The first time I had heard the words “self-care” I had just arrived at my freshman year of college. “In addition to all your classes and extracurriculars this year, don’t forget to make time for self-care!” my RA encouraged my dormmates (future best friends) and me.
I know what self-care is, I thought. It’s getting my nails done. Paying for guacamole. Hitting snooze one more time. Something special. Something extra. Self-care is the equivalent of Donna telling Tom to TREAT YO SELF.
Campus discussions surrounding self-care proliferated as time went on. Classes got more time-intensive, relationships started to develop and unfold, and I became more and more aware of campus resources that were there for students in response. But I was confused. How was “treating one’s self” going to get at the root of any of this stress? Is taking a 20-minute study break to pet a therapy dog really what people think is going to help them get a better grade on their midterm? Self-care on the whole seemed like a devastating miscalculation.
It was not until the latter half of my Stanford career that I started to gain a fuller understanding of what self-care was really all about. Necessitated by trying times of all sorts—see: relationships, lack of relationships, general growing pains related to preparing for one’s birth into adulthood, ugh—I was forced to re-evaluate my understanding of what it means to not treat myself, but to take care of myself.
I was forced to re-evaluate my understanding of what it means to not treat myself, but to take care of myself.
What I found was first and foremost that self-care is not equivalent to treating one’s self. Treating one’s self is optional. It’s an extra, fun little surprise you can do for yourself when there’s time. I.e. Passing on the guacamole will not lead to the deterioration of your mental wellness.
Self-care, alternatively, is necessary. I would even argue that “self-care” is a misnomer—It’s much more like “self-preservation.” It’s the steps you take to support yourself when the going gets tough—the steps that you have to take for your own sanity.
And you know what? Unlike “treating yourself,” self-preservation really sucks. It’s not fun. It’s damn hard. Because a lot of the time, it means canceling plans. It means being a hypocrite or a flake. It’s backing down. It’s dropping out. It’s doing the really, really, really hard thing. To get literal, this could be: Staying home from school. Cancelling a lunch date. Passing off a leadership position. (You overachievers. Probably clinging at the computer screen right now—“But I CAN handle it, Cath!” Fine. Good! But if at any point you can’t, this post will always be here.)
But even though it sucks, it’s okay. Really. Because at the end of the day, people will heal. And you can’t take care of others until you can take care of yourself, and you can’t take care of yourself until you believe you’re deserving of care. So whether you’re making time for a trip to the beach, a day of rest, a conversation, a hug, or whatever else it is that you’ve identified is what’s going to make you feel better right now, I implore you to do it. I promise your happiness is worth it.
I recently took a day off for my own self-preservation. I hope that this video will help give you or anyone else who might benefit from it an idea of what self-care could look like for you.
Sending my love,