On Sunday evening my friend Amy texted suggesting that we walk to our neighborhood book club later that night. Yes! I replied, as fast as I could. I wasn’t sure what I needed more: the exercise or the camaraderie.
On the walk over, Amy and I compared notes from our hectic weeks. It had been spring break at our kids’ preschool, which meant that usual routines had been upended. In addition to managing our regular jobs, we were both tasked with the lion’s share of entertaining and tending to our little ones. To make matters more complicated, Amy’s children got sick, and my partner, Billy, experienced a debilitating joint inflammation that left him immobile for several days. She and I found ourselves in unexpectedly more intensive caretaker roles during an already topsy-turvy week.
“Every good routine went out the window,” Amy said ruefully.
“I know!” I said, shaking my head. “Isn’t it alarming how quickly it all falls apart? Things should not be teetering this close to the edge.”
We laughed as we walked. What else could we do but laugh?
It’s a new week. Things are already feeling lighter: Our toddlers are back at preschool, Amy’s children are feeling better, and Billy is back on two feet. I’m settling back into a familiar routine and feeling like I can move at a more reasonable pace. And, as I come down from the stress of managing most everything—work, childcare, transportation, holiday magic, cooking, wakeups, bedtimes, cleaning, more work—during an especially chaotic few days, I’m reminding myself how important it is to take care of myself, too.
Tomorrow afternoon, I’m going to take a break from work to get a much-needed massage. Just thinking about it makes me feel better! It’s also got me thinking about other nice things I could do for myself. I’m almost sheepish to admit that they all fall under the category of basic—as in unoriginal, uninspired, mainstream—self-care.
Over the past few years, people have pushed back on the idea of “superficial” self-care: things like taking bubble baths, getting facials, and, yes, treating yourself to a massage. Books like Pooja Lakshmin’s Real Self Care call out those acts as being unhelpful and oppressive. There are endless articles, resources, and experts promoting the idea that true self-care is deeper: that by doing things like going to therapy, managing your budget, and setting interpersonal boundaries, you’ll ultimately create a life that you don’t need to escape from via superficial purchases.
I completely understand that argument. I also believe that, sometimes, you could really use a damn bubble bath! There are days when making an indulgent purchase is a good thing, or weeks when getting a massage is the answer. While doing the deeper work of self-care is important, it’s still exactly that: work. And sometimes work is the one thing you just can’t do more of.
So this week, one when I can’t take on much more work but can treat myself to some basic and superficial forms of self-care, I would love to hear from you: What’s your favorite (basic) version of self-care? What’s something you do that feels like a special treat, even if it’s not a particularly profound act? And when do you decide to indulge in these things?
(My tired, uninspired self thanks you in advance for the ideas.)
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Pedicures. This used to be something I would only have done for a special occasion, but have made it a more regular "treat" for myself when I just need to unwind—especially if I've had a very busy few weeks/months. One thing I appreciate about going for a pedicure is that I am forced to just sit and enjoy! That's why I try to keep my phone in my purse and allow myself to take in the experience fully.
I like to distinguish between self-soothing and self-care. The first is exactly what you're talking about here, the second is work (useful, good work, but yeah, work).
Anyway, my favorite self-soothing activity is napping, honestly. A close second is scrolling through youtube for 10 minutes to find the perfect video, then putting it on and pretending that I'm knitting or crocheting while I watch. It's important not to actually knit or crochet (unless you want to). Just give yourself the feeling of doing something while letting your mind wander.
When I was teaching full time at a new school and mothering a two and a half year old, baths saved my life. I didn’t understand at the time that I needed time for myself. I felt guilty about working full time and being away from my daughter so I rushed to be with her. Not giving myself time for me, not giving myself time to pause, nearly broke me. I was irritable, and my husband and I were fighting frequently as a result. I started taking a bath daily, right after work and making a cup of tea before picking my daughter up from day care. It changed everything. I still take baths to help my moods shift, but to this day I need my tea and a chapter or a few pages of a book after teaching to shift from one role to another, to give myself time for me. I think this carving of space for ourselves, this building in pause most definitely counts as real self-care. I haven’t read Pooja’s book, but I want to. I hope it teaches me some other tools, but it won’t change what I know about the immense power of a bath, a book, some dark chocolate and a cup of tea.
