Consider this my war on bubble baths.
Listen, I love bubble baths, I really do. I pick my hotels based on their bathtubs. But a bath is not the magical, cure-all self-care unicorn that women’s magazines make it out to be.
Before I get into why, let’s look at the two main definitions that people seem to be using for self-care these days:
- Things you do on a consistent ongoing basis to care for your physical, mental, and emotional health.
- Things you do on a short-term basis because they feel good.
We call both these categories self-care but they are actually two very different things.
The first definition is closer to the true origin and purpose of the concept.
But we all tend to default to the second definition because calling these things “self care” helps us feel less guilty about wanting to eat cake, watch tv, and check out of life for a while.
Now, again, there’s nothing wrong with eating cake or watching tv. But the question is always WHY you are doing those things.
Often we’re using the term “self-care” to describe the actions we take to try and soothe ourselves from the impacts of an unmanaged mind. The whole reason we want to skip the workout or watch Netflix all night is that we have thoughts that are creating negative emotions that we want to escape.
In other words, often what we are calling self-care is actually numbing or buffering – actions we take to create dopamine and/or check out of the world so we don’t have to feel our feelings.
And to be clear, even seemingly virtuous actions can be like this. If you’re running to vent anxiety you don’t know how to manage, or to burn calories so you can escape your feelings of guilt or shame about your eating, that’s not really self-care in my book.
Which leads me to the real definition of self-care: the thought behind it.
The “why” of self-care matters much more than the action. Why are you running/watching/buying/contorting yourself into eagle pose?
Are you doing it to buffer or numb out or comfort yourself from the ravages of an unmanaged mind? Are you trying to escape a feeling or a thought?
Or are you taking action because you’ve consciously chosen it ahead of time as a way to promote your mental, emotional, and physical health – in whatever ways those are available to you?
As you might guess, I think the most important self-care activity out there is managing your mind. How you think literally determines how you feel and behave, and so of course determines what you create in your life with those behaviors.
A lot of self-care that I see my clients practicing produces a temporary dopamine burst or a temporary reprieve from stress. But these actions have to be repeated over and over because they don’t change the thing that created the stress in the first place.
If you hate your body, no amount of exercise (or food) will change your underlying thoughts about yourself. If you think you’re unworthy, no amount of champagne or facemasks or tv shows will fix how you feel about yourself.
Managing your mind is the only form of self-care that actually reduces the stress, overwhelm, and burnout that require self-care activities in the first place.
By all means, do things that you enjoy – take a bubble bath, watch a movie, eat cake or kale, exercise, see friends. But do so from a place of choice, where you can actually enjoy these things for what they are, rather than needing them to help you cope with the stress you create for yourself.
If you think of self-care as something you do to soothe and cope AFTER you’ve created a lot of negative emotion for yourself, that should be a sign to you that it’s time to focus on fixing the core problem – your thoughts.
One of the ironies about our negative self-talk is that it often produces us taking the kind of “self-care” actions that are actually against our own interests. So if you say a lot of unkind things to yourself about your eating choices, that creates feelings of shame. And then what do you do to deal with shame? You buffer, often with food. So criticizing yourself for your eating choices or how your body looks actually leads you to use food or other substances to comfort yourself – and then you shame yourself for that! It’s a vicious cycle.
(BTW breaking that cycle is what I am teaching in the upcoming UnF*ck Your Body Image Master Class, which I really encourage you to check out if you’re having trouble managing your thoughts about your body. Learning to change how I viewed my body completely transformed my relationship to self-care. I used to feel the need to numb out on the regular because I was so inundated with thoughts of how I was fat, ugly, unworthy. But then I developed the method I now teach and used it on myself – and now I am proud to say that I love my body. That’s something I couldn’t have imagined saying 10 years ago, when I was deep in the throes of bulimia and self-loathing. So if you know that you judge yourself for your eating, exercise, or how your body looks, you need this work. Click here to learn more about the class.)
Whether you decide to unf*ck your body image or not, you have to think of self-care as the things you can do for yourself on an ongoing basis so that you are not in a cycle of stress and then comfort. Self-care is managing your mind so that you can experience work, rest, and pleasure, and none of them have to feel desperate or compulsive, and none of them have to compensate for each other.
It’s more effort than numbing out, but it’s well worth it (and will make the bubble baths you do take all the sweeter).