Self-Care is More than a Buzzword

by Natalie Parmenter, MS, LCMHC

The internet is amazing. It has revolutionized the way that we live, work, communicate, and stay connected. We are able to pay bills, manage bank accounts, take classes, video chat, and get quick answers to those pesky questions we think of at inconvenient times. The opposing force of convenience however, includes spoilers, scams, and an avalanche of ads. I’ve found some great things through internet ads, so it’s not all bad. Maybe you even found this blog through social media marketing! But the marketing industry has a way of co-opting phrases that dilutes their original meaning. Self-care is one of the prime suspects of this right now as we enter a new year with a thousand ads targeted at self-improvement.

We often gain our understanding of an idea through context. Where did you see it first? Who shared it? What photo was presented with it or what conversation was it a part of? The introduction to self-care for many has been through the media with marketing campaigns aimed at personal services or products like bath bombs, pedicures, a one-hour massage, and even makeup. If I were to derive my definition of self-care from the media at large, I would think that it’s all about pampering. Pampering is a luxury and one we can’t always afford, so we convince ourselves we don’t NEED self-care. As is often the case, this is only part of the picture. The aim of self-care is staying energized and healthy enough to keep up with all that is required of you.

Self-care does not have one definable method. It is about caring for your well-being in all aspects, not just indulgences or appearance. Our basic needs are universal and recharge us: sleep, food, shelter. There’s a lot more flexibility when it comes to defining our social, familial, and cognitive needs. If a battery runs low and stops working, you replace it or recharge it. Thankfully, our bodies and minds are the most efficient rechargeable batteries out there! Recharging your mind and energy often can be as simple as staying in to get some rest or calling a loved one for a good heart to heart. Sometimes it is taking care of your body, though usually this is less about aesthetics and more about physical health: going for a walk, making a physical therapy appointment, or getting a massage. It’s all about how YOU recharge.

What this looks like can be highly variable among individuals. Something that charges one person’s battery may actually drain another person’s battery, especially when it comes to our social needs. Extroversion and introversion illustrate this idea beautifully. An extrovert typically feels energized by spending time with friends, whereas socializing uses up the juice in the introvert’s battery; they recharge with independent activities and being alone. That doesn’t mean that introverts don’t need people and relationships, we all have a need for love and belonging. This just has to be balanced with the recharging needed to sustain those relationships. The extrovert still benefits from alone time as well but may need a reprieve in the form of a night out afterward. The same idea holds true for time with families, reading a book, doing physical activity, and all the tasks that benefit our emotional, physical, and mental well-being.

So how did we get from self-care being about meeting our needs to self-care being the latest buzzword to sell beauty products? The answer seems to be rather like a game of connect the dots. Therapists and the mental health community started talking about implementing doing conscious self-care to avoid burnout in caretakers and professionals. This is especially applicable in mental health work since attentively caring for others is often draining. One of my favorite expressions comes from this concept: You must fill your own cup in order to pour into others. This adage is a really powerful reminder in our fast paced, productivity driven culture and has resonated with people everywhere. The more popular the idea of self-care became, the more opportunities businesses saw to market their product or service by aligning themselves with the model of self-care.

The undeniability of needing self-care makes a pretty powerful argument for indulging in some luxuries. The most effective lie is the one laced with the truth. Does your skin need care? Yes! Does your skin need a line of brand name products to do so effectively? Maybe not. There is a psychology to marketing that hinges on getting us to believe that caring for yourself means investing in the products that company is selling. When you see advertisements, consider them with a critical lens and a wise mind. Ask yourself if it is something that you actually need to recharge or is it a tactic to sell? Only you can provide that answer for yourself as our needs are all individualized. Marketing isn’t always insidious, otherwise we would never learn about new things that would be beneficial. However, we must consider the source and be critical consumers of media rather than believing every claim of self-care. That’s not to say that all beauty products aren’t self-care. I simply mean that you must define for yourself what your self-care is and be cautious of overly-attributing this to be about your appearance or something you can purchase. This makes it all the more important to pay attention to your body and brain. Learn how your mind and your body function best and what recharges your battery to get you through the day to day.

Self-care can also be a complicated idea. To illustrate how individualized self-care is to each person, here’s a short, but loaded question: Will you feel better after going for a run? This answer is going to be different for everyone. For those who regularly exercise, a run can be fantastic self-care. If you’re not in a regular exercise routine, then a run would likely be rather strenuous. A walk would be a more appropriate means of integrating some physical activity. For some, a run might be used as compensation for eating too much or eating “junk” food. Then it has become punishment and not rejuvenation. Having a sweet treat can be self-care but be wary of bargaining with yourself to “deserve” self-care, whether it is about food or your worth. You have intrinsic worth that does not require earning the right to care for yourself! This goes for everyone whether it’s related to food, medical care, or just saying no. You deserve to take care of yourself. In fact, you’re the only one that CAN do it!

What’s next then? How do you identify what you need and what fills your cup and recharges your battery? Here are a few ideas of what self-care can look like for you.

Go for a walk – Good for taking a quick break at work, getting your body moving, clearing your
mind if your thoughts are racing, getting outside if you are indoors all day.

Take 2-10 minutes to sit and take deep breaths. Using a mindfulness app or other guided meditation to guide you in deep breathing is helpful to keep your mind focused on the breath, which helps calm the racing thoughts while calming the body physically. Check out Headspace for a great introduction to mindfulness.

Take a snack break. Our brains are fueled by carbohydrates and our attention and focus are better when we take breaks rather than push through for long periods. This has dual benefits! If you are in one place (work or at home) you can also use this as an opportunity to leave to grab a snack and stave off feeling stuck in one spot.

Ask for an hour to yourself. At least an hour. Ask your partner, spouse, friend, etc., whoever you need to help keep the distractions at bay, to help give you an hour to decompress. This means they keep the kids, calls/texts, and interruptions to a minimum.

Get up and stretch. If you find yourself in front of the computer for long periods, get up and stretch at regular intervals. Find a quick YouTube video of stretches or yoga that can be done in 5 minutes. This is a good break for your mind but also your eyes.

Write it out. Grab some paper or a keyboard and write out what the worries, fears, and thoughts are that are plaguing you and making it difficult to keep going. Set a specific time to do this so you can “bargain” with yourself to give the worries their space at that set time.

Make the appointment. You know the one. We’ve all had it at some point. The one that you can live without but would be so beneficial if there was only time to do it. Make the choice to give it priority. The massage your shoulders and feet need from waiting tables for a living, the optometrist appointment for the headaches and eye strain that have been increasing, the physical therapy for that joint that aches, and the therapy appointment to finally give yourself healing.