Self-care: In all its “treat yourself” glory, the term is now shorthand for a caricature of millennial self-indulgence, a hook on which everyone can hang complaints about “kids these days.”
But it wasn’t always that way. A decade ago, when Google search interest in “self-care” was at its lowest and it hadn’t yet become that caricature, the idea was to focus on something far more substantial than scented candles and bath bombs: namely, mental health and taking care of oneself. And enjoyable as those minor indulgences are, the mental health side of self-care is having a resurgence, according to Anna Borges, senior health editor for Self magazine and author of the book “The More or Less Definitive Guide to Self-Care.”
“I think it’s come a little full circle by now,” Ms. Borges said. “The ‘face masks and bubble baths’ of self-care hit a peak a little bit ago, then people started rebelling against it and talking about how it’s no longer that.”
She added: “It’s about mental health and taking care of yourself. People are coming back around on it in response.”
It could be a matter of culture catching up. According to Harvard Business Review, “Mental health awareness has reached an inflection point. Singers, actors and athletes are increasingly coming out about their challenges.” And data from the American Psychological Association published last May supports the idea that we’re more open about dealing with mental health: “A total of 87 percent of American adults agreed that having a mental health disorder is nothing to be ashamed of, and 86 percent said they believe that people with mental health disorders can get better,” according to the poll.
From buzzword to benefits
Discarding the superficial associations we have with self-care is the easy part. From there, tending to yourself becomes a matter of trial and error to find what works for you.
We can break down self-care into four buckets: physical, mental, social and spiritual. (Think of that last one as a grab bag.) Using those frames of references, you can begin to experiment with different techniques that might work.
So, for example, let’s say you’ve identified that you’ve been feeling more lonely these days. You might want to center your approach to self-care around strengthening the ties you have with friends and family — maybe through regular phone calls or catch-up chats. Or let’s say your health has dipped. In that case, self-care for you might focus on building a workout routine. Whatever self-care means for you, the point is to figure out just that: what it means for you.
“My definition of self-care is different than anyone else’s definition, and that’s kind of the point,” Ms. Borges said. “There’s no one definition. It all comes down to how you take care of yourself in order to equip yourself with the tools you’ll need for your physical, mental and emotional health.”
Embrace the process
Effective self-care isn’t something you do. It’s … a lifestyle. (I know, I know, but stay with me.)
“My self-care routine is very much that: It’s a routine,” Ms. Borges said. “What I’ve learned in the past is if I make decisions based on how I’m feeling in the moment, I will make bad decisions.”
We talk about habits all the time in Smarter Living, but for good reason: They work. Building habits around positive behaviors takes willpower and self-control out of the equation; you just do them.
Let’s come back to the loneliness example. We know that loneliness can negatively impact physical and mental health. To fight back, maybe you build a habit by calling a close friend on the same day at the same time each week. Building that habit is a way to incorporate this act of self-care into your regular routine so it goes from being just an act to being a part of your life.
Another tactic is to consider what feels good now — bingeing Netflix and pizza after an anxiety-ridden week, for example — versus what will make you feel good in the long-term — developing a habit around something that genuinely enriches your mental well-being. It’s a lot of trial and error, and there isn’t a “one simple trick” to discovering what self-care means for you, but developing a personalized self-care regimen is worth the effort.
Your definition of self-care will be whatever you make it. All that matters is that you do put in that effort.
“There’s a billion different things that can be self-care, and you have to piece them together to figure out what works for you,” Ms. Borges said. “People want quick fixes, but a lot about self-care is putting in the work long-term.”