What Does “Self-Care” Really Mean?


When people talk about mental health they often mention the term self-care. But what does that really mean? The term “self-care” is used frequently by the advertising industry to convince us (particularly women) that we “need” things like massages, bath bombs, wine, expensive beach vacations, $90 “buttery soft” sweatpants and a dozen other things because that’s how we take care of ourselves. Self-care IS very important, but we’re talking about self-care in the truest sense—the time and energy you put into making sure you are the healthiest version of yourself possible.

Why is self-care important?

Sometimes, we feel like we have to spend all of our physical and emotional energy making other people happy, at the expense of our own well-being. Maybe guilt and the need to avoid conflict motivates those efforts, or fear that someone may not reciprocate our love if they don’t get what they want. But you should never feel guilty about meeting your own personal needs before addressing the needs of others. In fact, when you take care of yourself and feel fulfilled, you are more able to tackle your responsibilities and contribute positively to the important relationships in your life. There’s a reason airlines recommend that you “put your own oxygen mask on first” before turning your attention to the care of others. You can’t be of service to anyone else if you aren’t in good shape yourself.

So what does self-care look like?

An important part of self-care is creating healthy boundaries that give you time and space to recharge. It means communicating clearly and with love when you need to prioritize your needs before the needs of others. Taking care of yourself doesn’t mean that you don’t care about the needs of others. When you do need to practice self-care and it means potentially disappointing someone else, you can always set a specific expectation for a time in the future when you’ll be available to them.

Physical Self-Care

Most ways of taking care of yourself physically are pretty obvious. We know we should exercise, eat healthy food and get adequate sleep. For most of us, these are things we’ve been told since we were children. But these are often things we overlook in the hustle and bustle of our busy days. 

Here are a few ways you can begin to incorporate physical self-care into your routine without feeling overwhelmed:

  • Improve your sleep quality by incorporating meditations and sleep exercises, and avoid the blue light of a screen for at least an hour before bed.
  • Make it a goal to stand up frequently throughout the day. If your job keeps you sedentary, set an alarm on your phone or use a smartwatch to remind you to take a quick walk to the break room or stand up for a few minutes each hour. Recent studies have shown that too much time spent sedentary is just as harmful as smoking.
  • Try to avoid alcohol and other unhealthy substances as a means of coping with stress. It can be tempting to turn to a cold beer or nice glass of wine after a stressful day, but that can easily become habit-forming. Instead, consider mindfulness practices or an evening walk around the block to clear your mind.

Emotional Self-Care

Most of us are probably less familiar with ways to  practice emotional self-care. Emotional self-care is the practice of identifying your emotions and then taking action to honor those emotions in a way that will keep you feeling emotionally, psychologically and spiritually.

Consider incorporating some of these tactics to increase your emotional health:

  • Limit the amount of time you on websites or social media outlets. Your social media feeds tend to be full of provocative information, conflict, anger or false news. Instead, engage with sources containing positive messages. Be intentional about what you read and see, especially if the media sparks anxiety or fear.
  • Start a simple gratitude practice. Make a list or keep a journal of the good things in your life.
  •  Try taking 10 minutes or so to meditate or close your eyes while breathing deeply, recentering and promoting a sense of calm in a world of chaos.Rediscover a hobby or activity, find something new that inspires you creatively or intellectually.

Self-care will look different for you than it will for other people. Remember to simply find the physical and emotional actions that benefit your well-being as the unique individual you are.