PSA: “Self-Care” Does Not Mean Sitting on Your Couch with a Pile of French Fries (All the Time)

updated May 30, 2019
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(Image credit: Ellie Arciaga Lillstrom)

Hi, my name is Arie and I am an anxious person. In my never-ending pursuit to quiet my mind and — you know — try to relax or something, I’ve thought a lot about self-care. I always thought I “took care” of myself, until I realized sometime last year that I was definitely doing no such thing. I still had anxiety, I still felt like crap, and I still wasn’t treating myself very well.

So what was I actually doing when I thought I was practicing self-care? The internet as a whole has a pretty confusing way of looking at the subject. We’re “busy” so we’re told to take it easy and order delivery instead of cook. We’re “stressed” so we’re told to “treat yo’ self” with all the ice cream and french fries we want. Both of these things are wonderful (I mean, I love french fries!), but they shouldn’t always be treated as self-care.

This internet’s idea of self-care is, in fact, bullshit — you’re doing more harm to yourself than good if you follow the advice laid out on Instagram.

(Image credit: Cathy Pyle)

Self-Care Is Not the Same Thing as Self-Indulgence

There’s a thin line between self-care and self-indulgence. I know this because for a couple years I was really just being self-indulgent when I thought I was taking care of myself. If I was stressed at work, I decided it was in my best interest to order a pizza and work through dinner. When I was tired, I decided to put off doing the dishes or going grocery shopping because that’s what made me feel better in that moment. I was justifying being lazy as self-care. I was putting a band-aid on something that needed stitches.

This is, of course, just my own experience navigating this space. Sometimes self-indulgence really is the answer to taking care of yourself. Sometimes sacrificing your long-term needs for your short-terms wants is OK. Sometimes that’s all you have. And I’m lucky to be able to afford ordering an extra-large pizza with a side of french fries with just the click of a button. I’m also in good enough health to be able to cook and clean for myself, if I so choose. I’m very privileged.

But for me, and I imagine others, sacrificing your overall self-care for daily self-indulgences can also be harmful. We put off learning how to cook something, we put off learning what makes our bodies feel better, until we’ve dug ourselves into a hole that seems impossible to get out of. Remember that you’re not actually “treating” yourself if you’re doing it all the time.

The Internet’s Definition of Self-Care

Chelsea Fagan of The Financial Diet has talked about this at length on Twitter and on her site. Fagan describes what our culture (really, the internet) thinks self-care is right now. She says “the theory is that your mental comfort and happiness are your highest priorities at all times, and anything that impedes them (even things generally considered social norms or professional requirements) are liable to be cut from your life.”

This version of “self-care” comes from a good place. If you’re used to people telling you to “suck it up” or hiding your feelings under a rug, then trying to do anything at all to make yourself feel better seems like the right step forward. But feeling good is not the same thing as taking care of yourself. “[F]eeling ‘good’ is only one very small slice of all the emotions we need to experience in order to live a balanced, fruitful life,” explains Fagan.

So, What Is Self-Care Then?

Taking care of yourself is just hard work and there’s no way to get around that. It’s showing up for yourself. It’s cooking when you feel like ordering something you know won’t make you feel good; it’s cleaning the dishes when you know it will make you happy tomorrow to walk into a clean kitchen; it’s taking a moment to prioritize your needs (not your wants); it’s being an adult when you don’t want to.

The level at which you’re going to be able to take care of yourself is totally situational, of course. I’m not suggesting if you’re depressed or sick that you should “suck it up” and make dinner even though you feel like crap. But I do think it’s important to recognize what you actually need versus what you just want.

Do you agree? How do you take care of yourself?