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What Self-Care Is (And What It Isn’t)

what self care isThere are many misconceptions about self-care. For instance, many of us assume that self-care means engaging in activities that are “good for us” (which we may or may not even enjoy). We assume self-care is going to the gym or lifting weights or running outside. It’s meditating for 30 minutes. It’s getting a massage. It’s practicing yoga every day.

And so you do all these things. But you don’t enjoy them. In fact, you might even dread them. Which really means that these activities aren’t self-care for you. Because self-care isn’t a should. It isn’t something we force ourselves to do.

Clinical psychologist Agnes Wainman defined self-care as “something that refuels us, rather than takes from us.” Self-care practices give us energy and calm. They refresh and rejuvenate us. The bring us joy and pleasure. Self-care practices honor our well-being, such as our emotional and spiritual health, said Sarah Leitschuh, a licensed marriage and family therapist, who helps parents and caregivers prioritize self-care.

Self-care feels expansive, not restrictive. It isn’t just another task to put on our already too-long to-do list. Rather, it’s a deep breath we take.

Below, Wainman and Leitschuh shared other insights about self-care.

Self-care isn’t just for adults.

If you have kids, and you teach them to practice self-care when they’re young, you’re helping them build the foundation for taking good care of themselves as adults, Leitschuh said. For instance, you might invite your kids to participate in a deep breathing exercise; try a creative activity together; and spend time in nature, going on family hikes, she said.

Self-care can be simple. Very simple.

We tend to assume that self-care is yoga and spa days, said Wainman, founder of London Psychological Services and a self-proclaimed self-care activist. While these activities can be considered self-care, sometimes they might feel quite stressful, she said. “[T]hey do take substantial resources like time and money.”

Instead, self-care can be simple. It can start with connecting to our experience, Wainman said. For instance, we might notice that we’re tired or hungry. Instead of ignoring these needs — and pushing through — we acknowledge and meet them, she said. We take a nap, or go to bed earlier that night. We break for lunch or make dinner.

According to Wainman, self-care also can be listening to a favorite song, sipping hot tea, reading a few pages of your favorite book, going outside for several minutes or having an impromptu dance party in your kitchen.

“The key to self-care is to actually connect to these experiences and really be in the moment with them.”

Self-care actually helps others.  

Self-care helps “us be who we want to be in our relationships with others and in our work,” Leitschuh said. That is, when we take care of ourselves, we have more energy, patience, flexibility and creativity to offer to our relationships and our jobs, she said.

We’re less irritable. We’re less likely to snap and say things we’ll regret. We’re more likely to brainstorm interesting ideas and follow through on projects that require our complete concentration. We’re more likely to be understanding with our loved ones and to listen to them fully. In other words, we bring our best selves to the world.

Self-care is fluid.

An activity that feels like self-care in one situation may not in another, Wainman said. For instance, on some days, seeing friends can refuel you. On a day that you’re feeling sick, it may require energy that you just don’t have. On some days, a run feels incredible. On other days, self-care looks like cuddling on the couch and resting.

On some days, self-care is sleeping in because you’re utterly exhausted. On other days, it’s waking up early to catch the sunrise. Self-care can look different depending on the day, your circumstances and your needs.

Again, self-care is powerful. It doesn’t just boost your personal well-being, it also helps you take better care of others, too.

Woman listening to music photo available from Shutterstock

What Self-Care Is (And What It Isn’t)

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). What Self-Care Is (And What It Isn’t). Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 17 Mar 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.