whether you are practicing true or false self-care. Ask yourself, “What would my Future Self think about what I am doing right now?”

True self-care means never having to say “I’m sorry” to your future self.

© Meg Selig, 2023. All rights reserved. For permissions, click here.

NOTE: Thanks to Routledge Publishing for permission to reproduce certain portions of my book, Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success, in this blog.

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