- True self-care is defined as activities that bring you closer to your authentic self.
- This can be achieved by setting boundaries, practicing self-compassion, and knowing your core values.
- However, false self-care equals fleeting comfort but lasting harm.
The term “self-care” can mean so many things, from simple pleasures—like savoring your favorite TV show—to healthy activities that keep you alive, full of energy, and happy with your life. Although the term originated to provide permission for busy women to take time for themselves, self-care is important for every person.
Unfortunately, not all self-care is “true self-care,” as I point out here and in my book Changepower. “False self-care” is fake self-care that promises to relieve stress in the moment but piles on more stress in the long run. False self-care could include:
- Buying things you can’t afford;
- Neglecting your relationships, health, or financial well-being.
To confuse matters even more, self-care for you is not necessarily self-care for anyone else. For your self-care, you might train for a marathon while your friend would recoil in horror at the very idea. You might enjoy writing in your journal, but your spouse would rather relax by gardening.
This leads me to ask: Is there a way to discover whether a particular activity is true or false self-care for you at this moment?
The Heart of True Self-Care
I recently found a useful answer in the book Real Self-Care by psychiatrist Pooja Lakshmin. Although Lakshmin uses the terms “real self-care” and “faux self-care” for "true self-care” and “false self-care,” it didn’t take long for me to realize that we were on the same path. (I’ll use my terms, true self-care, and false self-care unless I’m quoting her.)
Lakshmin asserts that the heart of true self-care is this: “Real self-care brings you closer to yourself.” In her view, behaviors, feelings, and thoughts that help you approach your authentic self are the essence of true self-care.
Authenticity can then be defined as “the degree to which you feel true to yourself.” Why is that important? Lakshmin cites a meta-analysis from 2020 that found that feeling true to yourself is associated with greater well-being and greater work engagement.
Although “authentic self” is an abstract term, Lakshmin fortifies it by specifying that acting on your core values will guide you toward your true self. Thus, when you make decisions and set goals in accordance with your deepest values, you are probably practicing true self-care. In contrast, if you are making decisions based on comparing yourself with others, following the latest wellness fads, or based on vague “shoulds,” you are likely to be practicing false self-care.
Protecting the Self
Lakshmin sees four principles as critical to real self-care: setting boundaries, self-compassion, knowing your core values, and asserting power to bring about personal and social change.
- Setting boundaries helps you protect your time and self-esteem and is, therefore, a prerequisite for finding your authentic self.
- Self-compassion helps you set boundaries with yourself, for example, when your inner voice becomes self-critical, guilt-ridden, or perfectionistic.
- Knowing your core values is the keystone of the authentic self.
- And asserting power helps you create community standards that enable true self-care for all.
I would add a fifth principle: self-knowledge. Self-knowledge—an awareness of your most vital interests, strengths, temperament, abilities, goals, and values—is essential for decision-making that reinforces your authentic self. When you know what makes a day a good day for you, you are more likely to create one. Even more important, you can use your self-knowledge to forge healthy relationships based on your authentic self, not your false self, and to make good decisions about your time and efforts.
Complications and Challenges
Defining true self-care is not easy. Your "self" changes over time, as do your goals, desires, and relationships. Making good decisions often involves keeping your future self in mind, yet you don't know exactly who that future "you" is and what you will want.
Moreover, people often excuse their behavior by insisting that "this is just who I am." I'm reminded of the wonderful joke by Ellen Degeneres: "Accept yourself. Unless you are a serial killer."
Some psychologists and philosophers argue that there is no "True Self" or even a "Self." Nonetheless, I think the idea of judging true self-care by whether it brings you closer to your real self is a useful one, even though it may rely on an intuitive notion of "the self" and what it needs. The popular terms, "your best self" and "the best version of yourself," may help you add specifics to the idea of your true self.
Are Treats and Pampering True Self-Care?
How does the popular idea of self-care as pampering yourself or giving yourself treats fit into this view of true self-care?
Lakshmin finds a place for “treats” in her definition of self-care. She writes:
Especially in the past few years, it’s true that more and more people have turned to 'treat yourself' practices simply to get through the day. When the world feels out of control, if you have the means, giving yourself treats—whether it’s a chocolate bar or going out for a manicure—can be a way to exert agency.
Of course, "treats" do not have to be food treats or pampering events. You can treat yourself to "exercise snacks," reading a good book, fun conversations, or bird-watching from your kitchen window.
Some treats, however, do morph into false self-care because they undermine your health and happiness in the long run. Are your treats really true self-care? If they nourish your true self, the answer is "yes."
In a Nutshell: The Key Self-Care Question
To discover whether an action is true or false self-care, ask yourself this key question: “Will this activity bring me closer to my authentic self or take me farther away?” To put it more simply, you could just ask, “Am I being true to myself?”
If you guide your choices by asking this question, you will experience the priceless reward of inner peace—the sense of peace that comes from acting in accordance with your own values and goals.
And, as Lakshmin asserts: “This feeling of ownership over your life is the goal of real self-care—and once you have it, you’ll never want to lose it again.”
© Meg Selig, 2023. All rights reserved. For permissions, click here.
Lakshmin, P. Real Self-Care: A Transformative Program for Redefining Wellness (2023). NY: Penguin Life. pp. 37, 197, 226.
True and false self-care. Selig, M. Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success. (2009). NY: Routledge, pp. 48-52.