What Does Self-Care Actually Mean?

By Lauren Presutti

Your laundry basket is overflowing, you don’t have a clue what’s for dinner, your kids are fighting over the remote, and you’re wondering how to get grape juice stains out of carpet. Then your phone lights up and you see a new article posted on self-care with pictures of bubble baths, candles, and wine. Yeah right, I’ll be lucky if I shower today.

If this thought has ever crossed your mind, you are not alone. Many people are flooded with online information casting self-care as a luxurious escape from reality. We see it on Facebook, we see it on Buzzfeed, it even pops up in our daily conversations. Your girlfriends may have urged you to go get your nails done when you express how overwhelmed you feel. Your best buds might have asked you to play a round of golf to blow off some steam, but you’re drowning in other responsibilities.

I spend a lot of time talking about self-care in my therapy sessions with clients, but only rarely does it resemble the #selfcare we see on social media today. Instead, we talk about practicing self-care as a necessity that does not need to be complicated, expensive, time-consuming, or far-reaching. Self-care means doing things for ourselves that are going to help us have our needs met. Sometimes that means prioritizing sleep, remembering to eat breakfast, getting fresh air, making time for exercise, going to health appointments, or asking for help. Even taking out the trash is self-care if the act of doing so provides you with relief in some way (you’re bound to feel more frustrated if you let garbage pile up in the kitchen). Self-care might mean taking your medication on time, confronting a toxic friend, doing meal prep in advance, saying no to something, or simply getting a haircut. Contrary to popular belief, self-care is often boring – and that’s okay.

If you are able to incorporate some leisure activities that elicit feelings of joy and relaxation, that can be another critical part of your self-care. Once you have your basic needs met (the mundane part of self-care), try to think about ways to integrate positive activities. Again, this does not need to be extravagant. Sometimes slowing down for a jigsaw puzzle, a family board game, or a living room movie night can boost our mental health. Throughout the day, you might allow yourself small breaks to read magazines, color, journal, play with your pet, or listen to music. For when you have more time, self-care activities might include doing some yoga, shopping online, visiting a neighbor, jogging, taking pictures, going to a park, learning a new hobby, or checking out a museum. Understanding what works best for you might mean learning more about yourself and getting curious about what helps you and what doesn’t. Often, we have to go through some trial and error to figure out which self-care activities are ideal for us. This can mean exploring lots of different ways to de-stress, holding onto the ones that work and throwing out the ones that don’t.

Many people feel empowered when engaging in self-care activities because it means they are taking control of their mental health and allowing themselves the time and space to do something constructive. The more we practice intentionally making time for our own self-care, the more resilient we become, which strengthens our ability to cope with distress and manage whatever comes our way.

If you’ve been trying to prioritize self-care but still feel like it is unattainable for you, ask yourself why you might not have the time or ability. Is there anything you can minimize? Can you ask for help to create more room in your life?  Why hasn’t your mental health been made a priority? What changes might be possible?

Finally, remember that practicing self-care is a learning process. If you are struggling, connecting with a mental health therapist might help you reframe the way you perceive self-care. Sometimes it’s helpful to talk about what’s going on and to strategize how to make positive changes with a professional.

If you have questions or if I can be a resource for you, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Your mental health matters.

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