Home » Healthy Habits » Self-Care Isn’t What You Think It is

Self-Care Isn’t What You Think It is

The way we talk about self-care is fundamentally counterintuitive.

What comes to mind when you hear the words self-care? Luxurious bubble baths? An extra slice of cake? An overpriced facial at your favorite spa?

Those things are fine, but they aren’t self-care. They’re rewards. Indulgences. So why is everyone always on about needing more self-care? 

The idea that we don’t indulge ourselves enough is kind of crazy to me. In fact, most of us have the exact opposite problem. 

(Got some extra jiggle to show for it.)

The problem is that most of us truly do no self-care at all. Not in the real sense.

A woman stretches her neck and looks peaceful
what is self-care really?

Self-Care as Cute, Emotional Bandaids

One of the many ways self-care pushers provoke eye rolls is the idea that our high-stress lives can somehow be managed by a list of “50 Free Self-Care Ideas You Can Do At Home.”

I’m sorry. What?

Putting a clay mask on your face and sipping lemon water is cool, but it’s not going to do much for you if you’re working 50+ hours a week, juggling parenthood, and a million other things.

Well, it might tighten up those pores, but then you’ll just be stressed out with slightly tighter pores. 

I used to read those self-care lists and give them a go. I’d run out and get myself some fresh flowers, light a candle, have a slice of cake, and not much happened other than my wallet became a bit lighter. 

And honestly, if you’re overworked (as many people are these days), wouldn’t the most useful thing be to have a different work environment that doesn’t treat you like a machine? 

In my previous job, there was always talk about work-life balance and self-care. But here’s the thing. They don’t make a yoga class that can reverse the effects of 60-hour work weeks in a high-stress educational environment. 

So I scrapped the yoga and opted for copious amounts of alcohol instead (and we all know how that turns out). 

Real self-care is saying NO. 

Or to be more precise, it’s having discipline and boundaries.

It’s prioritizing your emotional and physical needs, and being tuned in to those needs at all times. Which is actually hard to do for a lot of us. 

You ever catch yourself clenching your jaw and wearing your shoulders for earrings and think, “Geez, how long have I been like this?” Relax!

We get so busy that we don’t even notice that our body is clamped up with tension.

I do not mean that you suddenly behave as if the world revolves around you and must bend to your needs and whims. That ain’t happening. 

But do you ever take time to slow down and check-in with yourself? What am I feeling right now? Why am I feeling like this? 

We spend so much of our time on autopilot, in a constant state of go-go-go! Our lives get away from us and it takes our bodies breaking down on some level to take notice. 

Stress embeds itself into the body. And it does its damage. 

Which brings me to the power of NO. 

Self-care is saying NO to things that are going to pile onto your stress and diminish your wellbeing.

  • No, I can’t take on an extra project right now.
  • I’m exhausted and can’t make the party tonight.
  • No, I’m not able to volunteer for this year’s bake sale. 

Those aren’t even the hardest NOs. 

The most difficult NOs are the ones you need to tell yourself. 

Often our instinct is to bury our feelings, overwhelm, and problems in things that can give us an instant boost. Alcohol, food, sugar, sex. 

Treat yourself! Right?

Within reason, but that’s not self-care. 

Self-Care and Discipline

Self-care quite literally means taking care of oneself. Cakes and candles do not provide that function. But you know what does? 

  • Eating a healthy salad instead of whatever fried thing you normally crave for lunch. 
  • Saying no to a friend who invites you to dinner because it’s not in the budget and you promised to eat out less. 
  • Going for a run on a drizzly morning when your bed feels so damn inviting. 

Those are ways we take care of ourselves and they’re not always fun.

Self-care is waking up thirty minutes early no matter what so you can get your journaling or meditation in because you know that if you don’t, it’s going to throw you out of balance. It’s caring if you’re out of balance more than getting an extra half hour of unsatisfying snoozing. 

It’s saying NO to yourself when necessary. 

No, you can’t order Thai food right now. There’s food in the fridge. Eat it before it goes bad. 

No, you can’t skip the gym and catch up on Netflix. 

And no, you’re not going to attend Jason’s party tonight because your sick behind needs to drink some tea and go to bed early. 


The ability to prioritize yourself, your health, and your wellbeing – even if it means telling your emotional side NO ten times a day. That’s the key.

Tell yourself NO more often.

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty good at treating myself. I’ve broken budgets, diets, routines all in the name of “Do X instead. You deserve it.” 

Do I? 