The one that I always forget — and then am blown away when I remember — is breathing. Putting down everything I’m doing and just breathing deep into my body.
Letting myself come into full contact with whatever has been driving my action (and lack of intentional breath) that day: joy, excitement, anxiety, overwhelm, a deadline, you know, the usual suspects. And breathing with it, rather than despite of it.
Becoming whole. Not running away or distracting or avoiding. Accepting what is. Grounding. 30 seconds later, I’m an entirely new human.
Thanks Katie for opening this thread and making me think!
I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs and I’m on a strict diet to manage a chronic disease, so I shop. I usually buy too many books for a reasonable person to read, but I make sure to rein it in for clothes and other kinds of things.
Speaking of books, I’ve been known to read an entire romance novel in an afternoon, sitting outside in the sun when it’s warm, or even cuddling under the covers all afternoon when it’s cold.
And there is absolutely nothing like a massage, mani, and pedi at the little local spa down the street
Yes! Have been waiting for someone to interrogate the discourse around self-care for ages. Maybe we just need some more thoughtful terminology -- "real" self-care and "superficial" self-care are both important, but even those don't paint a complete picture of all the different ways we look after ourselves.
Anyway, my no. 1 basic self-care activity is an afternoon at a museum. Ideally a free one, so I don't feel pressured to get my money's worth by cramming in every exhibition. I don't even have to look around much -- sometimes just reading a book, listening to a podcast or having a cup of tea in such a beautiful and curated setting is enough to reset.
The ‘superficial’ self-care that you mention is something that I firmly believe should be considered essential rituals that bring as much joy as relief. Where the process is something to tend to gently, to soothe and defray the mind and nerves, while the end product gives satisfaction; making a great cup of tea, or the perfect bath + facial, or baking a small batch of cookies or muffins just for yourself and a loved one, or an afternoon of painting or drawing, even just napping or reading before bed. Not so superficial at all, when you really think about it.
For the first time in years probably I'm going to a private sauna this afternoon. Even though my life is definitely not as hectic as yours, I'm gonna indulge my body in the warmth. I do this because it seems that my body is yearning for it. It is the same approach I have with food, if something is calling me, I will eat it. I have a pretty healthy way of eating, but sometimes I just need something else. Like last week it was chicken (even though I am a vegan/vegatarian most of the time). Enjoy your massage, you deserve it!
This was such a great piece. I guess there is an ever deepening scale of self-care. The "superficial" seems to deliver short term relief, while the "substantive" might create the life you don't need to escape. I have found that even with all the "substantive" self care practices in place, we need the "superficial" ones available to counteract the assaults of daily living such as Spring break or illness. I've found a short conversation with a funny friend can reset my mind when I get thrown off balance.
I love to watch birds. It’s a special treat when I make (yes,make) time to head to a park or reservoir toting binoculars and camera. I tend to get into the space of “but it takes 20 minutes to get there” or “maybe I won’t find anything,” or whatever. I usually do find time daily to watch the ones at my backyard feeders, though!
Another perspective I've been thinking about lately -- the idea that millennials (my generation, as well as that of the person who introduced the perspective, but certainly this wouldn't apply only to us) treat these "superficial" self-care activities as a treat or a reward. We'll say, "I worked extra hard today. I deserve a bubble bath," or, "This week was challenging. I should take a little walk." If we consider your theory (which I agree with!) that these basic self-care activities are vital in their own way, it's almost dangerous to think of them as a reward, rather than something we NEED to recharge, rest and find joy. I've been musing on that a lot lately, as someone who is really bad about making these small joys a part of my regular routine. My favorite (and sometimes only) form of basic self-care, though, is also getting massages! I budget for them as a priority and schedule them once a month, and I look forward to them so much. I'm glad that you're getting one! :)
Occasionally doing or purchasing something considered “superficial” is very grounding!
