At a glance
By Linda Moon
Due to the ongoing pandemic, months-long stretches of isolation have elevated self-care to a national pastime.
From the community collective urging weekly check-ups on friends and family, to traditional mastheads promoting mental health, to the litany of social media feeds dedicated to preaching new ways to stay sane, it can all be a little overwhelming.
Instagram, alone, features more than 35 million posts with the trending #selfcare hashtag – and evidence many of us have misunderstood (or conveniently stretched) the concept to suit our foibles.
There’s the relatively harmless; bubble baths, Netflix binges and cheesy inspirational quotes. But there’s also the more damaging; drinking more alcohol, over-indulging in comfort eating, and taking a little too much time to yourself during work hours. The only thing we’re seemingly not doing is defining exactly what “self-care” is.
A better understanding of self-care
Dr Sarah Cotton, a Melbourne-based organisational psychologist, work-life wellbeing expert and co-founder of Transitioning Well, defines self-care as the deliberate act of taking care of your mental, emotional and physical health and wellbeing. A key element is its intentional nature.
“It’s getting out of auto-pilot to work out what we need and make sure our needs are met,” she explains.
Importantly, self-care is the critical refueling that allows us to cope with the challenges of life.
Self-care also includes more abstract actions like managing our self-talk and living true to our values and passions.
“What are the things that feed you?” Cotton says. “Because there’s only 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it’s about being clear on what’s most important.”
The signs you’re doing self-care wrong
“COVID-19 has got us all thinking about how important self-care is,” Cotton says. However, there’s a lot of confusion and blurring around the concept.
Here’s some signs you might be off track on self-care.
1. You put yourself last or feel guilty about doing things for yourself
Guilt is a common barrier to self-care. “Because people think it’s selfish,” Cotton explains.
“We would never dream of leaving our cars to run out of petrol and then expect them to just keep running. If we don’t refuel ourselves how can we be any good to anyone else.”
2. Your self-care is an occasional pamper or treat
For various reasons – including busyness and a view of self-care as non-essential fluff – many view it as a one-off activity in response to crisis or a luxury treat like a massage, Cotton says.
Self-care is vital and something we should practice all the time.
“It’s getting back to basics,” Cotton says. “Are you eating well? Are you prioritising sleep? Are you staying active?” And, given our uniqueness, everyone’s self-care is going to be different, she adds.
3. It’s on the to-do-list
Many of us pile self-care goals prescribed by wellness gurus (like exercise, yoga and meditation) onto already sizeable to-do-lists – amplifying our stress and sense of guilt and failure if we don’t achieve them.
Pressure to maintain a healthy lifestyle was our fourth biggest source of stress in the 2015 Australian Psychological Society’s Stress and Wellbeing in Australia survey.
Self-care should be integrated into daily life, not an ad-hoc addition, Cotton says.
4. You treat it as a solitary pursuit
While time alone to connect with ourselves is important (if you don’t, how do you know what you need?) we’re also creatures of connection, Cotton says.
Self-care is a partnership between self-responsibility and support from family, friends, professionals and our community.
“Self-care is also about knowing when to get help,” she adds.
5. Your focus is self-improvement
For too many women (and many men), self-care is equated with viewing yourself and your body as a self-improvement tool.
In her 2016 book, Speaking Out: A 21st-Century Handbook for Women and Girls, Tara Moss says that while maintaining your appearance may intersect with health benefits, true self-care has a different focus.
The latter is something you do for yourself, not to fit into some culturally prescribed idea of beauty and success.
6. You think self-care is always enjoyable and easy
What you enjoy doing and what’s good for you aren’t always the same thing, says Dr Alice Boyes, author of The Anxiety Toolkit. Self-care includes things like going to the dentist, she reminds us.
“Sometimes we need to go back to the literal definition of self-care.”
If feel-good activities (such as spending sprees that lead to debt) are bad for us, or an excuse for self-indulgence or responsibility shirking, they’re not true self-care.
Fitting self-care into a busy routine
The biggest work-related stresses centre around work-family boundaries, uncertainty, loneliness and isolation, Cotton says. If you’re finding it tough to fit in self-care, she recommends the following.
- Be clear of the importance of self-care.
- Create new behaviours and micro-habits that work for you and integrate them into your daily life. Examples include having a proper lunch break or putting a jug of water and healthy snacks on your desk.
- Be clear on work-life boundaries. Start and finish work on time and turn off tech after hours.
- Prioritise close and supportive relationships. Social connection is important for wellbeing, she says.
- Engage with a non-work hobby.
- Maintain a good sleep routine.
- Build in recovery time. Make sure you put fuel in the tank.