Self-care has a terrible rep for being a frivolous, self-indulgent pastime used to sell everything from pricey spa days to junk food and Netflix binges. Like in the Parks and Recreation episode “treat yo self,” Donna and Tom go to extremes with self-care, buying luxury goods, and indulging in every way.
When viewed in this light, self-care neglects to address fundamental problems and may even exacerbate pressures such as poor financial or physical health. How can you tell if your self-care is effective? Consider how you feel afterward.
If you’re feeling “hungover” after your treatment, whether it’s from overspending or overeating, or from watching too much reality TV, it’s possible that this wasn’t the perfect treat for you. Self-care is both personal and situational.
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Self-care, in its best form, should be attentive to emotional needs and can be an effective technique for combating burnout and improving overall well-being.
Not surprisingly, much of the research on self-care comes from high-stress caring professions like medicine, counseling, and social work, where studies have found that self-care not only improves workers’ quality of life but also increases their ability to do their jobs well and stay in such demanding jobs.
Self-care may entail matching the cure to the condition or to the individual. Recent research on social workers, a group at high risk of burnout, suggests that there is a need for a more nuanced accounting of who the “self” in self-care is.
When thinking about burnout and strategies to prevent it through self-care, it incorporates both professional and personal situations. In other words, because we live and work in diverse environments and have varied emotional and mental states, self-care can and should look different for each of us.
What one person considers self-care may not be appropriate for another. If you’re an introvert who works in a fast-paced atmosphere, for example, self-care can include some quiet time. Self-care may also include interacting with family and close friends if you are lonely.
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If you work all day with small children in a daycare setting, perhaps your self-care might include seeing a sophisticated film and discussing it with adults. However, if your day job as an attorney requires you to operate at a high level of discourse, you might be better off going to watch the latest Disney film—better to decompress with some popcorn and cartoon monkeys.
List the needs you don’t feel are being met for you, or try to define and abstract the nature of the pressures you’re feeling to get started on more individualized self-care. Is your boss a jerk?
Perhaps the abstract version of this problem is too much conflict, in which case a soothing activity like yoga, a solo trek, or a visit to a botanical garden—whatever promotes your sense of peace—might be the self-care match.
Self-care also entails thinking about a variety of long-term objectives, especially when popular ones like increasing money or physical health can be stressful. If budgeting or dieting generates low-level anxiety, for example, it’s crucial to break up your days with cheap or free nutritious indulgences.
To be well prepared, maintain a list of these items close at hand so you may refer to it quickly when you need a boost. Watching a favorite TV show, preparing a meal with a friend, contacting a loved one, conducting a guided meditation, walking your dog in the park, reading a magazine in the tub—whatever seems renewing or luxury to you—are all good examples. Not only have you taken care of yourself in the near term, but you have also avoided derailing your long-term ambitions to the point that you feel horrible about yourself. Self-care does not have to imply self-destruction.
Another way to think about mood-enhancing self-care that is tailored to our specific needs is to remember the importance of “flow,” which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined as a combination of challenge and immersion. If your job and daily work life don’t provide you with this kind of experience—even in the finest jobs, not every day can be a “flow” day—then perhaps this is a method to tailor self-care to our unique personalities and requirements. Try making a list of “flow” activities, starting with the simple (scrapbooking, baking for a friend, painting your nails) and working your way up to the more time-consuming (tiling a floor, fixing a car, cooking an elaborate feast).
We are taken out of ourselves while also giving significance to our lives through involving projects in these activities. This type of self-care can help us cope with job stress by allowing us to build new aspects of our identities: We’re employees, but we’re also part-time painters, aspiring master bakers, and weekend motorcycle technicians.
These experiments inflow and identity construction are a far cry from Tom and Donna’s self-care binge-and-bust approach. Even yet, if the spa is calling and you have the funds, go ahead and “treat yo self.”