Written by our intern Emily Perkins
Self-care began as an idea in the 1970’s, with radical, political roots, and since 2016, Google searches for self-care have shot up. A quick look at #selfcare on Instagram will run you 20.5 million posts, including quotes, exercises, shopping promotions, selfies and more. But self-care is more than what we see online.
“Self-care is one’s action is around our physical, emotional, relational, perhaps professional, educational, and, for some people, spiritual well-being that reflects the way that we take care of ourselves on the most fundamental levels,” says Helen L. Coons, PhD.
Coons is a clinical health psychologist specializing in women’s behavioral health and wellness, and is a professor at University of Colorado’s School of Medicine. In an interview with Caroline Picard of Good Housekeeping, Coons detailed what self-care is, and what it isn’t.
“Many women confuse self-care with being selfish – that somehow taking care of ourselves is self-involvement or a selfish act instead of a self-respectful act.”
So, what is self-care then?
There are hundreds of different articles, studies and essays about self-care. Very Well Mind sums self-care up as “building resilience toward those stressors in life you can’t eliminate. When you’ve taken steps to… asses how you’re caring for yourself in different domains… you’ll be better equipped to live your best life…”
According to Maria Baratta, PhD, LCSW and author for Psychology Today, “self-care is the mindful taking of time to pay attention to you, not in a narcissistic way, but in a way that ensures that you are being cared for by you.”
The World Health Organization even defined self-care as, “what people do for themselves to establish and maintain health, and to prevent and deal with illness… encompassing hygiene, nutrition, lifestyle, environmental factors, socio-economic factors and self-medication.”
These ideas can be a lot to take in. The International Self-Care Foundation states that self-care is “the preservation of wellness in healthy people,” or for those with existing medical conditions, self-care is an essential part of managing the condition.
This summer, Nicole and I had a conversation about the medical field, and we came to the understanding that medical professionals are there to help us stay alive – their purpose is not to help us thrive. They get us to a baseline of health, and from there, learning to thrive is our job.
Self-care does not, cannot and will not treat physical or mental health issues. Self-care is how you can improve your daily life, after your underlying health concerns are taken care of. It is positive health – not just the absence of illness.
How do I do “self-care?”
One of the most confusing parts of self-care is learning what you need. Each of us is so different, and the internet can be overwhelming. You may have heard of The Five Love Languages, an idea coined by Dr. Gary Chapman, that relationships are better when we understand what the other needs. I think we can better care for ourselves when we understand what we need and want, too.
In Chapman’s theory, the five love languages are Words of Affirmation, Gifts, Acts of Service, Quality Time and physical Touch. Each of these “languages” is based on a human need – and some of us prefer one over the other. Joyce Marter, LCPC adjusted the five love languages to apply to your relationship with yourself. The following main list was created by Marter, and I’ve included three example actions for each section, inspired by Marter and taken from my own research and life.
Words of Affirmation: Think Self-Love
Keep your self-talk positive. Each time you look in the mirror, think of five things you love about yourself/your body. Try to go as long as you can without thinking/saying negative things about yourself.
Create a mantra or affirmation. Repeat it each morning in the mirror, or put it next to your bed or desk to read whenever you’re there.
Make a list of your strengths. You can ask a few close friends to make lists of your strengths/what they love or admire about you too, and compare those to your own.
Acts of Service: Do Self-Love
Take time to serve yourself – what makes you feel at peace? If it’s a made bed, do that. If it’s a tidy kitchen, do that. If it’s good smells, light a candle.
Make sure you’re well-fed. Eat food with nutrients and that provides you energy, and make sure you’re eating enough meals. Make sure to drink water!
Take time to groom yourself with love. Bathe, exfoliate, do your hair and makeup, or put on your comfiest clothes – whatever makes you feel yourself and good.
Receiving Gifts: Absorb Self Love
What kind of gifts do you like to receive from others? Buy a gift for yourself every so often. I appreciate getting thoughtful gifts, so when I buy something for myself, I make sure it’s thoughtful. For me, that’s something that can make my daily life slightly better, like a new, more comfortable band for my watch, or a soft blanket.
Invest in your education. Is there an online class you want to take or a book you’ve been wanting to read? Take care of yourself and allow yourself to grow.
Take and appreciate a compliment. Gifts don’t have to cost money, and sometimes words are a gift. When someone compliments you, don’t brush it off or rationalize why they’re wrong – tell them thank you and believe them.
Quality Time: Be Present with Self-Love
Meditation can help you to be more present and mindful, in yoga class or at home. If guided meditation is your thing, find one about self-love and try that. If you have a mantra or affirmation, use it in repetition while you meditate.
