In recent years, the term “self-care” has become synonymous with things like bubble baths, massages, and long, relaxing days at the spa. And while those indulgences can certainly be a form of taking care of yourself, the real meaning of self-care goes much, much deeper.
“While bubble baths and massages can be a wonderful way to relax, true self-care is holistic—it’s about feeding your mind, body, and spirit with strategies that are sustainable in the long term,” says Courtney Kirkpatrick, MS, NCC, LPC, a Pennsylvania-based Licensed Professional Counselor.
But what, exactly, is the deeper meaning of self-care? And how can you take your self-care practices to a deeper, more meaningful level—and enjoy better health, happiness, and well-being in the process?
What is the true meaning of self-care—beyond bubble baths and massages?
As mentioned, when most people hear the term self-care, their mind immediately goes to bubble baths, foot rubs, and other forms of physical relaxation. But the actual definition of self-care is much broader and deeper than that.
“My favorite definition of self-care is ‘any thought or action that we do deliberately to take care of our mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical health,’” says Kelly Donahue, PhD, a clinical health psychologist that specializes in self-care, stress, and anxiety and author of Everyday Self-Care: Your Proven, Holistic Guide to Feeling Better. “Self-care is doing and thinking the things that serve our highest good and help to create the best version of us.”
So essentially, self-care is anything you do to take care of yourself—physically, yes, but also mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. So, while taking a bubble bath could certainly count as an act of self-care, so could spending an afternoon snuggling with your dog, asserting yourself at work, taking a hike to marvel at the beauty of nature, or saying no to a social engagement in order to catch up on some much-needed sleep.
Giving yourself what you need to feel taken care of—whether that’s prioritizing exercise, carving out time to catch up with friends each week, or committing to a meditation practice to help keep anxiety at bay—“not only allows us time to nurture ourselves, but also gives us an opportunity to be the best versions of ourselves in all aspects of our life,” says Kirkpatrick.
So, the question is, how can you incorporate self-care into your life in a deeper way—a way that makes you feel truly taken care of?
Address each of the self-care pillars… As mentioned, bubble baths and massages can be a great form of physical self-care. But if you’re only taking care of your physical self—and aren’t giving your mental, emotional, or spiritual self the TLC they need—chances are, you’re not going to feel your best.
“It can be easy to focus on just one area, like physical health,” says Donahue. “[But] you can eat kale, salmon, and workout five times per week and still not feel great if you aren’t attending to the other needs as well.”
If you want to practice a deeper form of self-care, make sure that you’re incorporating self-care practices for each of the four self-care pillars—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. (Keep in mind that spiritual doesn’t have to mean religious; it could just mean carving out time to get into nature or exploring a mindfulness practice.) So, for example, your self-care routine might consist of going for a 15-minute walk every morning (physical), hosting weekly Zoom calls with your family (emotional), meeting with a therapist once a week (mental), and finding a new hike to explore each month (spiritual). Find out how to turn your hike into a moving meditation.
Bottom line? Caring for all parts of yourself is the key to leveraging self-care to feel your best. “Self-care is holistic. When we are attending to our physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual needs, we will feel better,” says Donahue.
…but start small. You want to take care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. But you also don’t want to feel overwhelmed and stressed at the thought of overhauling your routine and making a ton of changes all at once.
That’s why, when it comes to incorporating more (and deeper) self-care practices into your life, it’s best to start small.
“I recommend choosing one tiny thing that they can do to improve the way they feel,” says Donahue. “That might be going to bed 15 minutes earlier, meditating for 2 minutes before bed instead of scrolling IG, or going for a walk around the block after work.”
Making small changes to incorporate self-care into your routine can feel more manageable than larger, sweeping changes (for example, downloading a meditation app and doing a 5-minute meditation once a day is going to be easier to implement than trying to sit in silence for an hour every morning). And the best part? The more successful you are with the small changes to your routine, the more encouraged you’ll be to continue with your self-care journey, and the easier it will be to roll out larger, more significant changes.
“Starting with a small change helps because once you do the thing you say you are going to do, you build integrity and self-confidence,” says Donahue. “Those [wins] generate additional progress.”
Talk to yourself like you’d talk to a friend. As humans, we’re constantly talking to ourselves—and for many, the content of those conversations is less than kind.
“Self-care is how we treat ourselves and how we talk to ourselves,” says Donahue. “If we are mean and critical of ourselves, we are not going to feel happy or healthy.”
The way you talk to yourself can have a huge impact on how you feel on a day-to-day basis. So, one of the most transformative self-care practices you can incorporate into your routine? Stop talking to yourself in a negative way—and, instead, start talking to yourself like a friend.
Talking to yourself with the kindness, love, and understanding you’d use in a conversation with a friend can help you generate a deeper sense of self-compassion, which can have a domino effect on your health, happiness, and well-being. Read more about how to cultivate a stronger sense of self-compassion here.
“If we can start with the foundation of BEING kind to ourselves, knowing that we deserve that kindness, then it is easier to move into the DOING of all the activities that help us achieve better physical and emotional health,” says Donahue.
Stop saying yes when you want to say no. Are you a yes person? If so, you’re not alone. “So many of the people I work with don’t have healthy boundaries,” says therapist Ruthie Kalai, LCSW. “They say yes to things they would rather say no to—and then wonder why they have overextended themselves.”
But learning how to say no, and setting boundaries around your time and energy, can be a complete game-changer in terms of self-care.
Now, if you’re used to saying yes to everything, starting to set boundaries and say no can feel uncomfortable. But that’s okay! “Self-care is not always doing the easy or obvious thing,” says Donahue. “Self-care can be inconvenient and challenging”—but that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile.
If you’re new to boundary setting, start by increasing the time between when someone asks something of you and when you respond. Often, people say yes without thinking about it, then come to regret it later. By giving yourself time and space to process a request (whether that’s taking on an extra project at work, doing a favor for a friend, or accepting a PTA position at your child’s school), you can better evaluate how you want to respond—and avoid saying yes as a knee-jerk reaction.
And once you say no? That’s all you have to say; don’t feel the need to justify your boundaries. “No is a full sentence that doesn’t require additional explanation,” says Donahue.
Understand that self-care is a journey, and if you get off track, just get back on the horse. Prioritizing self-care—and using these practices to take care of yourself—will go a long way in supporting your happiness, health, and overall well-being. But don’t be hard on yourself if you drift away from your self-care routine.
“If you find your self-care has fallen away, start by just giving yourself some grace and compassion instead of being so judgmental,” says Kirkpatrick.
Remember, you’ll have days where you take great care of yourself, and other days? Not so much. But the best form of self-care you can give yourself is to cut yourself some slack and try again tomorrow. “What matters most is that you start back up again,” says Kalai.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.