A concept that’s quickly grown from a catchphrase to a movement, “self-care” products, services and practices can now be found everywhere from popular magazines to market launches to Netflix original series. But in spite of its impressively-wide reach, “self-care” can still feel difficult to define.
Of course, that’s at least partially intentional; self-care does and should mean something different to every individual person. Essentially, it refers to anything you do to restore your inner balance and make yourself feel calm, contented and clear-headed. The goal of self-care is to make yourself feel positive, optimistic, and physically, mentally and emotionally supported.
Here, we’ll break down the meaning of self-care, why it’s important, and how to fashion a self-care plan that makes sense for you.
When asked about her self-care regimen, The Wing founder Audrey Gelman told The Cut the following: “I know that when I’m taking care of myself and engaging in self-care, even if it’s just making sure to shower consistently, it actually has a real impact on my mood. That’s mainly the reason why I do it.”
As Gelman notes, self-care doesn’t need to be expensive, time-consuming or otherwise draining. The important element of this practice involves focus and awareness; engage in an activity that allows you to put external stresses to the side and give your full attention to your body’s comfort, your thought patterns, and the state of your emotions.
It’s common to dismiss self-care as a “selfish” priority, but that assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth. By taking time to figure out your own state of well-being, you’re opening yourself up to becoming more ready and able to help others, to perform your job to the best of your ability, and to be a full participant in your relationships.
As we mentioned previously, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to self-care; it’s crucial to review your own needs and to design a plan that addresses them. However, it can help to divide your prospective self-care plan into smaller categories, each related to an aspect of your life that can potentially be improved. By taking things one category at a time, you can make your path to self-care feel less imposing and more manageable. A few categories to consider:
1. Clear out superfluous items and clutter, maximizing your spatial potential.
If you’re familiar with the Marie Kondo method, you’re aware of the importance of keeping your space free of unnecessary items. Take some time to dig through your office or living room and toss or donate anything that you don’t use.
2. Bring your home up to good working order.
When life feels chaotic, it’s easy to allow home maintenance to fall by the wayside. But if you’ve been struggling with a busted oven burner, clogged drains, or leaking pipes, call in some assistance!
3. Get enough sleep (6-8 hours for most adults) on a nightly basis.
If needed, take steps to improve your sleep quality, which may include investing in a higher-quality mattress, installing blackout shades on your bedroom windows, ending exposure to “blue light” from phones or computers directly before bed, or using a white-noise machine to block out ambient sounds.
4. Find a way to make exercise a regular part of your life.
As with all elements of self-care, no one exercise regimen will be effective for everyone. But as an individual, you have the ability to find a routine that works for your schedule and budget. Whether you prefer gym visits three times a week or long walks with your dog on a regular basis, find a pattern that makes sense for your lifestyle and stick to it.
5. Don't make a habit of overpromising.
Inhibiting guilt frequently comes as a result of making promises that we can’t keep. A strong self-care move involves looking at the pending requests and invitations that you have on the docket and committing only to the ones you can realistically fulfill.
6. Schedule time away to unplug and reset.
While not everyone has the ability to take lengthy trips or sustained time-off from work, finding opportunities to separate from your professional life and focus on yourself is essential, even on a smaller scale.
7. Have a plan in place for handling financial debt.
Debt is a massive stressor in the lives of most Americans, and while it can’t usually be eradicated all at once, sitting down with your financial documents (and your spouse/partner, if relevant) and figuring out how much money you can devote to paying off your debt every month will help reveal the light at the end of the tunnel.
8. Surround yourself with people who support and encourage you.
Freeing ourselves from toxic and non-reciprocal relationships is a crucial step to optimizing our lives. Taking stock of these connections and determining which are positive and mutually beneficial will help you decide where to invest your time and energy and will yield more positive results for both yourself and your friends/loved ones.
While self-care isn’t (and absolutely shouldn’t be) inherently a gendered concept, it’s frequently monetized as an advertising trope geared toward women with the implication that women need more help to prioritize their own wellbeing than their male counterparts.
Because (unfair, outdated, and yet still prevalent) societal expectations demand that women take on external “caregiver” roles throughout their lives, it’s easy for the world at large to undervalue the amount of care that we need to offer ourselves.
So if you find yourself falling into a guilt chasm at the idea of taking time for self-care, consider this quote from the Cleveland Clinic:
“It’s time to view self-care differently. After all, it is really just taking care of yourself — which is vital for health and well-being. More specifically, self-care means identifying and meeting your needs, something women often struggle with. We tend to put others first – children, spouse, parents, friends, even pets. We feel obligated to be the caretakers. Shifting the balance from everyone-else-care to myself-care is uncharted territory for many women and can feel uncomfortable at first. However, it is important to do so. If you don’t properly care for yourself, your body will let you know.”
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