Beyond Bubble Baths And Manicures: Let’s Talk About What Real Self-Care Actually Is

by Virginia Duan
Justin Lambert/Getty

For the longest time, I thought I was doing self-care wrong. I would go get pedicures, massages, hang out with my girlfriends, go watch movies, read books — the whole gamut of what’s widely considered self-care. And yet, I didn’t feel any more rested or less anxious. In fact, I felt worse.

Maybe I didn’t understand the assignment. Maybe it didn’t impact my life because I was always taking time for myself. It was just how I lived.

After much therapy, my therapist suggested that maybe I didn’t feel cared for because I did these types of activities all the time — and they didn’t remove the reason behind my stress. She suggested I set aside fifteen minutes a day to attack the things that were giving me stress — like decluttering my house or sorting my mail. (Oh, friends. I had at least a year’s worth piled up on my kitchen table.)

I wish I could say that I took her words seriously and made a permanent life change. (Spoiler alert: I did not.) I made it about two weeks. But those two weeks were very helpful because I did indeed feel as if the giant, overwhelming pile of shit I needed to do was being chipped away at, and thus, I felt less stressed and could actually enjoy my life.

What is real self-care?

Self-care has been co-opted by capitalism into yet another vehicle to sell us products just like it did with romantic love and pretty much everything ever. We’re told that all we need to care for ourselves is to consume — that what we lack or hunger for can be filled by some material item or service. We’re sold snake oil for our souls.

Editor-in-Chief of Bitch Media Evette Dionne said in an Instagram post that self-care was about survival. Yes — survival — at all costs. To Dionne, self-care means “…working through your own suppression, cutting off friends and family who are killing you, or refusing to engage with a particular system.” She approaches self-care as a discipline: “It is doing the difficult things in our lives that we want to avoid, like taking medications as prescribed, going to therapy, enforcing boundaries even if that means cutting people off. Self-care, for me, is therapy, setting really strict boundaries around my time and who I share my time with, and listening to my body.”

Self-care is tailored to you

There is no wrong way to do self-care.

Truthfully, self-care is a very broad umbrella. It literally means to take care of yourself — and thus, it’s what you need in your life to be emotionally, physically, and spiritually healthy. Whether self-care is something you have to resolve to add into your life or built into your lifestyle already — and maybe unicorns exist — but whatever it is, it’s specific and unique to your life.

It’s not going to look like your friends or influencers you follow online. It’s going to look like you.

Some tips for true self-care

With that said, there are definitely universal tips for self-care that you can apply to your life right now.

1. Get enough sleep.

Though the pandemic threw a wrench in a lot of the go-go-go lifestyle many of us were stuck in, it also perhaps created a terrible sleep environment thanks to anxieties, time losing all meaning, and work never-ending. Practice good sleep hygiene.

2. Get enough water.

Make sure you hydrate so you can dominate! (Okay, we could probably do without this kind of aggressive language, but you know what we mean.) Take ample water breaks.

3. Listen to your body.

Yes, this is in line with the first two tips. Take your medications. Take your vitamins. Eat nutritious foods. Exercise. Take stretch breaks. Take naps. Go to counseling. Cry. Take the time to listen to what your body wants and give it to yourself.

4. Cut out toxic people.

Set up appropriate boundaries in relationships that no longer serve you. Whether it’s cutting social media or certain influencers from your life because they make you feel bad — or family, friends — or even work — if they make you feel shitty on a consistent basis, why are you giving them that power over you?

5. Reflect on your life.

Think about what you really want and how you want to live your life. What actually makes you happy? Brings you joy? Makes you unhappy? Start making moves to live the life you actually want to live — and you will naturally start applying real self-care.

6. Outsource tasks.

If you have the means, pay someone to help you clean your bathrooms or your kitchen. Maybe you hate vacuuming — whatever it is you hate doing — pay someone to do it. Drop your laundry at a fluff and fold. Get your car detailed. Get your groceries delivered. If you have older kids, have them do their own laundry and clean their own rooms.

7. Go outside.

I know. My friends in real life will be incredulous that those words just came out of my metaphorical mouth since I don’t believe in the outside. But. You know, apparently nature is good for you — plus it helps prevent myopia since it forces your eyes to focus on things far away instead of close up. And like, Vitamin D (not the fun kind) and all that. Touch some grass. Breathe some fresh air. Enjoy nature in all its glory.