Get some sleep! Getting quality rest can be life-changing. If you are exhausted and need to take a power nap – do it. If your day is too packed, take something off your list and get an extra bit of sleep.
Move your body! Work out at the gym or go on a walk – whatever you do, pay attention to your body. Be grateful for how strong you are, how your body carries you, and say thank you to your body.
Physical Touch: Feel Self Love
Take care of your health. Schedule timely health care appointments for yourself. If your child is sick, you’d want to care for their illness as quickly as possible – why not treat your health just as important?
Book yourself a massage. Thank your body for working hard, and If you’re on a budget, is there a local massage school near you?
Have a spa day to focus on caring for your body. You can go out to get a spa treatment, or stay in and take a bath, do a facemask and use the nice lotion (I much prefer staying in!). As you apply your facemask, lotion or scrub, tell yourself compliments about your body, and thank your body for it’s hard work.
Once you know your love language, and what it is you need and want to feel cared for, you can choose how to self-care. A helpful thing to remember is that self-care should not add more to your “to-do” list. Whatever you choose for self-care shouldn’t be an extra burden, it should be something that relieves stress.
My counselor, John, helped me learn how to analyze my life to figure out what I need. He gave me a bullet journal, which I used to track different aspects of my life. Each day, I tracked my emotions, the foods I ate, how I physically felt and any “triggers” or stressors that had occurred. After tracking for a week or two, I began to notice a pattern – and the pattern only grew as my tracking continued. I learned things like when I ate junk food, my body didn’t feel good, and when I had a bad day at work or someone hurt my feelings, I got upset and stayed angry.
The next step John taught me was learning coping techniques – self-care. For me, I’ve learned that drinking water every morning and making sure to eat three times a day helps me to physically feel well. If I notice my body is starting to feel unwell, I now know to go drink water and eat something healthy. I’ve learned that when my feelings get hurt, I stay angry. Now I know that when I get upset, I need to talk it out with a loved one, just to get it out.
To track and analyze your life, take a look at each different area of your life. I’ll list a few suggested examples of areas of life, but no two people are the same.
Very Well Mind lists five; Physical, Social, Mental, Spiritual and Emotional.
Habits for Wellbeing lists eight; Physical, Psychological, Emotional, Social, Professional, Environmental, Spiritual and Financial.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs lists five; Physiological, Safety, Belonging, Esteem and Self-fulfillment.
The International Self-Care Foundation lists seven; Health literacy, Self-awareness of physical/mental condition, Physical activity, Healthy eating, Risk avoidance/mitigation, Good hygiene and Responsible use of products/services/medicines.
Once you’ve split your life into areas, take a look at what brings you joy in each area. Then, note stressors in each area. How often do those stressors occur? How do they affect you? What can you do to counteract the effects? What will help you to mitigate or avoid those affects in the future? It’s a bit of a process, but once you understand what makes you upset, you can learn how to counteract the upset, and eventually prevent the upsetting. Self-care is intended to help you maintain wellness and improve your quality of life. Learning your stressors, feelings related to those and what you can do about the stressors and feelings can help you maintain control and do more than just survive.
How do I implement self-care into my life?
Now that you know this – where do you go?
“Moms have a mile-long to-do list, and by default, they often put themselves at the bottom of the list. Sometimes, they don't even make the list at all,” said Julie Burton, mother, author and women’s co-op founder.
"The moment you become a mother and commit to caring for your child, set an intention for yourself: I will honor and respect myself by regularly taking care of my needs. This will make me happier and better able to care for my family," Burton said.
She suggests your journey of self-care begin by spending just 10 minutes a day focused on yourself. The only way to start something is to just do it. Choose one thing, and start there. Promise yourself you’ll spend 10 minutes – or 5, or 15 minutes – focusing on yourself and what you need. Choose the one thing that will help you most. If you feel guilty about spending time on you, remember what Coons said. “When women take care of themselves in all aspects of their lives, they actually have more energy, more reserve and depth to take care of others at home, at work, and in their community.”
“Be patient with yourself, keep your dreams alive, and treat yourself with the love and compassion that you show others,” said Burton. “As moms, we have an enormous opportunity to set a great example for our children of how to be kind to ourselves, and in turn, how to be kind to others. As the saying goes, we can't pour from an empty cup."
Fill your cup. Keep it full, and maintain your wellness. Teach your children that self-care is healthy, and show them that by caring for yourself.
What do you do for self-care?