What is Effective Self-Care?

What is self-care exactly? In the modern world, we might associate self-care with pampering ourselves or investing in products, or services that supposedly serve our well-being. The motivation behind self-care has become self-improvement — if we engage in these acts of self-care, we will become better versions of ourselves. However, such a message suggests that we need fixing and if we do not feel our best, it must be because we have not invested in ourselves.

The Commercialisation of Self-Care

Self-care in the modern world has become a commodity, selling consumers products that help us to ‘become’ the best versions of ourselves. Perhaps this would be fine if we truly experienced a better quality of life from purchasing products or services. But this mode of self-care has become performative — we want our workouts, healthy meals, bubble baths or skin-care hauls to be “Instagrammable” or shareable in some way. Even if we are not the sharing type, seeing others’ acts of self-care pictured might make us feel we are missing something that is essential to becoming successful. In reality, that act of self-care might not do anything to improve how you feel.

Yet, it does not end there. Self-care is not limited to products or services. Now, everything is self-care, from taking an afternoon walk to drinking a cup of tea. There is nothing wrong with these self-care acts at all but, the fact we feel the need to justify these acts as self-care suggests we need to explain why we are not working or being productive. This becomes an issue when we begin to feel as if we are undeserving of such acts of self-care because we have been unproductive. These acts should be a basic privilege, not something we must earn. In this way, self-care has become either a means of self-betterment or a basic privilege that needs to be earned. It has become expensive, competitive, and almost work-like. However, self-care was once a tool for self-preservation and still can be:

“Because let’s be clear: self-care is not about fixing ourselves. Self-care is a break from our constant attempts at self-improvement, a break from the grind of work, family, and social obligations, from beauty norms, from unjust systems, from therapy — from effort. Self-care is about maintaining your current best, appreciating who you are right now, so you can return to the effort of becoming better, of doing more, of delivering yourself at 100%.” — Lisa Goecker, The Swaddle (2019).

What is Proper Self-Care?

Self-care should be activities that ensure we maintain our health and wellbeing. Self-care occurs every day and can be a fixed set of activities such as journaling, or cycles of behaviour that we must monitor, evaluate, and repeat, such as workout routines or our food consumption. The International Foundation of Self-Care proposes seven pillars of self-care:

  1. Knowledge and Health Literacy: This refers to the ability to access the health information and services that enable us to make informed health-related decisions.
  2. Mental Wellbeing: This is our ability to be self-aware and apply health knowledge to our own situation. This also includes being able to realise our own potential, work productively and cope with everyday stressors.
  3. Physical Activity: This is engaging in frequent but moderate movement or exercise.
  4. Healthy Eating: This refers to maintaining a balanced and nutritious diet.
  5. Risk Avoidance: This involves avoiding things that may harm our health by quitting smoke, limiting alcohol intake, and getting vaccinated.
  6. Good Hygiene: This refers to engaging in care acts such as brushing our teeth, washing our food and hands.
  7. Rational Use of Products and Services: This refers to using medications appropriately when required and being aware of dangers that could be associated with use.

These pillars highlight that self-care should not act as a band-aid for issues that you need to address. You cannot use self-care to tackle mental health problems or medical conditions that require a professional’s help. It is important to know when to draw the line between needing some self-care and needing help from others. You do not have to manage everything alone. Self-care is accessing the relevant support needed for your well-being. So, what acts of self-care can we engage in to address these pillars?

8 simple acts of self-care

  • Go to the appointments we have been avoiding — dentist, doctor, or opticians.
  • Go to bed early or take a power nap to gain some energy in the day.
  • Exercise or engage in moderate physical activity that feels good for you.
  • De-clutter or clean spaces you use regularly, like your car, desk space or bedroom.
  • Take a bath or shower to feel refreshed.
  • Take a walk or spend some time outside without distraction.
  • Visit somewhere nice, e.g. a local library, a café or, simply a park. It does not have to cost you.
  • Do your laundry and put on fresh bed sheets.

These are just a few ways you can engage in self-care. But self-care acts can also be things we do every day, such as healthy eating, mindfulness practises, etc. The most important thing is that the act of self-care works for you and your wellbeing. For example, spending time with family might make one person feel better. But spending time alone might be essential for another to feel their best. Amanda White, a licensed professional counsellor, suggests this list of questions for checking our acts of self-care:

  • Do I have the energy to do this right now?
  • How do I feel right now?
  • How will I feel after I finish?
  • Will I have more or less energy after I finish?
  • What happens if I do not do it?
  • Is there a smaller step I can take in this process?
  • Is there something I can do first to give more energy?
  • Are my primary needs taken care of?
  • Am I acting out of choice or as a reaction to something?
  • If I delay and wait 20 minutes, will my choice be different?
  • Does this action feel compulsive?
  • What would my therapist or loved one say?

Written by Amirah Khan
Amirah is a Psychology graduate with a keen interest in researching, and writing about topics that promote psychological well-being. She is an empathetic idealist, passionate about improving perceptions of mental health issues. She volunteers as a tutor for disadvantaged pupils and content developer for a peer support service.

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