Self-care gets a bad rap. If you’ve ever been told to “practice some self-care,” it was probably from your well-meaning friend who talks about how their new bullet journal changed their life, or your aunt who sends you some bath bombs and a candle that is supposed to smell like “festive winter” but instead reminds you of those car air fresheners from the gas station. Self-care has become something you’re sold that will supposedly make your life happier and more productive. It’s a cheesy motto on a t-shirt or framed inspirational quote. 

There’s a lot that can be said about how our culture turns “self-care” into consumable goods, or that such practices are trivialized in part because they are perceived by many to be feminine and/or only a luxury. I’m not going to dive into those waters today. Instead, I want to talk about what self-care actually is. To put it simply: Self-care is doing what you need to do to take care of yourself.

Now, just because it’s simple does not mean it is easy. First, you have to acknowledge that you might need or want to take care of yourself. This is extremely hard. Often, we have to be at our absolute limit of stress – we aren’t sleeping or eating well, for example – before we acknowledge to ourselves that we need to take a step back and do something differently to feel better. However, when we think of self-care as something to be used only when absolutely necessary, it ultimately feels like we are failing at it because we don’t automatically “feel better.” Self-care is ideally meant to be utilized to maintain one’s health and well-being, not to alleviate overwhelming stress. Further, self-care is not a practice to engage in only to become even more productive and overworked. As Jenny Odell writes in her phenomenal book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy:

“In the context of health and ecology, things that grow unchecked are often considered parasitic or cancerous. Yet we inhabit a culture that privileges novelty and growth over the cyclical and the regenerative. Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way” (p. 25).                         

We should want to take care of ourselves, not because we desperately need to in the moment, or because we want to be more productive tomorrow, but because taking care of ourselves is a worthy goal in and of itself. 

After you acknowledge that you want to practice self-care, you then need to figure out what you can do to make you feel taken care of. Again, this is very hard, and it may vary depending on what stressors you’re dealing with in any given moment. Sometimes talking on the phone with friends is an act of self-care, but other times you might realize you spend more time helping your friends with their problems than getting the support that you need. It’s okay to take some time to figure out what may be regenerative or restorative , and it’s okay to take time away from others if and when doing so is necessary. For me, being alone and reading a book or taking my dog on a walk are some of my favorite things that make me feel like I’m taking time for myself. For you, it might be completely different. It might mean making time to talk to that friend. It could be going to a preventative check-up at your doctor, or gardening, or going for a jog, or intentionally NOT going for a jog, or volunteering for a local nonprofit, or simply taking some deep breaths in the middle of a busy day. It does not have to cost any money, despite what our culture tells us. 

  • It’s important to acknowledge what practicing self-care cannot do. It will never be a cure-all for things like structural inequity. It should not be used as an excuse to tune out from the rest of the world. Importantly, it cannot suddenly cure our depression or our anxiety or any other mental health concerns we may be experiencing. It is not a replacement for professional help when you need it. At the same time, professionals such as therapists may help you in figuring out how to acknowledge that you deserve to practice self-care and can brainstorm with you practices that may help you feel taken care of outside of therapy sessions.                               

Read more about self-care from the National Museum of African American History and Culture:

Jasmine Mote, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist at Cambridge Psychology Group and Research Assistant Professor at Boston University. As part of the Approach Motivation and Participation Lab, she is interested in understanding the social and emotional difficulties of people living with serious mental illness. If you like her writing, you can subscribe to her newsletter Mental Healthy, where she discusses mental health research related to pregnancy and parenting.