It’s Sunday. You’ve drawn a bath. Your pan-flute-soft-rock playlist is humming along. Up next is your 11-step skincare routine. And yet: Somewhere between the face mask and patting on eye cream, you feel anxiety about the work week creeping in.
So much for self care fending off the Sunday Scaries, you think.
But: What if the problem isn’t the concept of self care but the way many of us have come to practice it?
At its core, self care is about giving yourself time and space to recharge so you can thrive in every aspect of your life. If we recharge in ways that make us feel good, we can be better parents, partners, colleagues, and friends.
Even health experts recognize its value. Before it was a hashtag on Instagram, self care was an essential part of my mental-health-practitioner training, says Sarah Dolling, LPC, Clinical Content Producer for AbleTo. “We were taught that taking care of ourselves is integral to being able to care for our clients.”
However, true self care may not look like it does on social media. Below, the truth about what self care is — and isn’t.
The top 7 self-care myths, plus how to get it right
To tend to your needs correctly, you need to banish common self-care myths. But don’t worry: Good self care is easier to implement than you might think.
The Myth: Self care is anything that feels good
The Reality: A lot of things that feel good to us in the moment may not be helpful in the long run, says Hayley Quinn, PsyD, Senior Manager of Clinical Product Experience at AbleTo.
Sure, Netflix marathons or chocolate binges might be okay on occasion. (We’ve all been there.) But if you’re missing out on things that are important to you, or you become overly dependent on these types of activities, it may be time to add more self-care tools to your mental health toolkit.
“Self-care activities should ideally be rooted in your values and connect back to them in a meaningful way,” says Quinn. For instance, if your values are to be kind to yourself and others, mindfulness might be a good self-care practice for you.
The Myth: Self care is about relaxation
The Reality: Everyone restores their energy differently. “Before you practice self-care, you think about what charges your batteries versus depletes them,” says Dolling. While a 5-mile jog may seem like an illogical way to recharge, for many people, it actually is energizing. But if being horizontal in a hammock is what you need, that’s fine too.
The Myth: Self care is pricey
The Reality: You can’t buy better mental health. Sure, a week at a spa might seem like a slam dunk. But self care isn’t so much a one-and-done thing as a lifelong practice, says Dolling. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on a vacation, look for small, low-cost ways to engage in day-to-day things that make you feel good. Meet a friend for a walk after work. Or make time to create art that inspires you. Long-term, these practices will be more helpful than a large, one-time splurge.
The Myth: I can practice self care later
The Reality: “Hustle culture definitely makes it hard for people to feel okay about tending to their needs,” says Dolling. But not doing so is a recipe for burnout. No one can go-go-go all the time. Besides, do you really want to put off doing things that you value until you reach a certain status? That’s time you simply can’t get back, says Dolling.
That said, it’s also important that self care doesn’t become another item on your to-do list. “I actually used to keep a self-care checklist,” admits Dolling. When she didn’t cross each item off, she felt guilty about it. The exact opposite of the point of self care. Now, Dolling views self care as a way of living. She tries to find small ways to recharge as her needs arise.
The Myth: Self care is selfish
The Reality: “Yes, with self care, for a moment you are turned inward,” says Dolling. That can feel indulgent. But if the result is being more present and connected to the world afterwards, that’s not selfish at all. Research shows that caretakers may have an especially hard time feeling justified in caring for themselves. A 2020 paper found that nurses need the permission of others to practice self-compassion and self care.
Self-care guilt is often present for all caregivers, not just nurses. “For women, there’s a lot of conditioning around gender roles and women as caregivers,” says Dolling. “And when the expectation is that you put your family and your loved ones first, it can feel at odds with taking time for yourself.” Likewise, those caring for older family members may feel like their parents always put them first, so now it’s their turn to fulfill that duty. However, part of fulfilling the duty to care for others is to make sure you’re caring for yourself, too.
The Myth: Self care is only for women
The Reality: “Self care is for everyone,” says Dolling. And chances are, you’re already doing some self care in your life. Even if that’s not what you call it. Dancing. Listening to music. Planning activities with friends. Lifting weights. These can all be forms of self care.
The Myth: Self Care is a substitute for therapy
The Reality: Self care often opens up time and space for us to check in with ourselves. And that’s a wonderful thing. Sometimes, however, those check-ins will reveal that we need a little help.
“There are times when I need an outside perspective,” says Dolling. “When I get stuck in my own thinking,” That’s when it’s time to consider adding therapy or coaching sessions to your self-care routine.
Working with a mental health professional may feel similar to self care. After all, they can both help you align with your values and achieve your goals. But there are some important differences.
First, self care generally feels good. Therapy, on the other hand, can be difficult — though important — work. Dolling compares the two to massages. Self care is a light, relaxing massage. Therapy can be more akin to deep-tissue work. It may feel difficult as it’s happening, but it’s crucial for addressing the things in your life that are causing you grief.
Second, working 1-on-1 with a professional who has years of expertise can be invaluable. “They can help you clarify your values, understand your needs, and develop a strong self-care practice,” says Quinn. “By integrating these skills into your life, you’ll learn how to support your mental health during therapy and beyond.
Jumpstart better self care
You deserve time to care for yourself. And AbleTo can help. Explore our therapy, coaching, and self-guided programs. Each one puts guided meditations, journals, and breathing exercises at your fingertips. Get started today.
By Anne Derman
Clinically reviewed by Hayley Quinn, PsyD, Senior Manager of Clinical Product Experience at AbleTo.
Photo by Irina Zharkova/iStock.