Why We Need to Radically Rethink Self-Care

I was blindsided (in the best way possible) the other day by an article about self-care that I stumbled across on social media.

The major takeaway from the article is that we shouldn’t feel like we need to be “treating ourselves” constantly. We should build lives that don’t require us to escape from them.

We should be building lives that feel balanced and well-maintained. That isn’t to say that we can’t have moments of excess, but rather that those moments are something we choose rather than something we have to do to avoid self-destruction. When we consider self-care to be something that we only do when we’re on the brink of burnout, we’re only furthering our unwellness.

Self-care is crucial, especially for those of us in higher education who invest so much of our emotional energy into our jobs, and where it can be hard to separate our work lives from our personal lives. Our work schedules require us to commit a lot of time and maybe miss out on other important aspects of our lives. We need to refresh and recharge from time to time.

It really all boils down to how you view self-care: is it a luxury or is it more like routine maintenance?

Do you have to splurge on consuming things or do you feel better once you organize your closet? Is it something you have to snap a picture of, throw on a filter, and share out on social media or something you quietly do because you should, and it isn’t anyone else’s business? Does it actually make you feel better or do you regret it afterwards?

While it isn’t a wildly appealing notion to most, I believe we need to maintain our lives and see “self-care” more like going to the doctor, putting money away in a savings account, or working out.

I don’t posit this theory to say we shouldn’t “treat ourselves,” just that we should reframe and change the way we choose to indulge and how we structure our lives.

Here is some advice on how to make this shift:

Make bad habits a little harder

There is a lot of value in thinking about friction, or the ease or difficulty in doing something like eating candy or going for a run in the morning. This is some good advice I got a while back, as well as something being written a lot about in terms of habits.

For example, if you don’t keep soda in your home, that means if you want one, you have to go out to buy one, which will probably mean you won’t make the effort and the bad habit will break. On the inverse, if you keep reusable utensils in your bag, then it is more likely you’ll use them and reduce your waste.

It’s okay if you fumble

Something that is hard for people when they’re forming new habits or breaking old ones is that they feel like they need to be perfect. If they falter, then it’s all over and they’ll just quit. Another solid piece of advice I read in the book of one of my personal role models, Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist Way.

It gives people the clearance to be easy on themselves since you can’t get fit or unfit in a week. It’s more about the willing commitment over time. One or two bad days won’t derail all of your hard work.

Seek out support

Accountability is a crucial component of any major undertaking. People checking in helps to keep you honest since you have to own your successes and “failures” (see previous point). It also is important to let other people know what you’re trying to accomplish so that they don’t unwillingly make things harder for you (see the first point).

If you have a supportive environment, it will be there for you if things get tough and to celebrate the milestones of the hard work you’re putting in.

Reward yourself

While this seems to go in the face of the whole argument I’m trying to make, any sort of habit change isn’t meant to deprive you of things that you enjoy. If you’re trying to change your diet, one “cheat” day can help keep you on-track for the rest of the week. One day off from working out is fine, especially if you need the rest.

This principle can apply to any number of different habits.

We sometimes need to wean ourselves off of habits rather than quit them cold turkey. This falls right in line with being easy on ourselves. If you’ve been doing awesome with it for a month, go ahead and reward yourself. It can even be unrelated, like going to a fancy dinner because you quit smoking for a month or buying a new outfit because you kept honest with flossing. Figure out the formula that works best for you.

Habits can be a stubborn thing in our lives. The adage of teaching an old dog new tricks and such come to mind. But you can make positive changes in your life and find people who have and are willing to share their tips so that you’re in a great place for you to be able to create the life you want for yourself.

How have you reframed habits, indulgence, and self-care?

Let me know! You can find me @highered_geek on social media!

Dustin Ramsdell

About the author: Dustin Ramsdell (he/him) is a graduate of the Rutgers University College Student Affairs Ed.M Program. He is a proud nerd and self-affirmed "Higher Ed Geek" who is excited to connect with folks who share his love of deep conversations. Learn how we can help get your students involved.