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Can Self-Care and Hard Work Co-exist?

Self-care. Hard Work. We don’t normally think of them together.

We think of self-care as passive and sensitive: relaxing, taking “us” time, listening to our bodies.

Hard work, we associate with action and strength: digging deep, never losing focus, going for the goal. Compared to hard work, self-care feels “soft.”

Yet many of history’s most accomplished people considered self-care an integral part of their success. Benjamin Franklin’s daily schedule designated time for reading, music, conversation, and diversion. Oprah starts each morning with twenty minutes of meditation. During his time in the White House, Barak Obama woke up 2 hours early to exercise. These people exemplify those who see self-care as a necessary piece of their lives. So why do so many of us think self-care is a luxury?

First, we think self-care is optional.

Self-care has become associated with R&R, rest and relaxation. We picture spas, long walks, and cups of tea. Indulgence. Something for people who have time to relax, time to “be happy.”

Second, we think hard work means sacrifice.  

We believe in order to work hard, we must deprioritize our happiness. By abandoning self-care, we show the world that we value our goal(s) more than we value self-indulgence. We see people who prioritize self-care as lazy, unwilling to put in the sacrifice it takes to be successful.  

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It’s time to change that thinking.

What is Self-Care Really?

Begin with the definition of self-care: “the practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness.” The key word is active. Self-care is not a passive practice. It is actively identifying and fulfilling our needs.

What are needs? Needs are the things our bodies and minds request to operate at the level of well-being we desire. When your blood sugar is low, your need is to raise it. When you’re tired, your need may be to rest, or to engage in energy-raising activity.

When we do not address our needs, they weigh on us. We can ignore them for a while, but it takes energy. Energy we would rather use for hard work.

Self-care occurs anytime we recognize a need and address it. If you need to raise your blood sugar, your self-care is to eat. If you’re tired, your self-care might be a nap, going to the gym, or any activity that makes you less tired. Self-care is a tool. It allows us to maintain our well-being and focus our attention where we want it. Self-care is hard work’s wingman.

Sometimes self-care isn’t as effective as we want. Humans are complicated. We misidentify a need, or the self-care we think will work simply doesn’t, or we just have a low day. But like any tool, the more we use it, the more effective it becomes.

The Two Types of Self-Care

One way we can break down self-care is to divide it into two categories: growth and recovery.

  • Growth Self-Care: This is self-care we perform with the intention of self-improvement: exercise, taking a class, seeing friends, making something, etc. These tend to involve some level of energetic output.
  • Recovery Self-Care: When we have used a lot of energy, recovery self-care is how we recharge. Taking a shower, playing video games, changing into comfortable clothing, a nap… often times recovery self-care includes more traditional R&R practices.  

Some activities fit both categories. To one person, playing an instrument might be growth self-care, if he or she focuses on improvement. To another, there’s no desire to improve but playing provides recovery self-care that helps them unwind. 

When our needs change, our self-care changes. After a boring day at the office, growth self-care may give us energy. After a busy day, a stay-at-home parent may require recovery self-care, a chance to rest and recharge. On the other hand, an exhausting day at the office may call for recovery self-care, and a slow day at home may result in a craving for growth.

We often believe that growth self-care is “better,” which makes sense–our society values dedication and effort. It is more in our nature to tell ourselves “I worked hard at the gym today” than “I worked hard lying on the couch watching TV today.” There’s nothing wrong with preferring one type over the other, as long as we acknowledge each has a time and place.

Choosing the Right Self-Care

The trick to self-care is learning to identify the self-care practices that work for us. This is harder than it sounds — is wearing your favorite sweater self-care? Petting a neighborhood cat? Ignoring a text? Taking a taxi instead of the subway?

We can explore our self-care using 3 steps: collecting data, categorizing, and reflecting.

  • Collecting Data: Start a log of 3-5 things you enjoyed throughout the day. Some people call this a gratitude journal, but it doesn’t require any journaling, a simple list will do. This is a concrete way to begin acquiring an understanding of a very basic thing–what makes you feel good? It doesn’t need to be activities- it can be something as simple as a thought (“I enjoyed thinking about what I’m going to wear during my vacation next month”) or an experience (“I enjoyed the taste of my chocolate chip cookie.”) For many of us, we think well-being is abstract, and we have no idea about the small, day-to-day things that bring us enjoyment. Yes, a spa day is a lovely occasion, but for many of us a hot shower is a reality we can experience every day.
  • Categorizing: After keeping a journal for a few weeks, sit down and categorize it into growth or recovery self-care. Reorganizing your closet? Probably growth. Coming home and changing into pajamas? Perhaps recovery. Some things may fall into both categories, which is fine. This isn’t black and white, just a way to see how we use the tool of self-care.
  • Reflecting: Once you’ve categorized your self-care, explore it. This is the fun part! Are there repetitions? Is growth or recovery more common? If so, can you guess why? Was it hard to make a list every day? Are there self-care practices that feel more potent than others?

When we do this, we begin to explore whether our current self-care strategies meet our needs. For example: you feel lonely and decide to spend time with friends, but afterwards feel exhausted. Perhaps you need a different form of self-care, or additional self-practices to address this feeling.      

Take It Slow

We do best when we don’t jump into any big changes, but start looking at self-care with curiosity. The worst thing we can do is attempt a “self-care makeover,” declaring 10+ new things we will do every day. Like any extreme lifestyle change, it often fails. Instead, we can begin by asking three simple questions:

  1. What is my hard work today?
  2. What are my needs today?
  3. What self-care could fulfill them?

When we explore these concepts gradually, we begin to see how they work (and don’t work) for us. Each of us is different, with our own needs and self-care practices.

Finally, do self-care and hard work HAVE to co-exist?

The answer is… maybe. It depends on how we define hard work, and how we identify our needs. For one person, spending 15 hours focused on a task may leave them perfectly happy. For others, it may leave them needing to address several needs.

When we start to understand the relationship between self-care and hard work, we see the value in letting them work together. Self-care is not an obstacle to hard work; our needs are the obstacles. Self-care is the way we clear the path.

Most importantly, recognize that self-care is not indulgent; it is a tool. Don’t leave it in the corner. Pull it out, learn to use it, and build.  

Can Self-Care and Hard Work Co-exist?

Britt Mahrer

Britt Mahrer is a therapist and author in Denver, Colorado. She is currently accepting new clients. Please visit to schedule an appointment.

APA Reference
Mahrer, B. (2018). Can Self-Care and Hard Work Co-exist?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 30 Dec 2018 (Originally: 31 Dec 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 30 Dec 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.