Look up the phrase “self-care” and you are bound to find articles upon articles of advice. The advice often comes in the form of a list, many of which include 40 or more activities.
One article from Tiny Buddha begins “Do you ever forget to take care of yourself?” But goes on to suggest cloud-watching or wearing a nice outfit. Tips like these can help in some small ways mentally, but self-care and taking care of yourself are two different feats.
While technically speaking the phrase “self-care” has referred to necessary actions in the realm of healthcare, culturally the phrase has taken on its own meaning.
Self-care traditionally included eating healthy and practicing positive thinking to promote mental health, but it has changed to mean taking bubble baths instead of a shower, watching your favorite Netflix series after a long day or treating yourself to an impulse buy. However great those all sound, they aren’t automatically in the category of taking care of yourself in the basic sense.
As someone who uses the idea of self-care to work through rough days, I get that it may not even seem necessary to make this distinction. But with the shift in meaning of “self-care,” it’s important to know what’s what for the sake of your body and mind.
So let’s look at “self-care” as those extra things you do for yourself, those “treat ‘yo self” days and activities. On the other hand, not everything you do in your downtime always counts as “taking care of yourself.”
It may be hard to hear, but eating a pint of your favorite ice cream does not exactly do wonders on your body (I’ve had days like that, so no judgment if you’re guilty of this). In that same vein, wallowing in your feelings while watching a romantic comedy for the umpteenth time does not improve your mental state.
“Taking care of yourself” implies those often-menial tasks that, let’s be honest, can be hard to accomplish on days when you’re struggling with your mental health. Getting out of bed, taking a shower and getting dressed can feel like the greatest challenge you’ve ever faced when you’re in a bad mental state.
Sometimes, self-care ideas make everything a bit too taxing to even want to try. You don’t want to make your own facemask — you want to muster up the energy to splash some water on your face. You don’t want to plan out a whole outfit, accessories and all — you want to get dressed, full stop.
That’s where the major difference between “self-care” and “taking care of yourself” comes in. You take care of yourself by doing the bare minimum.
You indulge in self-care when you eat healthy, exercise and try to maintain a positive mental state. Treat yourself to something you normally wouldn’t buy or eat, take a break by scrolling through social media (or avoiding it entirely) or simply lounge around and do nothing.
Self-care articles can fail to make that distinction a lot of the time. Sure, some self-care listicles get lucky and throw something in that would count as taking care of yourself, but the inclusion of non-productive, self-care rituals among the practical tasks blurs the line between the two terms.
Vogue’s recent article on the book “High Vibrational Beauty: Recipes and Rituals for Radical Self Care” encourages readers to start an exercise routine and keep a diary — both great activities for your body and mind.
The “take care of yourself” advice, though, is paired with the suggestion of applying a face mask or baking something time-consuming in the morning, which people may find a bit too indulgent to fulfill basic needs.
Sometimes, no matter which side of the care-spectrum it exists on, well-meaning advice can send readers down a dangerous path.
As with all things you read online, fact checking can be a real lifesaver. A lot of self-care recommendations involve do-it-yourself recipes for “detox” concoctions that call for charcoal, but that’s not the best ingredient for everyone.
“It’s effective in binding, but it can be too effective, in terms of binding medications a person needs,” says Judy Fulop, a physician of natural medicine cited in the article. Fulop then goes on to explain that nutrients in food and medications, when mixed with charcoal, are at risk for absorption — meaning your body won’t receive whatever valuable vitamins you were trying to get.
Many other DIYs include essential oils in some capacity, but much like with charcoal, beware of how you use them. Essential oils should not come in direct contact with skin. High doses can be dangerous and they should always be diluted whenever you’re using them. Pieces of advice like the ones mentioned above are just a few things to keep in mind the next time you indulge in a self-care session.
You should also research the products articles talk about. It may seem obvious, but in most cases, sites are just trying to get you to buy something. Do your own research on the side to see if the product even has the self-care benefits the articles claim.
It may seem overwhelming and kind of a downer to criticize something that generally makes people feel better. Like I said, I often do things in the name of self-care, but I also recognize there are times when the “taking care of myself” necessities are the priority. At the end of it all, what’s most important is doing what is best and safest for your body and mind.