I “deserve” to forgo my health for the thirty seconds of pleasure this slice of pizza will bring me, even though the logical part of me knows that in ten minutes I’ll majorly regret it? 

That seems backward. 

This is not to besmirch the crispy, gooey goodness that is pizza, but you’re not caring for yourself by having it. Especially if, like me, doing so leaves you with stomach pangs and painful bloating (damn you dairy!). 

Or if you do have it, limiting yourself to one or two slices is vastly different than blindly going back to the box until you’re so stuffed with cheese and pepperoni, the only reasonable course of action is to sleep. 

We conflate self-care with treats. 

And I’m guilty of this! We all do it because well, humans. 

But if we’re serious about self-care, we should at least call ourselves out on our BS and practice telling ourselves NO more often. 

A woman putting up her hand up to say NO
saying no is an act of self-care

The Magical, Daily Practice of NO

I make a point to tell myself NO every single day.

For example, the other day, I went to a coffee shop to do some work. Was incredibly proud of myself for ordering tea and cranking out an article. 

When my stomach started growling, my first instinct was to detour to the food court and “treat myself” to some McDonald’s because I’d just had tea and also I’m worth it! 

Think about that for a minute. 

I’m “worth” nutritionally deficient, mass-produced (albeit delicious) fast food that will do nothing but sit in my stomach and contribute to increased inflammation in my body? 

Girl, NO. 

I stood there, a bit like an idiot, engaging in this conversation with myself. Not out loud, of course. But I must’ve looked painfully lost. 

I’m happy to report that I did NOT in fact go to McDonald’s. I went home and reheated my vegan broccoli “cheezy” rice dish and felt infinitely better for it. 

Small victories. 

I look for opportunities every day to tell myself NO and have these wins because I’m training myself to delay gratification and not give in to every impulse and whim. 

Make a game of it.

It’s hard to maintain a consistent headspace, but when I’m not driving the struggle bus, I like to make a game of telling myself NO. 

It’s very similar to a strategy Sarah Wilson uses in her book First, We Make The Beast Beautiful which helps her manage her anxiety. She treats the part of her brain that thinks the unhelpful stuff as a separate entity. Instead of over-identifying with her anxiety, she treats it like a person sitting next to her. 

Oh, you’re in a bit of a mood today!

I do something similar with myself. Full transparency, if I’m alone I’ll say it out loud. *shoulder shrug emoji*

Girl, you are not about to have another can of Coke today. It is 6 PM. Do you want to be up all night? No. Absolutely not. Have some water and go sit down. 

Whereas it may seem a little strange, it has been much more effective than letting the war of wills rage on in my head. It’s easy to get lost in there. 

Something about saying it out loud diffuses the situation. 

Take care of yourself. 

When I quit drinking and smoking, I think deep down I gave myself carte blanche for everything else. Junk food? Soda? Take out? 

Treat yourself. At least you’re still sober!

But there is more than one way to abuse yourself and this last year has been a humbling lesson for me. I was NEVER good at saying NO to myself. I’ve always been an easy mark for urges.

That I managed to get sober and quit smoking is a small miracle in itself. 

But I’m learning. 

And I’ve gotten way better in recent months at actually taking care of myself consistently. Self-care and discipline are learned behaviors. They take time. 

If your life has been an instant gratification free-for-all, it will take time to undo all of that. It’s easy to think that if you can’t get it ALL right at once, you’ve failed and should stop trying.

That’s nonsense.

I have great days, and I have stupid days. 

But I keep going and so should you. 

Start defining your self-care in terms that actually make sense to your overall wellbeing. Make the hard choices and decide what small steps you can take every day to get there. 

Practice telling yourself NO. 

Maintain a healthy perspective and prioritize improving your ability to delay gratification every single day. These little wins add up. 

My diet is much improved from three months ago and my soda consumption is steadily on the decline. In fact, I’ve gotten so good at telling myself NO in the evenings, I’ve nearly knocked the nighttime caffeine altogether. 

It’s not all bad.

Proper self-care might not seem like a barrel of laughs in the short term, but the BEST thing is to realize a few months down the road that you’ve saved $2,000 by sticking to your budget.

Or you need to buy new pants because yours are falling down.

Or you haven’t suffered a hangover in months because you quit drinking and you feel like a better person for it. 

The only way to get to those big wins is by suffering the small ones. 

And that’s what self-care is about.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. Thank you for this, you have said so well what I have been trying to teach my daughters. Self care is not found at Sephora… I am sharing this with them today!