Taking care of yourself is a radical act—but there are simple ways to make it a lifelong habit
Self-care has become a major buzzword, used as an Instagram hashtag on more than 15 million photos depicting everything from mani-pedis to matcha pudding. It’s becoming a trendy way to justify indulgences and sell products, but the term actually has a rich history of medical and political significance.
In the 1950s, self-care was a way for patients to maintain some independence during long institutionalizations, so that they could eventually re-enter their communities. In the 1970s, the Black Panther Party promoted self-care as a revolutionary way for Black and other oppressed citizens to begin to heal from the constant hurts of racism and marginalization, and empower themselves to continue fighting for equality. In the 1990s, specific forms of self-care were advised as a protective strategy for trauma-facing professionals, to help them avoid PTSD and burnout so they could continue their work of helping others.
The common thread is that self-care began as a tool, a strategy for people to privately fortify and mend themselves so that they could re-engage with society and continue the work of building thriving communities.
Now, however, the commercialization of #selfcare means that this practice is in danger of becoming its own luxurious goal. For some people, this new shift in “self-care” seems to mean shrugging off social problems, disengaging from public life and permanently retreating into comfortable private worlds. Unfortunately, this course of action is only available to some. It exacerbates society’s inequalities and leaves many people struggling. And, to quote journalist Jamie Kalven, to “retreat into denial… would give carte blanche to power.”
Social inequality is the root problem we need to fix, and while we all need to take time to rest and recharge, it would be dangerous to let self-care evolve into a way to ignore the problem. So how can we make sure our self-care practices bring healing to both ourselves and to the world?
1. Take care of the basics first
The best self-care is inexpensive, simple, self-driven and accessible to anyone. If you’re feeling drained, start by making an effort to get a little more sleep, drink a little more water, make incrementally healthier food choices, engage in self-reflection and get some fresh air—all attainable ways to feel exponentially better.
2. Be mindful of how your self-care impacts other people (and the planet)
Being pampered is enjoyable, but if your self-care is a drain on the well-being of an underpaid person, it’s coming at a cost. Practices like facials and mani-pedis might be better framed as indulgences rather than necessary self-care. When we do indulge, we can pay workers fairly and tip well, avoid toxic chemicals in our beauty treatments and consider the environmental sustainability of our foods.
3. Nurture connection over consumerism
Research shows that positive human interaction is healing. Prioritize connecting with your people as part of your self-care. Trust your friends to love you, and invite them to hang out—even if your home is messy, even if you feel like a hermit, even if it’s just for a walk in the park.
4. Eat together
Eating meals together has been proven to increase well-being. You don’t need to be fancy! Invite a friend over for toast and tea. Ask a coworker to join you in the breakroom while you munch your lunch. Organize a little potluck with a few friends.
5. Name your emotions
Research has shown that the simple act of naming our emotions actually helps us manage them better. Practice saying things like “I feel frustrated because my boss didn’t listen to me in that meeting” or “I feel sad because my friend cancelled our plans” or “I feel angry because that person’s tone of voice was rude” or “I feel anxious because that person hasn’t responded to my messages.” Naming emotions, even privately through self-talk or journaling, can help calm us, thus making it easier to move ahead productively. With practice, it may even become easier to speak candidly to others about our emotions, which can help with boundary setting and relationship strengthening.
6. Let your emotions guide your actions
Suppressing emotions is known to be bad for our health—it’s correlated with high blood pressure, and autoimmune, heart and gastrointestinal problems. We probably can’t freely express every single emotion we feel (although work meetings would get pretty exciting if we could…), but we can seek to find the value in our emotions, and receive them as important information that guides us towards things we want to change. We can honour our difficult emotions through self-reflection, journaling and discussion. We can make an effort to slow down and enjoy positive feelings like love, laughter, sensuality and connection. And we can channel and release our anger and pain in productive ways, including social action like letter writing, marching and contributing to meaningful causes.
7. Detox your social media
Let’s face it, we’re not gonna quit—but we can use social media for good. Unfollow heavily branded accounts pushing unattainable imagery that makes you feel bad about yourself. Instead, follow accounts that spread positive values, such as simple healthy cooking, frugality, humour, creativity and inspiring politics like intersectional feminism and anti-oppression. Choose feeds that inspire and nourish you.
8. Practice “boring self-care”
It takes real perseverance to make your loan payments, tidy your home, pack your lunch, get a Pap smear and file your taxes. These tasks aren’t photogenic, but they’re important steps on the way to a healthy and balanced life. The popular self-care, race and pop-culture podcast Another Round always includes a loving reminder to “drink some water, take your meds and call your person.” Occupational therapist and illustrator Hannah Daisy (@MakeDaisyChains) created the hashtag #boringselfcare to glorify the mundane tasks that can seem monumental when you’re feeling low. Sexuality educator and activist Ericka Hart (@iHartEricka) frequently posts cute silent videos of herself drinking water to remind her huge Instagram following to #drinkup. Follow them for inspiration!
9. Use self-care to refuel, and then share your power with the world
This is the original intention and the best possible outcome for self-care: surges of positive energy that we use in world-shaking ways, such as calling a political representative, marching in a protest, volunteering in our communities, researching ethical ways to spend money and speaking up when we hear bigoted statements.
Each of us has the power to make incremental change for the better. That’s the thing about self-care: If we do it right, we gain the strength to help transform our communities, so we’ll all reap the benefits.
So when you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a self-care break to check in with your emotions, connect with your people and nourish your body—and then come back to the world refreshed, so you can keep on doing the work.