Self Care: What is it Really?

We’ve all heard it before. We’re stressed out. We’re feeling down. We mention it to a friend, a peer, a supervisor, a co-worker, and they utter some variation of the words: “Remember to practice self care!” I know I’m not the only one who feels incredibly grated when they hear this. The conversation is over pretty quickly after someone has the audacity to tell me to practice self care. It seems so impersonal. It feels like whoever I wanted to talk to wants the conversation to be over. At the beginning of the year, I started wondering why I felt like that. It is a good idea to practice self care. So why was I so angry when someone pointed it out to me?


I have the fairly unique experience of being a part of the Health and Wellness Crew (HAWC) here at Seattle University. One of the events I’m co-leading this quarter is all about self care, and in doing my research, I was unsurprised to find out I had no idea what self care really is. Some people say it’s taking time out of your day to treat yourself. Some people say it’s incorporating little things into your everyday routine to help you destress. Some people say it’s a face mask. What I’ve discovered in my research is that the reason I get so mad when people tell me to practice self care is that they almost always mean a face mask. It’s called self care, not skin care, and there is more to us than our physical bodies that may need a little extra TLC. Skin care is a super valid form of self care if whatever you’re going through at that moment is that superficial. But your mental and emotional state are just as important as your physical state, and your mind needs just as much love and attention as your body (not to say that body issues are always superficial). Sometimes what we’re going through requires more than physical care, more than skin care, and self care shouldn’t always be reduced to just a face mask.


Another thing I realized while doing this research is that I have no idea how to practice self care. I was one of those kids who were told they were gifted when they were six years old, and as a result now put every single ounce of energy I have into school to continue to prove that I’m gifted. I can sit down and do homework for six hours straight. I can prioritize HAWC work over sleep or a couple hours to myself. I never learned how to say no when someone asks me for help and I already have too much on my plate. I’ll work full steam for as long as I can (which can sometimes be weeks) before I crack under the pressure I’ve put myself under. I’m in my second year of college, I’m a month away from turning twenty, and I don’t know what type of self care works best for me yet.


The hardest part of doing this research and coming to this conclusion has been this: self care is not a formula. It’s not something you can sit down in a classroom and learn. But in a way, it should be. I’ve been in school for about sixteen years now, and this quarter was the first time a professor reminded us to take care of ourselves in our syllabus. The example he explicitly gave was taking a break from our admittedly very heavy reading load every thirty or so minutes. When we went over the syllabus on the first day, he told us to do whatever helps us unwind. The point of school isn’t to break you, it’s to teach you, and it’s taken me halfway through my sophomore year of college to realize how horrible it is that I’ve let school do both for me.


So this all leads to this question: How the hell do you practice self care in a way that will really benefit you without being incredibly superficial for the issue at hand? My answer is, I don’t know. I’ve learned that self care is a trial and error process, and for someone like me, that’s incredibly frustrating. The one absolute in self care is that it’s a healthy coping mechanism. To me, self care is creating a structure that works for me. It isn’t taking time out of my day to treat myself, or using every bottle in the beauty section of Target to make myself feel better. It’s knowing that as close to 7:30 PM as possible, I’m going to stop doing homework and let myself unwind for a few hours before I go to bed. It’s putting down my phone at least an hour before bed and reading instead of scrolling through Twitter. It’s doing one assignment, no matter how much I want to get done in one sitting, and then getting up and getting a drink of water, going to the bathroom, tidying up my desk, eating lunch, doing something that forces me to get out of the intense Work Mode I so often fall victim to. It’s listening to my roommate break down everything she learned in class that day, and then getting to hear what my boyfriend learned in whatever science book he’s currently reading. It’s spending time with my support system because I do have the time, regardless what my planner might try to trick me into believing. It’s working little things into my everyday routine so I can help myself destress before I have too much stress to worry about. This is something I’m new to, so I know I have a lot to learn, but I’ve managed to keep this flow for about a month now, and it’s worked incredibly well for me.

What self care is not, to me, is breaking my everyday routine to go do something spontaneous. It’s fun, and it happens, but it doesn’t work for me as a method of self care. It’s also not face masks and hair masks and all that other good beauty stuff, though I do use face masks and indulge in all that good beauty stuff because it’s fun and it makes me feel good. It’s just not what self care is for me.


I’ve realized how out of touch some of us―myself included―are with taking care of ourselves. Self care seems like such an abstract concept when we never really specify what we mean when we say it. The most important thing I’ve learned is that self care isn’t selfish. It’s necessary. It can be somewhat frustrating to find what works best for you, and what works best for you won’t necessarily work best for your roommate, or your best friend, or your partner, and vice versa. The definition of self care is unique to everyone, but we all deserve to find what works best for us.