After I broke my upper femur resulting in a total hip replacement. I was spending a lot of time in my studio creating, crafting and being mostly up in my head. When I was able to finally leave my home under my own steam, it was suggested by an iridologist I had a zoom appointment with, to go do something grounding!
So I set up an appointment to have a total spa day on my feet--nails clipped--since I hadn’t been able to break the 90 degree rule to bend over far enough to do them myself. I also got the soak, hot wax, and foot massage with reflexology. And while I was at it, I got my hair cut and styled--I’d always done that myself. It was heavenly!
Now, I am intending that it will be part of my regimen of “self-care” every two months.
Thanks for the reminder, I’m about due again!!
Having the freedom and confidence that I'll get back on the horse to push my routines and must-dos aside and take the time for myself, be it a nap, reading, taking a bath, going for a long walk, whatever it is my body is demanding in order to show up better as myself at another time.
For me personally, I know that if I don't attend to the "surface" (my computer auto-corrected that to "service"...what it's trying to tell me?) level needs, I won't have the momentum to focus on the deeper needs: the internal work and healing.
I absorbed that thinking partially from years of dialectical behavioral therapy; one of DBT's teachings is that you should focus on achieving your baseline level of needs as a path to emotional regulation. The founder of DBT, Marsha Linnehan, has seemingly never found an acronym she hates, so this skill is called PLEASE: 1) treat Physical illness and take medications as prescribed; 2) balance Eating; 3) avoid mood-Altering substances; 4) balance Sleep; and 5) get Exercise. (For the full breakdown, here's the handout: https://in.nau.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/202/PLEASE-skills.pdf)
I do my eyeliner every day, always wings, and I know that if I'm unable to do that, I'm not in a good place. Makeup is creativity for me; creativity means I'm engaging with the world. Treating yourself well—including yes, a great bath!—is a practice with a purpose.
For me, it’s time in front of the water. I live near Long Island Sound. Sometimes just driving alongside it, seeing the water peeking in between the houses and trees is enough for me, if I can’t actually get out and sit on a bench/the sand.
Lying on my yoga mat, and letting the foam roller do it’s business. Bliss.
My basic self care in its barest forms are having a walk, drinking plenty of water, taking my vitamins, keeping up with a friend/family member during the week.
I also try to fold my laundry after it's done drying. :) Goodness, it feels pretty difficult for me consistently, but having drawer-fulls/a closet full of clean clothes sets up my days for easier mornings.
My most meaningful self-care is exercise, whether it’s putting in a workout or going for a walk.
I can't take baths (injuries to both knees make squatting impossible), and that was my go-to self-care. Get out all of the fancy bath products, shave (if that's your thing), wash my hair twice, music, candles, all the good stuff. There's a hot tub at the pool I belong to, but it's not the same.
Listening to music. I usually only listen to music in the car, and when I'm stuck at home (pandemic, broken leg, people suck, whatever the reason), I don't realize how much music influences my mood. So sometimes just popping on a favorite playlist (or musical, don't judge) makes me feel good.
Online retail therapy, which I know can be troublesome. I made myself a rule that I can add whatever I want to my cart, but I have to wait 24 before buying it. Helps with the impulse buys.
Reading a book I know I'll like.
Brushing my cats; they enjoy it (mostly) and it's soothing to me.
Writing in my journal--just to get thoughts out of my head and onto paper.
Napping. 100% success rate with that one. Helps that I'm always tired.
Love this. The either-or approach in self-care can get really confusing - and unhelpful. Long term self-care is a PROCESS that takes time. And while that is happening, we do need moments that provide immediate relief. For me it would a massage/bubble bath/ordering in Chinese food/watching reruns of Gilmore Girls.
