In the peer-reviewed literature the term ‘self-care’ is used to talk about how patients with chronic illness monitor and manage their condition, and the steps they take to improve or sustain their overall health.
It is used to distinguish between care provided by medical professionals (other care), versus the care patients provide to themselves.
My PhD was actually in this space, giving people with coronary artery disease the knowledge and skills necessary to better manage their psychological health following a heart attack.
The goal of self-care education therefore is to equip those with illness with the knowledge and skills necessary to manage their condition and enhance their health. Why? Well there are limits (even with regular appointments to what a medical professional) to what a health professional can achieve without a patient taking responsibility for some aspects of their own care. A patient lives with themselves 24/7, 365 days a year, whereas a medical professional might only see them a few times per year.
And there are benefits to self-care. Patients who can take responsibility for multiple aspects of managing their condition usually show better clinical outcomes. It isn’t surprising really, given that self-care gives a person a sense of control and autonomy over their illness and life.
Whilst ‘self-care’ remains an active topic in the peer reviewed literature, the term has now slipped into common parlance and is used to encourage anyone, regardless of illness status, to take active steps to look after their health and wellbeing.
I use the term a lot. Hell, I’ve written a rather bloated guide on the topic!
I’m not going to reiterate the suggestions made in that document in this blog post. Rather I want to bring further clarity to how I think about self-care and the implications for how you view self-care in your own lives.
First up: a definition.
I [currently] define self-care as “deliberate and strategic action taken by an individual to enhance, repair or maintain their wellbeing in the short, medium or long-term”. There are sections of this definition worth expanding on.
Because of my profession (psychology), people may assume that when I am talking about self-care I am focusing on emotional self-care. Truth be told though, emotional wellbeing is just one of a number of areas of wellbeing that I consider important.
I consider an investment in any of these areas to be self-care: emotional, social, spiritual, intellectual, financial, physical, environmental, occupational/study.
I am just as comfortable (although not necessarily qualified) suggesting someone work on their finances as I am them working on their emotional health. Both are forms of self-care. Both can enhance their wellbeing.
In fact, I would actively suggest that people invest time and effort in multiple domains of life, knowing that they are highly interconnected and knowing that balance across the areas is important.
Deliberate and strategic
There are things you are already doing in your life that benefit your health and wellbeing.
It is time to name them and raise them in your consciousness. You brush your teeth to keep your mouth healthy. You make good food choices to keep your body healthy. You play sports to stay physically fit.
Once you’ve named your current self-care activities, it is then time to consider whether you could accelerate or amplify those existing efforts and/or add new self-care activities.
What you chose to do should be based on an analysis of what your life needs at the moment.
I actually made a video recently, as part of the Good Vibes Experiment on this process.
Quick version: consider the different domains of your life → rate them in terms of importance and how well you think you are doing in each of them → select a couple of domains to focus on → brainstorm things you could do to advance those areas in your life.
This is the ‘strategic’ component.
This is why I tend to shy away from generic “5 things you can do to better self-care” articles. Not that these are bad. These kinds of articles have greatly enhanced people’s literacy around what constitutes healthy lifestyle, but I mostly find students know this stuff already.
I want people to instead consider which aspects of their lives need building and invest there. Build a personalised strategy based on your unique circumstances. Yes this will require a bit more thought and consideration than simply blindly following some advice to ‘meditate’ or ‘have a bath’, but it means your strategy is built around what is important to you.
Short versus medium- to long-term benefits
Human psychology is oriented towards maximising short-term gains, but that often comes at the expense of your future self.
- Eat lots of chocolate now (awesome) but fat sick future you isn’t so happy with that decision.
- Spend all your money partying now, future broke you (with a hangover) doesn’t think that was the best idea.
Whilst there are obviously situations in which self-soothing in the present moment is the priority, often the best self-care involves some kind of short-term sacrifice or effort for a bigger payoff in the future.
- Study hard now so you get your degree and can build a more interesting and rewarding career
- Save, rather than spend money now, for investment gains in the future
- Allocate time to meditation each day, for emotional wellbeing benefits that might take months or years to accumulate
I don’t want ‘self-care’ to be an excuse for ‘self-indulgence’ or ‘self-gratification’. I want it instead to be a philosophy of personal growth and improvement.
To be clear, for some people, the best kind of self-improvement would involve ‘letting their hair down’, learning how to have fun, learning to live a little more in the moment, and being spontaneous. Perhaps they are highly disciplined to the point of obsession, with negative impacts on their mental health.
Again, it comes back to this idea that self-care is about the individual strategising, based on an honest assessment of themselves and their lives, on what would help them grow and develop best.
I’ve been documenting (and will continue to do so) the types of activities I think constitute self-care. They’ll appear in my Self-Care Mega Guide. You are always welcome to experiment with different ones.
However, choosing which activities to engage in is a reflective and contemplative process you will need to go through, built on an honest assessment of how you think you are doing in the different domains of your life and where you could best direct your efforts.
Don’t worry if this feels like a big ask, or you don’t know where to start. Your competence at understanding yourself will increase over time as you take regular moments to contemplate your life and imagine the future you want.
Self-reflection of this sort isn’t something you master completely. It is something you commit to doing in an ongoing way that incrementally improves your life as you do.
Do you have a different conceptualisation of self-care? I’d love to hear it. I am open to viewing the concept in different ways. That is part of my own personal growth – being more open to different viewpoints.