How to Make Self-Care Work For You

On turning the concept into more than just a buzzword.

Self-care is one of the trendiest, most topical concepts around at the moment. It makes sense — as we millennials struggle with more debt, more responsibilities, and a rising cost of living, along with a world in which the bad news is increasingly circulated through social media, we all like to take a little bit of time to ourselves. But people of other generations, too, are realizing that it’s actually quite nice to prioritize your mental health over societal demands.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve tried doing the bath-and-candles thing, and while it felt nice, it didn’t work like I thought it would. In other words, I did not feel like that girl in the relaxed self-care images, if you know what I mean:

Image by Pexels from Pixabay. This is a woman who does self-care.

My problems were still there, I didn’t feel rested or relaxed. I felt a little cheated, to be honest. Where was my glowing skin? Where was my stress-free afternoon? Why could’t that tiny bit of bliss be extended to a whole day, month, lifetime?

The visual promise of self-care is that if you do Insta-worthy spreads of tea mugs, cosy socks, and thick novels, you’ll feel good. My take? If you think that’s what self-care is, you’re doing it wrong.

What is self-care, really?

To me, self-care means putting yourself first and not feeling selfish or guilty about it. It means you get me time without the non-stop drumming of to-do lists in your head. It means that, in order to do your responsibilities and help others, you have to look after yourself as a top priority.

Photo by Lukasz Saczek on Unsplash

One of the things I’ve seen a lot of people struggle with in the self-care arena is feeling like things are too decadent, or too luxurious, to be self-care. Now, I’ll be the first to say that you do not need to spend a lot of money to care for yourself. But if $100/tub face cream is what makes you feel right, do what you have to and don’t feel bad.

It might not look Instagrammable. It might not cost you anything. It might even be something other people say isn’t self-care. Truthfully, none of that matters. Self-care is putting yourself first without feeling bad about it. To other people, prioritizing yourself looks like you’re being indulgent, selfish or lazy, but in fact, it’s all just self-care.

Self-care is only powerful in a routine.

For self-care to work its best, it can’t be a one-off. It has to be something you purposefully build into your everyday life, as a ritual or a routine. My single bath helped me feel OK once, but it doesn’t help in the long run.

Photo by Velizar Ivanov on Unsplash

Self-care is something that resets you. Your body, your mind — all of you is a complex machine, and it will work best (and you’ll be happiest) if you do regular maintenance rather than intense, infrequent bursts of looking after yourself.

For some people, this is why they’ve chosen elaborate skin-care routines as a form of self-care. In fact, this is one of the most popular types of self-care, because it looks “indulgent” (read: looks like frivolously spending money just to make yourself feel a bi better); it works best if you do it regularly and frequently; and it’s easily translated to a visual. But in reality, just like every other type of self-care, it’s just a little way to make yourself feel valued — by yourself. That’s important.

It’s about what you don’t do, as much as what you do.

As much as people love to display the things they buy for self-care, I think that an aspect which often goes unnoticed is what you intentionally remove from your life as self-care.

Photo by Ann Danilina on Unsplash

For instance, making the choice to not look at screens after a certain time of the night is self-care. Avoiding social media is self-care. Choosing decaffeinated coffee or tea is self-care. Even dropping toxic people from your life is a form of self-care.

If caffeine makes you anxious, find a way to give yourself an anxiety-free hot drink. If looking at your performance statistics (on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc) makes you feel like you’re not as good as others, take it out of your life. Essentially, you identify the needs you should address, and find a self-care way of fulfilling them.

Self-care is unique for everyone.

I truly believe that the reason self-care is looked upon with scorn or misunderstanding sometimes is because people look at what others choose for their self-care, and they don’t understand it.

Photo by Reinaldo Kevin on Unsplash

I personally find skin-care routines bizarre, because to me the expenditure and time would stress me out more than relax me. But I understand that for others, the luxury is what makes them feel like they’re centering their own needs. The physical aspect of massaging your own face, the nice smells, the expense , the regularity — it all comes together to indicate self-care for those people.

For my own self-care, I do things others would find irritating or mystifying. I know that I have to be outside for a certain part of each day, doing some kind of physical exertion. I also know that writing helps me identify and address my own emotions, which is important for me to stay happy and healthy. To others, that might not work.

If you’re doing “self-care” by copying what you see on Instagram and it’s not working out for you, try something different, even if you’ve never seen it labelled “self-care.” Self-care may take different forms for everyone, but the end goal is the same: priorize yourself.

Let me be upfront: training yourself to enjoy self-care is hard. We’re trained from an early age to always be productive, always keep grinding, always keep working hard. I remember in college when people would boast about pulling all-nighters in the library. We tend to be harder on ourselves than we would dream of being on anyone else. This is why I think people struggle, when they first come to self care: first because they think it’s unnecessary and frivolous, second because we’re conditioned to feel guilty when we don’t put others first.

But I believe that’s wrong — it’s important to look after ourselves so we can work and feel our best, but beyond improving productivity, it’s important to feel good for our own sakes.

Biology MSc. Psychology nerd. She/her. Get my FREE 5-day Medium Starter Kit to make money writing about what you love:

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