Why it’s time to reframe the concept

Although the essence of self-care is to provide care for oneself, the term has many different meanings. It’s a word that we either love, love to hate, or possibly don’t even recognize. Importantly, how we respond to the word “self-care” could have a direct impact on our well-being.

How the medical system defines it

The modern self-care movement kicked off in full force in the 1970s, when nursing theorist Dorothy Orem proposed a strategy to assess the ability of patients to look after themselves if they became sick. In other words, the medical community thinks of self-care as disease prevention and management activities like going to the doctor or dentist, taking your prescription medications, and so on.

How we think about it

Instead of focusing primarily on disease management, we tend to think about self-care as a way to support all the domains of well-being, including physical health, but also mental, emotional, social, financial, and spiritual well-being. And it’s often aimed at, and marketed toward, women.

What’s the problem?

Critics believe that the term “self-care” can be condescending and inappropriately linked with indulgence and consumption. It’s no wonder, with corporations ranging from hotels, travel agents, and fancy restaurants to car dealerships and florists co-opting the term “self-care” to peddle their various wares.

This critique also raises important questions about socioeconomic status. If a woman believes that self-care only refers to expensive activities and purchases that she can’t afford due to either financial or time resources, she might think that any form of self-care is not for her. She, too, might ignore the word “self-care” in important health messages as she goes about her busy life.  If this is so, many women may be missing out on important resources to support their well-being.

A new way to think of self-care

Ironically, for some women, the social requirement for self-care participation can have a negative impact on well-being. The term “self-care,” for those dealing with mental health challenges, may invoke expectations of solving all their problems with a little bit of pampering. Clearly, in a mental health example, the self-care best strategy must include seeking appropriate treatment from a professional.

So where do we go from here? It’s important to acknowledge that true self-care involves a mixture of important foundational activities (such as regular health screenings, getting enough sleep, and financial planning) as well as some more lighthearted activities (yes, including the occasional soak in the tub at the end of a long day).

A self-care exercise

Major domains of well-being include physical, mental, emotional, social, spiritual, and financial health. List each of these domains in your journal and write down what you do (or can commit to doing) to promote well-being in each area.