What Does Self-Care Even Mean?

A quick Google search about self-care will result in hundreds of articles instructing you on “Top 10 Best New Self-Care Practices” and “Self-Care Life Hacks.” They tell you to buy a new candle, go to a farmers market, get a massage. For women, self-care is often synonymous with improving physical appearance, in an even narrower definition of how women should be allowed to spend their free time.

Clients often tell me they want to prioritize their self-care. I ask what that might look like for them, and they rattle off long lists of spa treatments, brunch meet-ups, gym sessions, and general life maintenance activities. When we explore this, oftentimes the reason they don’t seem to ever make time for “self-care” is that it feels more like a “to-do list” than activities that actually nourish them. Their “Self-Care To-Do List” feels overwhelming, and leaves them feeling less than cared for.


• Wine and chocolate cake for dinner?

• Expensive shopping spree after a stressful week

• Retail therapy

• An entire weekend spent ordering Seamless

• Binge watching Netflix?


The problem with self-care as we currently see it, is that it’s inevitably employed only when someone is already suffering; it’s a band aid instead getting us to the next stressor. And at this point, our minds aren’t in a place where we can honestly and authentically assess what we truly need; we are too anxious and overwhelmed (see previous blog post on the attention economy making a lot of money keeping us this way!). We say, “I’m so stressed out, I’m going to go home and drink a bottle of wine and eat a large pizza, because self-care.”…But then we end up feeling worse about ourselves after, not better.

Even more concerning is that many conversations around self-care often revolve around recovering from work or preparing for more of it. This idea of “self-care in service of more work” keeps you trapped: you’re already overworked, so you try to unplug to prepare for more work, your workload increases. Rinse and repeat. Theorist Lauren Berlant calls this “cruel optimism,” or “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.”  This is how we view self-care: it’s imagined primarily as a means to rejuvenate so that we’re able to continue working harder, moving faster, doing more—exactly why we’re so stressed out to begin with.  I read an article on Psychology Today a while ago that stated that self-care required “work and perseverance.” If so, when, exactly, do we get to rest?


So, what is self-care anyway?

I define self-care as a commitment to self-exploration leading to a clear and accurate understanding of how I am feeling and what I desire on a daily basis. And then I make it a priority to give myself the gift of what I need. I get crystal clear on what I am experiencing and the underlying motives for how I’m spending my free time: am I watching four hours of TV on a Saturday afternoon because I’m really interested in reality TV reruns, or am I zoning out to avoid a feeling? If I feel tense, I get really curious about what’s making me strained in the first place, before I book that massage.

How do you take care of yourself? I’d love to hear about it. suzanne@suzannegarrison.com