This Is What Self-Care Actually Is—and What It Isn't

Don't mistake self-care for overindulgence or expensive luxuries.

There's a lot of chatter about "self-care" these days. Between wellness and beauty companies promising to release feel-good endorphins with every product and being told to take more baths and learn to meditate, it can be confusing to determine what "you" time really should be—and shouldn't be. Is self-care letting yourself watch one more episode and treating yourself to another brownie? Or is it actually learning when to turn off Netflix and get in bed a little earlier? And who decides?

At the core of the self-care movement is the need to renew your spirit, to choose activities—or a complete lack thereof—that help you feel both relaxed and rejuvenated. Self-care is ultimately about taking a pause to do what you need to to be happier, calmer, and healthier.

And no matter what products you buy or things you do, it's crucial to remember that self-care is an individualized experience. What benefits you mentally and physically may not be the same for your best friend or colleague or partner. We asked mental health experts and coaches to explain the dos and don'ts of creating a self-care routine that's for you—and only you.

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Do focus on activities that fill you up.

One commonly touted self-care practice is to taking a bath, complete with candles, essential oils, salts, and bubbles. But if you don't have a bathtub, if you get antsy sitting in a tub, or if you hate having wrinkly fingers, why force yourself? The point of these rituals is to fill you up rather than deplete you, so it's crucial to figure out what brings you joy, says Naomi Torres-Mackie, PhD, the head of research at the Mental Health Coalition.

Torres-Mackie says that your self-care choices should leave you feeling nourished, energized, and ready to tackle whatever comes next. All too often, she notes, people get into the doing-and-producing mode and then start to see self-care as yet another to-do list item. To determine what works for you, Torres-Mackie suggests the cognitive-behavioral technique of imagining experiences in detail ahead of time. "When you're considering what you need at the moment to feel good, imagine yourself doing it and how you will feel after," she says. "If it's filled up, then go for it. If it's depleted, skip it."

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Don't use self-care as an excuse to overindulge.

Self-care isn't an excuse to spend an excessive amount of money or go overboard at happy hour to escape, says Vanessa Kennedy, PhD, director of psychology at Driftwood Recovery. "Self-care isn't blowing our paycheck on 'retail therapy,' having an extra drink because we 'deserve it' after a hard day, or taking too much time away from our responsibilities for an expensive spa day or trip," she says.

When we make these excuses for ourselves, we aren't reaping the real benefits, since they provide instant gratification without a long-lasting impact. Instead, Kennedy says self-care should be about creating a little breathing room to come back to the task or problem with more mental resources to handle it: "We [should] use self-care to make sure we are well-equipped to handle the stresses of life, as opposed to avoiding them."

RELATED: 9 Unhealthy Coping Habits That End Up Hurting More Than Helping

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Do view self-care as essential rather than indulgent.

When you have a pile of laundry that keeps multiplying, a calendar packed with back-to-back meetings, and children who need your attention, you likely don't prioritize self-care. While Torres-Mackie says many people worry that taking time for oneself is selfish and indulgent, it's critical for personal well-being. "Self-care is not only a wellness skill, but a survival skill," she says. "Once you start seeing self-care as essential rather than indulgent, it becomes easier to care for yourself and therefore to also care for others."

To begin reframing how you picture it, correct yourself when you start to feel guilty for doing an activity that fulfills you—like reading a book for 30 minutes. Instead, list all of the reasons you'll be a better partner, friend, mother, daughter, and so on by taking the time you need.

RELATED: How to Practice Self-Care on a Budget

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Don't believe that self-care has to be a major production.

Sometimes, what prevents us from taking care of ourselves regularly is the pressure to make it the "best ever" or live up to unrealistic expectations (expectations that many people don't have the time or money for). Yes, a wealthy celebrity may be able to go away on a spa weekend or install a double-head rain shower, but Torres-Mackie affirms that it doesn't need to be expensive to be meaningful. "There are endless forms of self-care that are free and take very little time or energy at all, like putting on your favorite song or eating your favorite dish," she says. "Viewing self-care as something that requires so much effort that it becomes overwhelming ends up defeating the purpose."

One way to make it more manageable is to build short breaks throughout your day, so you keep yourself accountable for intentional pauses, says Ellen Yin, the founder and podcast host of "Cubicle to CEO." Yin recommends scheduling yourself an actual lunch: eat away from your computer or block out 10 minutes for a walk up and down the street. "Some of our best thinking happens in the pause, and self-care doesn't have to be extravagant or complicated," she continues. "If you can't take two weeks off, take two minutes off, multiple times a day."

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Do listen to your mind and body's needs.

The mind-body connection is strong and outspoken, but we have to learn to tune in to emotions and physical feelings to figure out what we need. That's why Kennedy says it's essential to make your self-care practice fluid and flexible, so you can adjust to what will benefit you the most from one day to the next. This starts by looking for signals your body is sending in terms of things like soreness, cramps, fatigue, or pain. You can further explore your mental health indicators by answering these questions:

  • Am I sleeping poorly?
  • Am I eating well?
  • Am I craving unhealthy foods?
  • Am I grinding my teeth?
  • Do I feel body aches?

As you answer these, you can narrow down potential solutions for what's irking you. Maybe it's a nap, a long stretching session, or testing out a new recipe while listening to a podcast.

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