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Self-Care Is Not Self-Indulgence

The idea that self-care is a vitally important part of our weekly — even daily — routines had become more and more popular over the past couple years, especially in feminist corners of the Internet. Everyone will have a slightly different definition of what self-care means to them, but there are definitely a few common themes. It’s about relieving stress, relaxing, and taking time off from work, emotional labor, and activism.

When you think of the phrase “self care,” what’s the first image that comes up?

Take a moment to reflect on it before reading on, and be honest with yourself about what comes to mind.

Did you see yourself sitting in a bubble bath surrounded by glowing scented candles, drinking a big glass of red wine, listening to soothing music? Did you imagine yourself at the spa, totally blissed out with cucumbers resting on your eyelids? Did you picture yourself wrapped up in a giant fluffy bathrobe, eating out of a Chinese take out carton with your favorite show on Netflix?

Maybe not, but if so, it’s understandable. When we read suggestions for self-care on social media, they often include activities like taking a bubble bath, binge watching episodes of your old favorite cartoons, picking up a pint of your favorite flavor of Ben & Jerry’s, painting your nails, taking long naps, buying yourself a nice face mask, and, of course, drinking wine.

However, I wouldn’t categorize most of these activities as “self-care.”

Honestly, I would put most of them in the category of self-indulgence.

And let me be clear: I don’t think that self-indulgence is always a bad thing. It can be, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. We get one life on this planet, might as well spend some of it enjoying the little luxuries our world has to offer, right?

Self-indulgence can be rewarding and relaxing and even rejuvenating. But it is not self-care.

Let’s break down the phrase “self-care”: taking care of yourself.

So what does it mean to truly care for ourselves?

The book The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron gave me a whole new perspective on approaching self-care. Although this book is geared towards people who have a sensitive personality type, there is one prominent message that anyone could benefit from hearing.

Aron discusses how sensitive people often need to be more careful regarding their sleep schedules, diets, and exercise routines. Some people may be able to handle pulling the occasional all-nighter with no problem or eat nothing but junk food on vacation and feel fine when coming home.

On the other hand, a highly sensitive person would probably feel extremely sluggish, moody, or even physically ill if they did these things.

Aron suggests that sensitive people should be kind to themselves in situations like these. She says that it can even be helpful to think of your body the way you would think of a toddler — you wouldn’t necessarily punish them for crying or acting out when their routine has been disrupted. You would do your best to soothe them and fulfill their needs.

But in an ideal scenario, you wouldn’t give in to unreasonable demands, either, like crying for junk food when you know they really need a healthy meal.

Now, how does this relate to self-care? Aron’s examples demonstrate that taking care of someone — and this includes yourself — doesn’t mean giving in to every whim or foregoing their needs in favor of their wants.

Actually, it often means saying no to what they want and focusing on their needs instead.

That’s why my parents had to be strict with my sisters and me, while my babysitters could take us out for ice cream and let us go to bed a little later.

I’ve realized that for me, self-care rarely looks like self-indulgence, although when it’s time to be indulgent…this girl does love bubble baths and red wine.

But overall, I’ve found that self-care involves implementing daily, healthy routines that make me feel energized and fulfilled. For example, I meditate for ten minutes each morning, write in my journal while having my coffee, and read a little bit before I start writing for the day. I try to get outside at least once a day to walk my dog, even if I would rather lay in bed, and I do yoga for at least a few minutes each night, even if all I want to do is, well, lay in bed.

All of those habits are pretty enjoyable, but not all of my “self-care habits” are. I put a chunk of every freelance check into my savings immediately and track all of my purchases to discourage myself from frivolous spending. For a while, I tracked everything I ate instead of just grabbing whatever I wanted from the pantry, because I knew I wasn’t giving my body what it needed, and it was past time to get back on track.

Are these routines fun? Rarely. But they are often necessary in order to properly take care of myself.

I truly believe that little indulgent rewards — or even major rewards, like a long vacation — can be a part of self-care routines.

But if we are centering our discussions of self-care around self-indulgence, we’re doing ourselves a disservice. Self-care isn’t about escaping our daily stresses through booze, ice cream, or beauty treatments — it’s about creating a life that makes our responsibilities easier to manage.