Self-care can get a bad rap as a fluffy, self-indulgent kind of behavior-excusing activity used to market anything from expensive spa days to junk food and Netflix binges. Like the “treat yo self” episode from Parks and Rec where Donna and Tom take self-care to bank account-busting extremes, buying luxury goods and indulging in every sense.
Taken this way, self-care fails to attend to root causes and may actually exacerbate stressors like poor finances or physical health. How do you know if your self-care really isn’t? Take stock of how you feel afterward. If you feel “hungover” from your treat, whether because you feel guilt from overspending or overeating, or you feel bad about watching too much reality TV, then maybe this wasn’t the right treat for you. Self-care is personal and situationally dependent.
In its best form, self-care should be responsive to emotional needs and can be an important tool for battling burnout and increasing a general sense of well-being. Not surprisingly, the research on self-care emerges in large part from high-stress caring professions—medicine, counseling, social work—where studies have found that not only does self-care improve these workers’ quality of life, but that it actually increases their ability to do their jobs well and to stay in such challenging careers.
Practicing self-care well might mean matching the cure to the symptom, or to the person. Recent research on social workers, a group at a high risk for burnout, has suggested the need for a more nuanced accounting for whom the “self” in self-care actually is. It considers both professional and personal contexts when thinking about burnout and ways to prevent it through self-care. In other words, we live and work in different contexts, and our emotional and mental states are unique, which means that self-care can and should look different for all of us.
What counts as self-care for one may not be appropriate for someone else. For example, if you are an introvert with a hectic work environment, self-care might include quiet time. Or, if you are lonely, self-care might involve socializing with family and close friends. If you work all day with little kids in a daycare setting, maybe self-care for you needs to involve going to a sophisticated film and discussing it with grown-ups. But, if you feel pressure to operate at a high-level of discourse in your day job as an attorney, maybe you’d be better served going to see the latest Disney movie—better to unwind with some popcorn and animated monkeys.
To get started on more personalized self-care, list out the needs that you feel aren’t getting met for you, or try to identify and abstract the nature of the stressors you’re experiencing. Do you have a bad boss? Maybe the abstract version of this issue is too much conflict, in which case, the self-care match might be a soothing activity like yoga, or a solo hike, or a visit to a botanical garden—whatever increases your sense of peace.
Good self-care also means keeping a variety of long-term goals in mind, especially since common ones like improving finances or physical health may be stressful themselves. For example, if budgeting or dieting cause low-level anxiety, it can be important to leaven your days with treats that are cheap or free and healthy. To be well prepared, keep a list of these things near at hand so that you can consult it easily when in need of a boost. Examples might include watching a favorite TV show, cooking a meal with a friend, calling a loved one, doing a guided meditation, taking your dog to the park, reading a magazine in the tub—whatever feels restoring or luxurious to you. In this way, not only have you cared for yourself in the short term, but you’ve not derailed your long-term goals in such a way that you feel bad about yourself afterwards. Self-care needn’t mean self-sabotage.
Another way to think about self-care that will be mood enhancing and that responds to our individual needs is to remember the importance of the combination of challenge and immersion that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi dubbed “flow.” If your career and day-to-day work life doesn’t offer this kind of experience—even in the best of jobs, not every day can be a “flow” day—then perhaps this is a way to tweak self-care to the specifics of our personalities and needs. Try listing “flow” activities, from the minor (scrapbooking, baking for a friend, painting your nails) to the more labor intensive (tiling a floor, fixing a car, cooking an elaborate feast). In these activities, we are taken out of ourselves and are also adding meaning to our lives through engaging projects. This kind of self-care can cushion us from workplace stress by developing additional facets to our identities: We are workers, but also part-time painters, master bakers in the making, weekend motorcycle mechanics.
These kind of experiments in flow and identity building are a far cry from Tom and Donna’s binge-and-bust model of self-care. Still, if the spa is calling and there’s room in the budget, do go ahead and “treat yo self.”
This article was published in May 2019 and has been updated.