Wellness: Self-Care or Self-Soothing?
Scroll through any social media channel, and you’ll see a slew of ads, influencers, and experts telling you how to care for yourself.
McKinsey and Company’s 2022 research values the global wellness market size at over $1.5 trillion, with a projected annual growth rate of 5-10%. With this much money to be made, there will be more and more input for us to sort through, and lots to distract us from what might truly promote wellness.
I’d like to challenge us to shift our wellness thinking away from what the popular media promotes under that label: new stuff that costs you money.
We can break “wellness” into two parts: Self-care actions and self-soothing actions.
Let’s start by thinking about wellness using an analogy. In a well-built house, first things come first. You have to start your construction with a firm foundation, sturdy walls, and a solid roof. Likewise, self-care comprises actions we take to keep our bodies, minds, and emotions as strong as they can be, so they can contribute to our baseline wellness.
But what about the fancy smoothies, skin care routines, and wine nights? Those are fun and promote joy and wellbeing, for sure. And they go into a different category: self-soothing. Self-soothing also contributes to wellbeing but in a different way. It doesn’t shore up your home’s structural components. Instead, self-soothing is the comfy couch, décor you enjoy, and other things you add to your home because they please your senses and make your life enjoyable. They can comfort you on a bad day, but won’t help much over the long haul. As always, too much of a good thing becomes a problem.
Here’s a thought exercise: If you could predict that you have some terrible days ahead, what would you do to prepare for the challenge?
This is a personal question, and not one that TikTok influencers or I can prescribe for you. And often, it won’t look fun, escapist, sexy, or exciting, either. (Tip: If it’s fun, escapist, sexy, or exciting, it’s probably self-soothing.) The concrete slab, two-by-fours, and roof aren’t glamorous. They’re practical and boring, but without them, that comfy couch crashes through your floor, and the weather ruins your cheery décor.
While the structure you need to be your best is uniquely personal, there are some general categories to consider. These vary, but likely include physical health, mental health, relationships, financial security, and a connection to something larger than yourself. Something larger than yourself can be your religious or spiritual faith, and can also include feeling connected to nature, humanity, or the greater good of the planet.
I’ll use myself as an example…
If I knew hard times were ahead, I’d first want to be well-rested. If I’m tired, I’m never at my best; rest is my house’s foundation.
Next are my walls. I have two physical body-related walls. One of my walls is to feel capable and strong in my body, not lethargic or sedentary. With this wall, regular movement is key. Another body wall is to feel physically comfortable. I’m no longer wearing high heels or too-tight pants. I quit working out so much that I’m always sore, and rarely get to the point of being too hungry, too thirsty, over-caffeinated, sugar crashing, or hung over at this point in my life.
My third wall is relationships. I maintain a strong social network, meaning I have my people in my corner to rely on for help. The last wall I call “my reserves.” This means I have not over-extended my spending, my energy, or my brain space on things that don’t contribute to my wellbeing. I have extra to fall back on, and I trust in myself that I will protect that safety net, and feel confident it will be available when I need it.
Finally, my roof is my spirituality, which helps me keep problems in perspective, while understanding I’m also part of a larger, loving, meaningful universe. This helps me feel less alone on my worst days.
You can see how a personal self-care philosophy can arise from these categories.
For example, I’m going to get 7-8 hours of sleep a night; strive to balance my sugar and caffeine intake with protein, veggies, fruits, and water; incorporate movement that helps me feel strong; donate those too tight clothes that don’t serve me; and spend quality time with my loved ones.
If one of my core relationships feels off, I’ll proactively talk with my person to shore it up. I’ll monitor my spending and limit exposure to negative news and social media . And, as kindly as possible, I’ll let go of relationships that no longer contribute to my wellbeing and don’t respond to my efforts to fix them. I’ll spend time in nature to feel connected to the larger universe and be open to experiencing awe, an emotion that always fills me with gratitude and security in this unpredictable world.
Self-care is about being your own best friend, parent, and protector.
You’re in charge of the maintenance and repair on your house so you have a safe and stable place to live and share with others. You may also need to ask for help, just as you would if you needed a roof leak repaired, and you were not a roofer by trade. Regular doctor and dentist visits, finding a therapist, or hiring a workout trainer may be actions you take to keep your house in order.
Now, an important caveat. We can’t address self-care without acknowledging the role that privilege and oppression play in our ability or lack of ability to build a sturdy house. The location, family, race/ethnicity, gender, body, and financial resources you were born into; the opportunities or lack thereof that have been available to you; what you learned about how to care for yourself; and so much more may make your home easier or harder to build.
For example, as a woman, I’ve been raised in a culture that sends me messages all the time that I need to ignore my house and instead focus on helping others build theirs. And if I’m going to pay any attention to my house, that attention had better revolve around keeping myself young, attractive, and pleasing to others (e.g., 14 step skin care routines, dying my gray hair, and reinforcing these kinds of activities in the other women in my life). As a mother, society doubles down on the message that my kids should come first (but also I should have a successful career…).
But you know what? When my house is solid and built on self-care and not self-soothing, guess who lives in it more comfortably? Not just me, but also my kids and loved ones. When I’ve taken care of my house, I have more to give them financially, physically, and emotionally. I also hope that by modeling this behavior, my kids will learn that it’s important for them to build their house well, too.
The good news is that if you’ve faced barriers to building a sturdy house, there are many free resources available to you to help you build it, even if you’re strapped for cash, support, and uncertain where to start. I’ve linked some of those at the end of this blog post. 🙂
As you consider where to begin, start small and give yourself a lot of grace.
Building a house takes time. Mistakes are made and corrected. An extra room is added later to adjust to new circumstances. And if you go back and read the examples from my life above, you’ll notice that nowhere do I say I do it perfectly. Self-care is about flexibility, learning from your mistakes, and regaining balance when the box of dark chocolate caramels with sea salt convinces you that you need to eat all of it and you load up your Amazon cart to soothe a bad day.
You’re human, building the best house you can with what you’ve got. Ask for help. Be kind to yourself. And save up for that comfy couch.
Free reading material
- Find your local library. For free, you can download, listen to, or borrow paper copies of books and magazines on most any topic.
- Move Your Way
- Free Clinics: Medical Health Clinics for Everyone
- Do Yoga With Me
- Association for Size Diversity and Health
- Greater Good Magazine
- Managing Happiness
- Top 10 Free Mental Health Apps
- Open Path Psychotherapy Collective
- Consumer Finance Tools & Resources
- Credit.org Financial Resources
- Best Free Resources to Learn to Manage Money
- Relationship Institute: Resources for Marriage Counseling
- Love Is Respect
- Relationship Care Resources
- How to Make Friends
Religion, spirituality, and connection to the greater good
- Google “places of worship near me”
- Google “national and state parks near me”
- Google “volunteer opportunities near me”
- Pluralism Project: Spiritual But Not Religious