What is Self-Care?

This week’s topic is self-care, another co-worker suggestion (thank you!). I thought that self-care tied in well to last week’s topic of resilience, and that it was especially important in today’s world.

As usual, I asked our lovely followers if they think self-care is important, and 19 said yes while 0 said no. This isn’t surprising to me; I had a feeling everyone would think self-care is important! I also asked, what do you do for self-care? And I got lots of different answers; exercising, meditation, journaling, colouring, dog walking and reading! Clearly, what people consider self-care is very broad and can include lots of different things. But it did get me thinking, what exactly IS self-care? What does it mean?

The $4.5 Trillion Wellness Industry

Self-care = taking care of yourself, right? Examples of self-care I often hear or see are things like taking a bubble bath, having a glass of wine, lighting scented candles, using a face mask, even reading or listening to self-care themed books. When I think about it more, however, the majority of things on a ‘self-care list’ are commodities. Bubble bath, wine, candles and face masks all come with a price tag. And likely due to the popularity of self-care products, in recent years, the wellness economy has become a “multi-market mega opportunity” (Source 1). In fact, the wellness/self-care economy is worth $4.2 trillion US dollars. (For reference, Canada’s GDP last year was $1.7 trillion USD).

The largest portion of this industry is personal-care, beauty & anti-aging, which is worth $1.08 trillion dollars (Source 1). This is often pushed by fashion and beauty magazines and celebrities. Vogue’s YouTube channel is well known for their celebrity 25-step “beauty and self-care routines”; one of which starts with Liv Tyler tying her hair back with a $232 scrunchie. I think celebrity videos really highlight how exclusionary this version of self-care is. Most people don’t have the money to afford celebrity skin-care routines, but as well, not everyone has the money or time for bubble baths or wine! So maybe it’s time to think about self-care a little differently.

The History of Self-Care

So, what was self-care before this massive wellness industry? It’s almost hard to imagine self-care apart from spending money! But in fact, the idea of self-care has existed for thousands of years. “Many trace the origin of self-care to Ancient Greece” (Source 2) and philosopher Socrates, and his self-care looked very different. He is quoted as saying, “are you not ashamed for devoting all your care to increasing your wealth, reputation, and honors, while not caring for or even considering your reason, truth, and constant improvement of your soul?” (Source 3). It’s almost as if he’s calling out self-care gurus and beauty influencers from the past! “His self-care brand was questioning power . . . and he advised ambitious youths to seek high office, but only once they'd worked on themselves” (Source 3). For Socrates, self-care was political; about questioning authority, and encouraging people to active improving their soul before they became leaders.

This idea resurfaced in the 1980s with French philosopher Michel Foucault, who encouraged his students in a way similar to how Socrates did. He said, “you should pay heed to yourself, apply your mind to yourself, be aware of your qualities. And in this way, you will be able to participate in political life” (Source 3). This idea of self-care was also picked up later in the decade by “New York poet laureate, Caribbean-American writer and self-described ‘black lesbian feminist warrior mother’ Audre Lorde . . . You might have heard Lorde's most famous self-care quote, from A Burst of Light: ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” (Source 3). For Lorde, the act of self-care was revolutionary, and living “as fully and sweetly as possible” was a fight against “the many forms of anti-life surrounding us” (Source 3). Lorde, as a black female lesbian, brought Socrates’ ideas into a new time with an incredibly new perspective.

For these influential figures, self-care was a political and sometimes revolutionary act; a far cry from the commercialized self-care and wellness industries of today! I think that these ideas of self-care are much closer to what self-care should be for us today.

Real Self-Care

So what, then, is ‘real’ self-care? I think Dr. Jody Carrington says it beautifully (and her quote was part of what inspired this whole post!): “The most effective self-care doesn't feel good. Growth is an uphill game.” Real self-care is when you're contributing to self-growth. It might be something like getting up half an hour early in the morning and going for a run! That doesn't feel good, but it's good for you. and it makes you feel better in the long run! Real self-care is doing things that will actually be better for you in the future; it helps you have a better tomorrow than you do today. I think that everyone who sent in answers for our poll had it much closer to ‘real’ self-care than what I imagined in my head! Exercise, reading, meditation; everything that was sent in are activities with the potential to improve yourself.

Real self-care can’t be completed in one quick action. Taking a bath or having a glass of wine are indulgences; extras that can make us feel better, but it only lasts for a short amount of time. As psychotherapist Whitney Goodman puts it, “self-care is supposed to make us better in the long-term. It’s not supposed to be a quick fix or a punishment . . . It doesn’t always feel good at the moment, but it almost always leads to long-lasting change. We can’t just care for ourselves when things get bad and hope for a miracle. Real self-care requires practice, commitment, and introspection. It requires putting yourself first and getting in touch with what you really need, not just what you really want” (Source 4).

Goodman’s Psychology Today article “When Self-Care Becomes a Weapon” was one of my favourites. She directly addresses the gap between what ‘self-care products’ provide and what we really need to practice self-care. Since she says it so much better than I could, I want to share her advice self-care guidelines and ideas:

“Some self-care guidelines to follow:

· Drinking or using substances is not self-care. We cannot selectively numb emotions. If you numb the negative ones, you will numb the positive ones too. If you are really struggling with a particularly difficult or strong emotion, drugs won’t solve the problem. Sorry.

· Self-care has to happen regularly, not just when you hit a breaking point.

· Ask yourself what you need and respect that need.

· Self-care is not a to-do list item. It is a necessary long-term survival skill.

· There is no act of self-care that works for every person or every situation. The things I use change constantly.

Free self-care ideas:

· Set boundaries

· Drink water and eat food that fuels your body

· Turn off your phone when you go to bed

· Spend time with people you love

· Get outside every day

· Pet a dog or cat

· Speak to yourself kindly

· Tell someone you love them

· Practice meditation

· Log off social media for the day, the week, the year, or forever

· Organize some part of your home

· Practice forgiveness for yourself and others

· Cry or laugh

· Unfollow people on social media

· Move your body

These tips are simple, but they have to be done continuously. If you wait until you’re at a breaking point, cleaning your room and petting your dog won’t work fast enough. This may lead you back to ineffective coping skills that provide you with quick, fleeting relief.

The first step towards real self-care is believing you deserve it. Every single day. Not as a treat, not as a reward, but just because you are a human that needs it to live and thrive” (Source 4).

And in line with Socrates, Foucault and Lorde, I think self-care can also include activities that consider reason, truth, and constant improvement of your soul. This includes things like reading books by diverse authors, educating yourself about different histories and cultures, and getting involved with organizations that support those who are less fortunate. These can help you to exist in this world as a more aware, kind, and knowledgeable person; self-care can also mean improving yourself so that you can help others.


1. https://s3.amazonaws.com/cbi-research-portal-uploads/2019/04/11140542/wellness-map.png

2. https://tuftsobserver.org/the-self-care-obsession/

3. https://mashable.com/article/self-care-history/

4. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/healing-together/201907/when-self-care-becomes-weapon

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