What comes to mind when you hear the term self-care? You’re probably imagining someone slapping on an expensive face mask, sitting in a bubble bath and sipping on a glass of wine. Or maybe you’re thinking of the #selfcare posts on Instagram — a sea of salads, skincare and scented candles. Though tropes like these aren’t necessarily excluded from the category of self-care, they constitute only a very small part of it. The reality is that self-care can be a little more complicated than what we see on social media. Each of us have different parts of ourselves that we need to take care of and different methods of carrying out this care. One size doesn’t — and shouldn’t — fit all.
Though self-care’s rising popularity may seem positive — if self-care becomes more normalized, mental health becomes less stigmatized — there are negative consequences. As the term has entered the mainstream, we have drifted further away from its actual meaning. Suddenly anything and everything can be labeled self-care, from skipping class to seven-hour Netflix binges, rendering the term almost meaningless. There is no point in trying to define an all-encompassing form of self-care. By doing so, we’ve lost sight of the core principle of self-care: listening and tending to the needs of our minds and bodies.
The problem with online self-care suggestions is that they rob us of our ability to be in tune with our specific needs. Rather than paying attention to our individual experiences, we’re directed by someone else’s ideas of what self-care should look like. A recent study found that students often turn to the internet to locate self-care strategies. But no one else knows what you need as well as you. This is especially true in a time when the sources telling us how to care for ourselves may not have our best interests at heart. Many social media influencers promote self-care in sponsored posts, pushing us towards all kinds of products promising to lead to happiness. Given that self-care is a $10 billion industry in the U.S., it seems that money has become the priority, rather than mental health. We’ve forgotten that self-care is about what we need to practice, not what we need to purchase.
A common misconception underlies the commodification of self-care, namely that self-care is synonymous with self-indulgence. When we associate self-care with expensive skincare and stacks of self-help books, we start to see taking care of yourself as an unnecessary extravagance. This is far from the truth. Audre Lorde said it best: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation.” While caring for yourself is a luxury, it can also be necessary — both for your own health and happiness and also for your ability to be compassionate towards others. Here lies the crucial difference between indulgence and self-care: the former provides an escape in the short-term, while the latter shifts your relationship with yourself and others in the long-term.
When we realize that self-care is more than pampering ourselves, we confront a difficult truth: self-care requires work that looks a little different for everyone. Self-care might mean admitting that you can’t heal alone and allowing yourself to accept help. It might mean setting boundaries, and learning that it’s okay to say no to requests you aren’t comfortable with, or it might mean saying yes to new experiences and expanding your comfort zone. It might mean replacing toxic habits with healthier coping mechanisms, like meditation or exercise, or it might mean letting yourself eat an entire tub of ice cream without feeling bad about it. It might mean choosing eight hours sleep over watching another episode on Netflix, or it might mean watching another episode on Netflix over getting eight hours sleep. All, some or none of these things might work for you — what matters is focusing on what feels right for your needs.
Once we accept that self-care takes time and requires real commitment, we can learn to be more patient with ourselves and trust the process. The benefits of this mindset are hard to ignore, including elevated mood, increased productivity, lower blood pressure, improved heart health and a more balanced, happier life.
Self-care isn’t about letting someone else tell you what you need. It’s about valuing yourself enough to listen to your unique needs and tending to those needs in a way that works for you. The process might be hard, take time and look different from what you see online. Don’t let that deter you. When you commit to the process of self-care, you’re making an investment. You’re investing in your validity, your health and your happiness. That’s definitely worth the work.
We hear the term “self-care” all the time, but what does it really mean? To whom is it available and in what ways is it attainable? “The Pursuit of Happiness” will explore practical ways for NYU students to take care of themselves, proving that being broke and busy isn’t a barrier to self-care.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 15, 2019, print edition. Email Hope Rangaswami at opin[email protected]