The term ‘self-care’ is having a moment, but is it the right one? When it’s not being sold to us in the form of candles or fuzzy PJs via Instagram ads, self-care is taking over our TikTok FYP with “everything shower” routines. It’s become an excuse for our every indulgence. Happy hour after a terrible day at work? That’s self-care. Brunch, followed by
a Euphoria-inspired mani? It’s all self-care, baby. Splurging on a beach vacay after the hell of these past few years? Self. Care.

But how much we seem to be focusing on self-care online doesn’t actually align with reality. Nearly half of women are struggling with burnout, according to a workplace survey by Indeed. Meanwhile, a 2022 mental health report by Liptember Foundation revealed that 69 per cent of women are stressed and 44 per cent are facing anxiety

Stats like these raise this question: if the ‘treat yourself’ approach to self-care is working, why are we still so frazzled and worn out? Well, according to experts, we’re all somewhat missing the point. “Self-care is about taking time to understand your true needs beyond your impulses,” says Dr Chloe Carmichael, a therapist and author of Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety. “It’s looking at yourself on a deeper level.”

It’s not that a vacation or a happy hour isn’t a worthy form of self-care. Sometimes ‘treating yourself’ is what’s needed, notes Carmichael. But the truth is, if that’s all you’re doing, you’re missing out on the real benefits. Keep reading for a step-by-step lesson in strengthening your relationship to caring for yourself.

Action point one: Define what self-care really means to you

There isn’t one single meaning of the term. It’s an ever-evolving concept that’s constantly updated, for better and for worse. “Self-care” as a cultural phenomenon was first introduced by feminist author Audre Lorde in her 1988 essay collection, A Burst of Light, says Dr Omolara Thomas Uwemedimo, an assistant professor at Northwell Health in New York. “For her, a Black, queer woman, self-care was about self-preservation. It was about being able to see your identity outside of the white gaze and come back to yourself. It wasn’t something nice to do, but something that kept you alive.” 

Since then, self-care has been appropriated by marketing whizzes eager to sell an idealised version – and the exxy candles that come with it. But now, finally, we’re starting to come full circle and to build upon Lorde’s original thoughts, adds Dr Catherine Cook-Cottone, a professor whose research focuses on mindful self-care. People recognise the holes in that commercialised alteration and are searching for a deeper understanding of what it can do. “Self-care isn’t something you buy,” Cook-Cottone says. “It’s an active practice of taking care of the internal aspects within the context of external pressures.” According to Dr Barbara Riegel, a University of Pennsylvania nursing professor who studies chronic illness, self-care is about “taking control of your body and taking control of what’s going on with you.” For Uwemedimo, self-care is “creating space in your life to remember who you are and what your purpose is.” 

So in short, the semantics are up to you. Just remember that it’s a lot like parenting yourself, which means it’s your job to stay focused on what you need, not what you want in the moment. That’s not always easy. One example to drive the point home: social connection is important, but maybe you just moved and don’t know anyone, so reaching out feels scary. You can tell yourself that staying home with Netflix is self-care (and it may make you feel good at first), but Netflix won’t fill your need. “Self-care is about taking an honest look at what you require in order to function your best – not only today, but in the broader sense,” Carmichael explains.


Action point two: Find ways to feed your mind, body and soul

One of the most difficult aspects of self-care is that it’s so individual. “There isn’t a litmus test where certain behaviours always count as self-care,” Carmichael says. “It depends on the person.” So, how do you know what you need? And how do you find that balance between pushing yourself outside your comfort zone and comforting yourself when you need it?

Remember the acronym ART to help you decipher if your self-care behaviour is on point, suggests Cook-Cottone. A is ‘attunement’. As in, are you tuned in to what you really need? R stands for ‘responsive.’ Is the behaviour going to serve that need? And T is ‘taking action’. Will you follow through? If you’re having trouble with the first part, you might start including time in your routine to do nothing but reflect. “Taking a break is important to develop awareness,” Cook-Cottone says. That *might* mean taking a regular bubble bath, but while you’re in the water, ask yourself: what do I need to feel my best? What is working in my life right now, and what isn’t? If you’re short on time, you can accomplish the same goal by using the moments you spend on other activities – say, folding the laundry or working out – to focus on your breath and simply listen.

