The Difference Between Self-Care and Self-Soothing

Congrats! We’ve made it. The semester is finally over!


With a whole month off from classes this year, there is plenty of time to de-stress from the crazy semester. A lot of people have probably already told you, “Take care of yourself!” That’s all well and good, but what does self-care really mean?


Before discussing self-care, it’s important to distinguish between self-care and self-soothing. When people talk about self-care, they often suggest treating yourself, such as buying that cup of coffee, eating that brownie, or taking a bubble bath. This is great, but that isn’t self-care. That is self-soothing.


Self-soothing includes practices that make you feel good in the moment but don’t necessarily make you well in the long run. For example, imagine you fell and scraped up your knee pretty badly. You need some medical attention, maybe some disinfectant and a band-aid, but instead you make a nice cup of tea and watch Netflix while your knee keeps bleeding profusely.


Doesn’t seem very logical, does it?


When it comes to managing your mental health, it’s the same thing. You can get injured emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually too, not just physically. When this happens, self-soothing practices are like drinking a cup of tea and watching Netflix while your knee bleeds. It makes you feel better for a moment, but it doesn’t take care of the actual injury. That’s where self-care comes in.


Self-care means taking action to hit the problem at its source. It’s similar to the idea of problem-focused coping in psychology. Rather than dealing with the emotional side effects of a stressor or problem, you go to the source in order to help yourself in the long run. This means doing things that may not make you feel great in the moment but will improve your health in the long run. 


Let’s take an example. It’s been a hectic, overwhelming, exhausting semester. You’re burnt out. So, when you go home, you sleep, eat lots of home-cooked comfort food, and binge a new TV show. While you do each of those things, you feel a little better, a little comfort. However, in between those things, you aren’t happy. You still feel pretty down, maybe due to a draining relationship, family issues, or mental health struggles. This is where self-care is vital. 


Cut off toxic relationships - if you are around people who make you feel bad about yourself, then get away from them! Surround yourself with people who lift you up and accept you for who you are. Communicate with your family or friends. Maybe they don’t know they are upsetting you, so the best thing you can do to move forward is to have that difficult conversation. Most importantly, if you feel as though you are seriously unmotivated, unhappy, or anxious, go see a professional. Stop depending on other people to make you happy, but also stop believing that you aren’t worthy of care. You are worthy, you are more than enough, and you deserve to be happy. Your friends will be there to support you, but they aren’t trained to help you figure out how to overcome serious mental struggles. When you’re physically sick, you go to the doctor. When you’re mentally sick, or even just slightly under the weather, you go to a therapist. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness.


A quick disclaimer: there is absolutely nothing wrong with self-soothing. Self-soothing is a really great way to relax and unwind, and I definitely hope you engage in some self-soothing activities over break! However, they shouldn’t be your only way to cope. Talk to people. Put yourself in a situation that allows you to succeed and reach your full potential, because you are worth it.