Think self-care is all about Korean face masks and $14 green juices? Not exactly. Don’t get us wrong—we love a “treat yourself” moment and think rewarding yourself is a completely reasonable gesture. Vital, even. But if you want to get to the root of self-care—the real kind that will make a lasting impact on your happiness—you need to go a little deeper.
Work Out What Self-Care Is—for Real
Everyone has a unique picture of what self-care looks like for their life, but true, meaningful self-care is all about reflecting inward, prioritizing yourself and taking actionable steps toward self-improvement. According to psychologist Ryan Howes, self-care is “the surprisingly difficult … process of stepping aside from the busyness of life, evaluating how we’re doing emotionally, physically and mentally, and then taking steps to meet any unmet needs.”
Asking yourself “how you doin’?” (à la Joey Tribbiani) is one of the most helpful things you can do for your mental and physical well-being. But, as Howes points out, these little check-ins aren’t always easy.
To get you started, we gathered some top self-care tips that will help you further your personal growth—you know, the type of healing that does far more than a face mask or a mani-pedi.
Find Activities That Help You Process Your Emotions
Self-care shouldn’t be about engaging in distractions; instead, it’s about finding practical ways to work through daily stressors. For example, gossiping with your bestie at the office might feel good in the moment, but it’s not going to help you meet that looming deadline you’ve been stressing about. Instead, psychology professor Katherine King recommends taking 5 minutes to do a guided relaxation exercise. Other productive activities that can help you with emotional processing are journaling, exercising, talking to a therapist, praying, listening to music and having a good cry (let it out!).
Prioritizing your time in the midst of your busy schedule is one of the best ways to practice self-care. For many of us, that means saying no to an invitation or request and not trying to please everyone. “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others,” says Brené Brown, a research professor who speaks about courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy.
When setting boundaries, be direct and state your intentions in a clear way. Use phrases like “Thank you for thinking of me, but I won’t be able to help out at this time” or “I need to say no, because I have a lot on my plate right now.” Being polite yet assertive is a respectful way to respond to the person speaking to you while also putting your needs first.
Setting boundaries may feel uncomfortable at first, but stick with it. With time you should start to feel a boost in your confidence and independence.
Reward Yourself—in a Mindful Way
In theory, the “treat yourself” mentality is well-intentioned. We work hard, so we should reward ourselves every now and then, right?! But counter to what Instagram may suggest, treating yourself can be detrimental and dropping a whole paycheck on a pair of shoes or eating a gallon of ice cream without any forethought can make us feel guilty in the long run.
However, treating yourself can be a positive form of self-care when we allow ourselves to have something in the name of what clinical psychologist Leon F. Seltzer calls self-nurturance. “As opposed to self-indulgence, self-nurturance fosters both the physical and psychological health requisite to our happiness,” he says. “We’re addressing our inborn needs for self-succor — but in an adult, responsible fashion.”
Though we’d always recommend staying away from impulse purchases, fashion is a great way to embrace your true self while also satisfying your desire to be nurtured. That pair of shoes you’ve been eyeing (and saving for) or an on-trend blouse that complements your wardrobe can help you feel more confident. As long as you’re taking a mindful, responsible approach to treating yourself (and bonus points if that purchase is supporting a brand that is making positive changes in the fashion industry), it’s A-OK.
As with many things in life, practicing self-care is a process of ups and downs, so be kind to yourself! Some days you’ll feel energized and fulfilled and other days you’ll just feel drained. However, valuable self-care is all about identifying your emotional and physical needs and embracing healthy activities to satisfy these needs. Whether it’s as small as indulging in a little gift or setting aside some time at the beginning of the week to meal plan or as big as distancing yourself from toxic relationships, doing these actions means you’re giving yourself the attention you deserve.
Natalie Way is a writer and editor based in New York City. She has experience covering real estate, interior design, and lifestyle.