With a study showing stress on the rise in America for the first time in 10 years (1), and a 24-hour news cycle reporting natural disasters and acts of terror, violence, and political strife worldwide, it is little wonder that more people are interested in the concept and practice of self-care.
History and Evolution Of Self-Care
In the 1970s, the medical community began using the term self-care to describe the ways people improved their health without the direct actions of a doctor (2). For them, self-care included immediate remedies like taking over the counter pain medication for a sprain or a headache, as well as long-term behaviors such as eating healthily and exercising. The medical community hoped people -- especially those with chronic diseases or reduced access to health care -- would live longer and feel better if they felt more personally responsible and empowered to invest consistently in their health.
People are not just bodies, however, and health is not just physical. In 1988, activist Audre Lorde expanded the definition of self-care to include psychological health, writing “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”(3). In a society that devalued her identity as a woman of color and a lesbian, Lorde viewed caring for her mental, physical, and emotional well-being as a countermeasure necessary to her survival.
(For a deeper dive into the history and evolution of this term, read NPR's article about the practice of self-care in contemporary culture, Slate's article on the origin and history of self-care, and the article in The New York Times examining self-care practices in relation to current events.)
When most people use the term self-care today, they are referring to a set of practices designed to support physical, mental, and emotional wellness. This is a whole-person approach to living a vital, useful, and meaningful life, no matter the circumstances or environment. But how does this definition translate into practice? Or, as I sometimes ask my clients, “what does that look like in your life?”
Self-care is not self indulgence. There is a common misconception that practicing self-care is the same thing as doing whatever you want, or whatever feels good. In fact, self-care is a practice designed to help meet your needs, especially when your circumstances make that challenging. Self indulgence isn’t about meeting needs -- it is about seeking sensations of pleasure or comfort, regardless of the implication.
When I was in school and studying for my licensure exam, the last thing I wanted to do was… study for my licensure exam. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to be licensed, to have passed my licensure exam, I just didn’t want to study. Studying meant sitting down with books and practice tests. It meant sitting with my fear of failure, my feelings of dread, and my exhaustion. In the short term, avoidant self indulgence would have felt much more pleasurable. I could have rationalized doing a lot more of objectively helpful activities like exercising, connecting with friends, and even cleaning, but the truth is, I would have been using these to avoid the discomfort of studying. Spoiler alert: I passed. And I passed partly because I consistently practiced studying as self-care.
Self-care is an individualized practice. There are as many self-care practices as there are people on the planet. Each person has different circumstances, a different experience of those circumstances, and different needs. Figuring out what works for you might take some experimentation. A good way to do this is to ask yourself how you feel after completing a self-care activity. If the activity was nourishing to you and met some of your needs, you might notice feeling hopeful, confident, grateful, inspired, refreshed, or peaceful. If you notice feelings of tension, fear, irritation, aversion, fatigue, or disconnection, you may want to shift your practice. (4)
Actions that might be an act of self-care for one person could be avoidant or harmful for another. As you can see in the previous example, while there’s nothing inherently wrong with exercising, socializing, or cleaning, engaging in those things to avoid the discomfort of studying would have been harmful and counterproductive.
Self-care is not selfish. While self-care inherently benefits you as an individual, practicing self-care can benefit those around you. When your needs are met you are able to be the best version of yourself. You may show up as more present and loving with a partner or more sympathetic and available for a friend. You could be more productive at work, or more energetic and patient as a parent. There is a reason that those airline safety cards in the seatback pockets instruct you to put on your own oxygen mask first: you’ll be useless to others if you don’t take care of your needs first.
Self-care is empowering. As I am fond of saying, there are things that happen in life that are completely beyond your control. You may not be able to stop a hurricane or cure cancer on your own, but you can practice self-care. You can devote time to understanding your own needs and, whenever possible, engage in the practice of meeting them. Exert influence where you can to increase and maintain a healthy sense of self-efficacy.
Self-care is not expensive. You might see the hashtag #selfcare being used on social media to sell pricey supplements, personal care products, and vacations. But self-care doesn’t have to cost a lot (or even any) money. There are ways to move, breathe, and connect with others that don’t cost a thing. Please don’t let limited resources get in the way of tuning into your needs and experimenting with what feels nourishing.
Self-care is self-esteem in action. Practicing self-care, especially consistently, is a function of believing that you have inherent worth -- that you are precious, important, and valuable. If you struggle with self-loathing, a poor self-image, or low self-esteem, prioritizing self-care is a big ask. Even attempting self-care can trigger feelings of shame and seem inauthentic, or like a waste of time.
To truly practice self-care you must be willing to get to know yourself, acknowledge both your met and unmet needs, and prioritize your own well being. A number of things including stress, depression, trauma, anxiety, codependency, and low self-esteem can make practicing self-care seem hard or even impossible. If you notice that you’re struggling to show up for yourself or other people in a meaningful way, it could be a sign that you need skillful help and support from your community. Reach out to a trusted friend, mentor, doctor, family member, or mental health professional. Mental health providers in particular are trained to help you develop a better understanding of yourself and why you are worth caring for.
If you are interested in seeking this kind of support, you can find quality therapists in your area using GoodTherapy.org or Psychology Today. If you would like to learn more about doing this kind of work with me , you can learn more about my services here.
American Psychological Association (2017). Stress in america: Coping with change. Stress in america™ survey. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2016/coping-with-change.pdf
World Self Medication Industry. (n.d.) The story of self-care and self medication: 40 years of progress, 1970-2010. Retrieved from
Lorde, A. (1988/2017). A burst of light: And other essays. Long Island, NY: Ixia Press.
Center for Nonviolent Communication (2005). Feelings inventory. Retrieved from
Legal disclaimer: I am a mental health professional licensed to practice in the state of Texas. Reading my blog does not create a therapist-client relationship between us. My blog is designed for informational purposes only, and is not intended as a substitute for professional care. The contents of my blog should not be used to diagnose or treat illness of any kind, and before you rely on any information presented here you should consult with a trusted healthcare professional. If you are currently experiencing a mental health emergency please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.