What Is Self-Care—And How Does Anyone Have Time For It?

Self-care really isn’t just about yoga and facials—it’s about checking in on yourself and making sure you’re OK.

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Woman with headphones and backpack eats lunch outside: What is self-care?

Photo, iStock/grki

After the 2016 American election, the New York Times reported that search traffic for the term “self-care” had “the largest increase in the last five years.” Self-care has since become a wellness industry buzzword, increasingly used to promote essential oil diffusers and spa packages. As a result, it’s easy to brush the concept off as a trendy hashtag geared towards the wealthy. But before you roll your eyes and dismiss it entirely, here’s a reminder of self-care’s long, storied history rooted in feminism and activism—and why we could all use a little bit more of it.

OK, start at the beginning then. What exactly is self-care?

Just as the name implies, self-care is the act of caring for oneself. How are you doing emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually? If you’re not functioning well in one of these areas, self-care is doing whatever you need to do to recharge yourself and avoid burnout.

Self-care is often associated with maintaining your well-being (say, scheduling time for a walk with a friend after a particularly rough week), while wellness is more akin to the consumer-focused pampering touted by brands. Self-care is strengthening your endurance and resiliency as you go about your life, which means it’s more than just relaxing.

Lynda Monk, a certified life coach and registered social worker in Salt Spring Island, B.C., calls it “showing up” for yourself. In the same way you might run to take care of a client or family member, you need to take care of your own needs, too. “It’s all about saying, ‘I’m worthy of love and care, I am worthy of love and respect’,” she says. The caveat? Self-care looks different for everyone, and because your needs change as your life changes, the way you practice it will change over time, too.

We all need systems of support that allow us the time to practise self-care, says Farrah Khan, manager of Consent Comes First at Ryerson University and the author of Caring For Yourself Is A Radical Act . But, she adds, our ability to do so is also affected by race, class and gender differences. (For instance, are you prevented for taking time for yourself because your partner refuses to share the chores, or your employer frowns upon taking a lunch break, or by the fact you need to work three jobs just to get by?)

Where did the idea of self-care come from?

Some scholars point all the way back to Socrates’ belief (that’s right, the ancient Greek philosopher) that knowing and caring for yourself makes you a more effective person. In an essay for Slate, writer Aisha Harris delves into self-care’s connection to activism, the healthcare industry and how its mainstream rise coincided with the “wellness” trend—which is probably where the stereotypical connection between self-care and spa services comes from.

In 1988, the queer Black writer and activist Audre Lorde revolutionized the term by declaring self-care a powerful act. And it is powerful to make time to care for your own well-being, especially if you live in a world that doesn’t necessarily want you to succeed. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” she wrote in her book of essays A Burst of Light. The political twist on self-care explains why years later, a new generation of activists found inspiration in her words. When you’re already on the margins of society, the unpredictability of post-2016 populism is especially trying (and you can’t fight for justice when you’re already exhausted).

Self-care also has roots in the medical community. Clinical psychologist Dr. Khush Amaria, senior clinical director for Toronto-based CBT Associates and BEACON digital therapy (which focuses on mental health therapy and growing resiliency), explains the healthcare origins of self-care in two parts. First, there was self-help—doctors arming patients with methods to care for themselves whenever they weren’t under direct medical supervision. Then, there was self-care. The self-care movement for clinicians focuses on ensuring health-care practitioners take care of themselves, so they can give their patients better care as well.

That concept grew to include those beyond the medical field—such as the growing recognition of the gendered mental load women often take on in households and, often, in workplaces.

“As women, we often have many areas where we are doing caregiving work, whether formal or informal,” says Monk. “That element of caring is often really invisible labour. The toll it can take emotionally, physically, psychologically, spiritually, is sometimes not paid attention to and we see much higher rates of stress and stress-related illness in women in different parts of the world.”

How do I practice self-care?

Above all, when pared down to the basic idea of self-maintenance and preservation, self-care should be freeand the first step is recognizing what your body, brain or heart needs to recharge.

“It’s experimenting, listening to the body, listening to your own inner wisdom, asking regularly, What do I need? How do I feel? Doing those really mindful, self-aware check-ins with the self,” says Monk.

While everyone’s ideal for of self-care is unique, Claire Booth, author of The Achiever Fever Cure: How I Learned to Stop Striving Myself Crazy, has a few suggestions: she likes to meditate, write in her journal and practice mental check-ins that she calls “self-inquiry”—which is when she writes down her stressful thoughts and then analyzes them. “The process of inquiring into a stressful thought forces me to see my own irrational thinking as well as how persuasive fear and self-doubt can be,” she says.

Khan suggests focusing on your five senses.  “I have a self-care emergency kit. What do I need to smell, what do I need to taste, what do I need to listen to, what do I need to hear when I’m feeling overwhelmed by a situation?” she says. Fill a small pouch with things you typically find soothing—say, a favourite candy, a calming hand lotion and something you can hold to feel grounded—and keep it in your purse so you always have it on hand.

How do I make time for self-care?

Start small. If work is eating into your lunch breaks, or you realize you can never hit your favourite Saturday spin class because you’re the only one doing housework, take a pause and recognize that your boundaries are being eroded. Offer yourself the small mercy of asking for help. Plus, determining your limits (which is a form of self-care) will ultimately save you time.

When changing the situation is truly impossible—maybe you’re a single parent or have a terrible boss—try to work in even smaller comforts into your life. Khan suggests listening to a favourite song on your way to work instead of spending your commute stressing about what’s next. You’ll think clearer if you have some room to breathe.

Another key is remembering that your well-being is important. Be honest about your schedule and what you really need to do. Then, schedule some time for yourself into your routine (whether it’s just to chill or to finally KonMari your room) and treat that time as you would any other commitment.

Just as important as recognizing that there are no one-size fits all actions for self-care, however, is making sure that you’re actually helping yourself with your practices. The second your self-care becomes another stressor on your  list (like, say, forcing yourself to the gym when you’ve only had two hours of sleep), you’ve turned it into a task.

Is self-care selfish?

One of the most common metaphors for self-care is a cup—if your cup is already empty, you can’t give to others.  On the flip side, at an extreme, there is a risk of prioritizing your own self-care to the point that it could be detrimental to other people in your life. “It’s not selfish to have boundaries and put space in there, but I think there is always a balance with any of these things,” Khan says.

Amaria also looks at self-care from a mental health perspective. “For some individuals, buying into this idea of self-care is important because it is probably going to prevent bad things from happening—it will prevent burnout and difficulties in relationships, and it’s also probably part of what helps people be productive and effective in their everyday activity,” she says. Taking care of your brain lets you make healthier decisions overall, and that’s not selfish whatsoever.

Whatever practices you decide to take on, remember—you are just as worthy of care as everyone else in your life.

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