5 Things People Get Wrong About Self-Care

People who bash self-care fundamentally misunderstand it.

Posted Jan 20, 2020

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The concept of self-care has been receiving some backlash lately, but that's largely based on a misunderstanding of what self-care is. Let's dispel some negative stereotypes about self-care. If you think of self-care as indulgent or selfish, you’re thinking about it wrong. 

1. Self-care isn't typically about treats or pampering.

Folks who hold negative stereotypes about self-care often think of it as about massages, facemasks, or about buying yourself gifts and treats. Occasionally self-care might take one of those forms. However, most of the time self-care is exactly what's on the label, it's going to the dentist, replacing the running shoes that have worn out and are causing your feet to hurt, spending the extra $2 to make a healthy lunch rather eating instant ramen at your desk, or taking yourself to bed early rather than staying up all hours watching Netflix. 

2. Self-care isn't about putting your own needs ahead of others.

Another negative stereotype of self-care is that it involves putting your own needs ahead of other people's needs. For instance, an extra job needs to be done at work, you feel overloaded so you say you can't do it and leave it to one of your equally overworked colleagues. 

In all likelihood, you've met someone who uses self-care as a reason to make everyone else fit in around them and dictate terms for shared activities to other members of a group or family, such as saying, "I can't come to your baby shower because it clashes with my child's nap time and we need to stay on our schedule."

Very occasionally self-care may involve some type of inconvenience to someone else, but not generally. If the way you do self-care frequently ends up inconveniencing or dictating to others, then it's time to rethink that.

Try thinking about self-care that benefits you and other people, such as spending more time in nature with your children, getting back into bedtime routines involving reading stories (to help everyone wind down more readily), or creating soul-nurturing family rituals like making homemade pizza together once a week or whatever appeals to you. If your self-care urge is that you need to slow down, then other people can easily be a part of that.

3. Self-care isn't a list of behaviors; what constitutes self-care depends on the situation.

Earlier this week I needed to get a passport. I wanted to have a nice passport photo, but I also needed to get this task done and off my list, as I had already been trying to get around to doing it for three weeks. In this type of scenario, what would self-care be? It could be saying to myself, "A nice photo is important to me, I'm going to take the time to take the photo at home so I can choose a good one." Or, it could be me saying to myself, "I just need to get this done and off my list, so I'm going to run into Costco and get whatever random dude is working the photo desk to do it."

One of these choices isn't inherently more self-caring than the other, because self-care is often situation dependent. It's also related to balance. If it's been months since you took the time to do something objectively unimportant, just because it was important to you, then the most self-caring choice is likely to be to give yourself that experience. Other times, the mental freedom of removing a nagging to do might be your pressing need. Self-care is often about having the self-knowledge and psychological flexibility to make what's the best choice for you overall, which may be different at different times.

4. Self-care is as much about your thinking as your behaviors.

How self-cared for you feel will depend at least as much on your self-talk as whatever behaviors you do and don't do. In particular, there is an abundance of research on the importance of self-compassion skills. Broadly, self-compassion is about acknowledging what you feel (whether that's hurt, nervous, embarrassed, etc.) and that those emotions are part of the universal human experience. You might feel guilt, shame or regret about your earlier behaviors, but a self-compassionate person can acknowledge that everyone has experiences like that.  

Someone with good self-care skills will be able to acknowledge when they’re feeling anxious in the process of pursuing a meaningful goal and be able to talk themselves through how to move forward with those feelings of anxiety rather than giving up. Likewise, having good self-care skills involves knowing how to detect when you’re ruminating and employ some skills for breaking free of that as well as having the capacity to notice if your perfectionism has tipped over into being self-sabotaging and being able to gently steer yourself towards an alternate path.  

5. Self-care isn't just about doing solitary activities, it's often social.

One of the most nurturing things people can do for themselves is to seek human connection in response to stress rather than isolating themselves. This applies even to introverts.

Often people's idea of self-care is that it's something they do privately, like sitting in their PJs applying Korean skincare or spending 20 minutes meditating. Even if you're an introvert, reaching out to others when you're under stress is a behavior that should be in your repertoire.

Self-care often involves letting others into your inner world a little bit, touching base with important people you haven't seen recently enough, or actually seeing or speaking to any close friends who you tend to communicate with primarily through the Internet.

If your self-care is mainly something you do privately, try thinking about what more social forms of self-care might be for you. It could be catching up with a friend one-on-one who you only see in groups or in other contexts that aren't conducive to deeper conversations. Or, it could be finding a sport that involves other people, so you can feel more sense of community, rather than always exercising alone.  

At times, solitary self-care will be exactly what you need to recover from an overstimulating day, but introverts and other people who value emotional self-sufficiency shouldn’t overlook the benefits of social forms of self-care. If you crave connection but also need a break from other people, then connecting with nature by keeping a plant on your desk and looking at it when you’re stressed may help decrease your stress hormones

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If you buy into a commercialized definition of self-care that’s all about pampering or into a definition that is all about withdrawing from the world, you’ll overlook forms of self-care that are easily accessible to you and potentially very helpful.