Instilling a time to pause in your day should give you an idea of what, if anything, is missing from your routine. It’s also good practice for knowing what you need in the moment. You might learn that you should focus more on physical forms of self-care: getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, taking prescribed medications, and so on. Or maybe managing stress is an area that’d be good to work on, which eventually leads you to a mindfulness practice or more time outside in nature. Maybe you need to do something creative or something that contributes to your community, like volunteering for a cause you care about.

Friendly reminder: as a complex being, you have complex needs. It’s not as if you can pick one self-care activity and call it a day. “You want a diverse portfolio of self-care,” advises Cook-Cottone. Some activities will be for your physical wellbeing, while others will be more for your spiritual and social sides. From there, all you have to do is make sure to make time for that self-care on the regular.

So, yes, this means that you want to have structure, but also the leeway for spontaneity. Include small, daily practices like saying a loving thing to yourself while you brush your teeth, as well as formal practices like regular meditation. Scheduling a variety of activities (fitness classes, meet-ups with friends, whatever lights you up) can take some decision-making off the table. Creating lots of opportunities and practising varied ways of providing care for yourself will help you “be more agile and responsive in the moment,” explains Cook-Cottone. In other words, when a stressor comes up, it’ll be easier to dig into your toolbox and lean on a practice that’s already routine.

Action point three: Set boundaries in new ways

This can have multiple applications and implications. First, you want to set boundaries that protect your time for yourself, like saying no to a night out when what you really crave is a good sweat or some time to process a bad day with a mate. You also want to set boundaries for what you accept as appropriate for your life. That means setting rules for the types of treatment you tolerate in your relationships or at work. This second type of boundary is generally harder to set, given how our culture rewards women for being able to push through anything. The benefit is that when we set boundaries for ourselves, we’re protecting others too. We’re making it smoother for other women to set similar boundaries. “It’s easier to do that in community, so you don’t feel like the odd person out,” Uwemedimo says. 

It’s all too simple to let self-care be last on our to-do list. But without it, you’ll lose yourself in the constant pressures – and who wants to live like that? Plus, self-care isn’t just a mental boon. If you ignore it, you’re setting yourself up for major health issues down the line, from burnout to true chronic illnesses like depression, diabetes or heart disease, Riegel says. “It’s not something that can wait.” All the more reason to start putting yourself first.

“Swimming is my self-care” 

“Nine months into the pandemic, my husband had lost his job, my kids were out of school and I was working to get my start-up off the ground. Every time I drove on the highway, I experienced a mini panic attack: tightness in my chest, difficulty breathing.

That’s how, in 2021, we found ourselves packing up our home to move overseas. The first three months were dominated by to-do lists. Everything was new, hard and lonely, and I questioned our decision. 

Fortunately, we chose a town to live in that sits on an estuary. I soon noticed groups of mostly women swimming together in the water around high tide – smiling, singing out loud, giggling. There was an air of excitement, and it made me wonder what kind of magic was in that cold and murky combination of river and seawater. I did like to swim and I needed to make friends, so I decided to go for it. 

It was scary in all the ways. As the water hit my ankles, I fixated on what lurked below. By the time the water reached my thighs, my fists were clenched and I reminded myself to breathe. A woman strode past and told me to turn around and go in facing the shore. “The cold hitting your back is less bracing,” she said. It reminded me of a trust exercise, only rather than a person, I had to trust the water to catch me. I faced the beach, closed my eyes and sunk in. I didn’t know then that I’d found my passion; I just knew that I felt free from my burdens. I felt buzzed. I felt joy. I felt alive. I swam every day that summer as my family seemed to relax and settle into our new life. 

Swimming with my friends provided the perfect self-care trifecta: social, mental and physical. We swam through all seasons – that’s when I realised how deeply it fed my soul. It’s the closest I’ve come to feeling spiritual. When I’m agitated, the water calms me. When my body hurts, the water gives relief. When I’m faced with any tough conversation, the water empowers me. This is why I swim.” 

– Anna Helm Baxter, cookbook author and food stylist

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