Spend a little time reading about self-care online, and you’ll probably come away with one of two impressions of what self-care is. The first is the commercialised version, and all the companies trying to sell you bamboo bath trays with grooves for scented candles and glasses of wine. The second is what I think of as the backlash against that, with advocates arguing their ‘true’ version of self-care is doing the unglamourous tasks like folding laundry and washing the dishes.

So what is self-care, really?

In my opinion, it’s a bit of both. Self-care encompasses all the various things we do to take care of ourselves – physically, emotionally, and spiritually, if that’s your thing. Self-care can be having a shower because you’ve been home sick with the flu and you’re starting to stink, or it can be having a bath to wind down after a long week at work. It can be having a salad for lunch because you know vegetables are important, or it can be eating some chocolate because you’ve had a trying day and are seeking some comfort.

Misconceptions about self-care

Self-care is ‘putting on your oxygen mask first’

God, but I hate this phrase. It may be technically true – if you’re knackered and not looking after yourself you’re not going to be able to show up fully for others in your life – but the sentiment is, frankly, bullshit. Self-care isn’t another stick to beat yourself with, another ‘must do’ so you can be a better employee, a better mum, a better friend or spouse. It’s about putting yourself first because you deserve it. You are a whole, unique, multifaceted human being, and you deserve to care for yourself.

Self-care is one-size-fits-all

I mean this both in the broad sense and in the personal sense. In the broad sense, self-care is tailored to each person. When you think of what self-care looks like, what comes to mind?

My guess is something like this:

Candles flickering around a clawfooted tub. Steam rising from the petal-strewn water. Soothing music plays in the background, and a glass of red wine sits on the wooden tray.

That might be your mental image of self-care, but in reality your flat only has a tiny shower, your landlord doesn’t allow candles, and you prefer whisky over wine. Instead, your version of relaxing self-care might be curling up under blankets with a glass of single malt and all the lamps switched on so you can read your book.

But this is all just one type of self-care. Even on an individual level, there’s no one-size-fits-all for self-care, because sometimes relaxation isn’t what you need. Sometimes it’s comfort, or adulting, or any one of a number of things.

Types of self-care

As I said above, self-care is all the things we do to look after ourselves. Self-care is often associated with relaxation, which is one way of managing stress, but other options for stress management might be journalling about your concerns, learning to say no more often, or spending half an hour cleaning your flat so you don’t have to keep staring at the dirty dishes.

I tend to think self-care falls broadly into two categories: active and reactive. Active self-care is about doing things to promote physical and emotional wellbeing. Eating more vegetables, keeping a gratitude journal, and daily religious practices like devotionals are all examples of active self-care.

Reactive self-care is about responding to negative or challenging thoughts and emotions. I firmly believe that we’re not meant to be happy all the time, and that feeling our negative emotions is just as important as feeling the positive ones. Sometimes terrible, traumatic things happen in our lives, and trying to see the silver lining or put a positive spin on it is futile at best, and actively harmful at worst. Grief is as natural and human an emotion as joy, and self-care in a time of grief isn’t about trying to just ‘be happy’, any more than self-care with depression is about forcing yourself to ‘stop being sad’.

Often, reactive self-care is about examining these emotions. If you’re stressed, you might do some yoga. If you’re upset or scared, you might journal about it.

Sometimes it’s simpler than that and it’s just about letting yourself feel these emotions without judgement. This is especially true when it comes to things like grief. There’s not anything to do when you feel like your heart has been ripped out of your chest, other than try your best to avoid thinking about it, but an important part of healing is allowing yourself to feel your grief. Self-care in these situations is about letting yourself grieve without telling yourself you’re doing it wrong or trying to fix your feelings.

Sometimes reactive self-care looks like comfort. With particularly intense emotions it’s not always possible to take the time to examine our emotions immediately, or even to let ourselves feel them fully. I have depression, and sometimes trying to do the CBT exercises my therapist gave me, like journalling about all the evidence in support of and against my beliefs, is just a bad idea when I’m feeling particularly low, because my mind is in a state where I’ll brush off or entirely ignore any of the evidence against my negative beliefs.

In situations like this, self-care is about soothing the emotions. It might be curling up with some ice cream and watching Netflix, or reading a light-hearted book. It’s activities that take the edge off of our feelings enough to get through the day.

A final note

Self-care has become a trendy concept, a buzzword used to sell products to relax and de-stress, but it’s so much more than that. Well-rounded self-care is about showing yourself respect and compassion, about understanding your physical and emotional needs and tending to them. And it’s a work in progress; you don’t wake up one day and decide you’re going to do a better job of self-care, and suddenly it all falls into place. It takes time and experimentation to better understand yourself and your own needs, and to fill the gaps in your current lifestyle.

If, like me, you have a condition like depression, then you may find it easy to settle into a self-care routine when your mood is good, but much harder to handle basic self-care when your mood is low. It’s okay to lower the bar in those situations; self-care when your mood is good might be getting your 5-a-day, but on bad days self-care is making sure you eat at all.

I think self-care can often seem shallow and insipid, but that’s because those are the things that are easy to market. Taking a more rounded look at self-care is about giving yourself the tools to treat yourself with the respect and compassion you deserve, regardless of what else is going on in your life. And, yes, that might be bubble baths and scented candles, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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