Reflections on Self-Development and Self-Care

How to distinguish between two similar but different concepts.

Posted Jun 03, 2020

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In the age of COVID-19, self-isolation, and inevitable uncertainty, the topics of self- development and self-care have come up for my patients more than they might have in “normal life.” (What’s even normal anymore?)

While we are all staying home, we may have fewer obligations, or more time to fill. Simultaneously, we may be attempting to distract ourselves from all the bad news surrounding us, easing our inevitable anxiety, or trying to use this time to better ourselves in some way. These goals all hold some importance on a case-to-case basis, but it's important to accurately distinguish between two similar but different ideas here: self-development and self-care.

Self-care is just that — doing something to take care of yourself. It may include a relaxing activity like yoga, a bath, reading a book, or something that helps someone else clear their mind, like going for a walk outside.

Self-care is a practice that aims to help self-soothe but may look different for every person. For example, someone may consider watching a favorite TV show to be self-care, while for someone else, this might not feel like self-care, and more so represent them falling off of their self-care regimen that includes showering, making a cup of coffee, and chatting with a spouse. There is no blanket example of self-care, but there are certain goals it should ideally fulfill.

Self-care should be deliberate. It should be something you plan to do for the sole goal of taking care of yourself, and nothing else. At the same time, self-care should hopefully make you feel a little bit better during or afterward. Self-care should aim to improve your emotional well-being, and therefore elicit positive emotions rather than negative. If you try something as a practice of self-care and it doesn’t feel good, try something else!

Self-development, on the other hand, is defined as doing something to improve yourself. For example, learning a new language, or getting in better physical shape are examples of self-development, as is enrolling in an online course or training that is relevant to your profession. Self-development aims to improve a skill or introduce a new area of expertise that might make you feel empowered, emotionally, physically, or intellectually. Self-development is inherently a form of productivity.

Both self-care and self-development are important activities, but serve very different purposes, especially in the current state of the world. Some people may be able to use this time to improve or develop a new skill, and that’s wonderful, but for others, it just might not be the right time to embark on a new learning or physical endeavor.

For some people, managing their new day-to-day life, balancing caring for kids, trying to keep working from home, while also trying to process the immense loss of the world may be overwhelming, and therefore leave little cognitive, emotional, or literal space for self-development. Deciding what works best for you right now is a complicated process, but worth investigating through self-reflection.

For example, for me personally, I know that I am feeling more down than usual as death rates filter onto my phone, and even a little bit angry as I envision with uncertainty what my professional life will look like when the world is no longer in crisis. For me, taking time for self-care is more effective in maintaining my mental health for the time being, over finally refreshing my Spanish skills.

My partner, however, does better psychologically when their mind is busy and is currently taking an online course that includes lectures and work outside of class. To be honest, to me that sounds entirely miserable, but for them, it is a healthy coping mechanism.

Another important aspect of this distinction to remember is that comparing yourself with how someone else is using this time probably won’t help you. Everyone is handling the current state of the world differently, and if you’re being intentional about it, and self-aware of what you need on a daily basis, there is nothing wrong with that.

The word “unprecedented” is starting to become triggering for me given the hundreds (maybe thousands?) of articles I’ve read about COVID-19 and how each of them starts with the phrase “unprecedented times.” Putting that aside (as much as I can), I am also forced to remember that it is accurate; this time period is truly unique. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to deal with what’s happening in our world right now. It is terrifying, disorienting, and objectively bad. Do what works for you, and cut yourself some slack. Take time for yourself right now, however you can, and in whatever form suits you best.

Stay Emotionally Focused,

Dr. Lukin