My indulgence as of late has been taking myself, a bevvie, book and my dog in the backyard and reading for as long I want while she sunbathes and I cozy up in he shade.
I love this post because you're 100%, absolutely right: Both forms of self-care are self-care. And NECESSARY! I love taking bubble baths, and do so once a week (if not more). A long, restorative yoga session or sweaty workout always brings me endorphins (I love lifting weights, but my favorite way to exercise is a long walk or dance cardio - I have zero rhythm, but it makes me smile). I also got a massage this past weekend to celebrate my 6th wedding anniversary, and it was the best massage I've had in years. I hope you enjoy yours!!
According to Myers Briggs I am a person who loves exploring possibilities. A favourite 'self-indulgence/self-care activity is going to IKEA store and letting my brain go crazy thinking of ways to use their products. I get the same recharge by going to a thrift shop and imagining how I would repurpose some of the items that get my attention. in those moments its my creative brain that re-energizes me. Not sure if I feel more cared for if I buy/don't buy something in these exploratory events. I will be more mindful next time....
I do nothing: I put an old-school clock in front of me, get on the couch, and do nothing for at least 15 minutes. I might drink tea, but nothing else. Look out the window, let my mind wander. After the 15 minutes i have usually winded down enough to know where I am in my body and what i need. Sometimes that is staying on the couch longer, or taking the sende of Calm with me doing the things i actually need to do and skipping everything that isnt really necessary if i dont have the capacity.
A nice, strong, deep-tissue neck and shoulder Thai oil massage for sure! That releases all the tension and the pain is part of the pleasure. It keeps me 100% focused on the present, a great escape and I feel so much lighter afterwards! In second place would be a callus removal at a nice spa... the kind where they give you a foot spa and a foot/leg massage as well. Hmmmmm.
A bath (laced with magnesium salts & geranium oil!) is total self care, for me at least. After a frazzled day, it’s like pressing the reset button, & I find it sad “self-care” experts can be dismissive of such things. Of course I get that self care sometimes does need to be other things, such as therapy, but there’s so much power in these small gifts we can give ourselves too. I hope you enjoyed yours!
I find gua sha to be the perfect self-care for me these days. It’s a way to focus on me and how my body, or at least face, is feeling. Not to mention the tension release is so necessary after caring for my toddler all day! Sometimes I only have a couple minutes so I stand in front of the mirror and massage the oil into my face, other times I really milk the experience and will lay down and let the different skincare steps soak in before doing it and will even include my neck and chest.
Doing the daily “spelling bee” in the NYT is one of mine. Also breathing, using my foot roller, or listening to music. Love the concept of recognizing these as self care, just more superficial self care. Hey, my surface needs care too.
For me it would be sitting in the pasture with my horses. Not training them, not riding them, not doing anything except feeling the sun on my face and watching them graze and occasionally come over to sniff my hair and let me know they know I am just being with them. This would be my self care of choice when I cannot stop my mind from working.
Rereading a favorite audiobook is excellent, especially when I'm all out of brain juice. I can just sort of let it wash over me
My favorite form of self-care is relaxing! Which may consist of laying on the couch watching a movie or documentary and ordering out. My nervous system was addicted to chaos for years, so allowing myself to relax is top-tier while not feeling guilty.
I have to admit that this made me realize I don't do very many things to care for myself! I always feel like there's something to do or something/things I "should" be doing.
But - one thing I have done in the past (and will be doing more of) is giving myself massages. Even if for just five or ten minutes, I'll put on a relaxing song, sit or lie down, and start by massaging my hands, then arms, then my shoulders, neck, and face. Head massages are wonderful too! I suppose going out to get a massage would feel more relaxing - I don't have to exert any physical energy of my own in that case, beyond getting into my car and driving somewhere - but self-massages feel much more intimate, more careful, bring me into the present moment more, and make me much more aware of - and appreciative of - my body. It's a 'winding down' time.