Why Your Self-Care Methods Aren't Working—and How to Fix That

I’ve never been much of a bath person. Perhaps it’s because the water gets tepid too fast for my taste. Or because I have OCD and the thought of “cleaning” myself in a liquid germ-swell isn’t that appealing. Or because I was once forced to take baths for a month to treat a skin condition—far more medicinal than sumptuous. A bath is certainly not, as the internet would have me believe, my road to self-care.

I’d much rather wander Home Goods, just browsing, no time limit, kinda-sorta searching for some amazing placemat set I don’t need but simply must have. Or, I binge-watch creepy foreign series. (Have you seen Dark? Exquisitely terrifying.) But nobody’s marketing Netflix as self-care.

Yet the term on every millennial’s browser has most definitely been commoditized by other industries. Using the classic “if Aliens came down to Earth today” trope, the little green guys would consider self-care synonymous with essential oils. And candles. Face creams. Even yoga pants, spa menus, vacation packages, smoothie subscriptions, and wine often now bear the promise of self-care. And there’s not a lifestyle site that’s been able to resist the siren call of the “best self-care products” roundup.

No wonder: There are roughly double the Google searches for the term today compared to this time last year, and per the November 2017 Barkley Report, “the volume of discussions surrounding self-care octupled in 2015 and 2016 compared to a decade prior.” Type in “self-care books” on Amazon, and you get 20,000 results. Head over to Twitter, and a self-care bot reminds you to stretch, drink water, and meditate every hour or so.

With all this self-caring going on, you’d think we—the wellness community—would be on the Nobel shortlist for ending stress. Yet angst has never been so pervasive, according to the 2017 American Psychological Association (APA) Stress in America survey, which showed that, from 2016 to 2017, the number of people in the U.S. who experienced a stress symptom within the past month jumped from 71 to 75 percent, which the APA calls “a significant increase.”

Clearly, we’re doing something wrong.

When you look at its back story, self-care wasn’t about just etching out an hour here and there for life’s little luxuries. The definition used to be something entirely different. According to one French philosopher, Socrates’ most famous quote—“Know thyself”—was actually about self-care: By truly “knowing” yourself, you were caring for yourself. (Unless, of course, the history texts glazed over the S man’s passion for bath bombs.)

The phrase took a turn in 1971 with nurse Dorothea Orem’s seminal book, Self-Care Deficit Theory, which suggested that by teaching patients self-care—specifically how to be more self-reliant in maintaining their treatments post-hospital stay—R.N.s could help transform the health-care system.

The majority of the academic research on self-care in the five decades since Orem’s book still focuses on medical issues such as diabetes, cancer, and HIV. The other category of self-care studies takes aim at medical pros themselves. In 2008, one Psy.D. wrote a rallying cry, calling self-care for psychologists an “ethical imperative” against burnout, vicarious traumatization, distress, and impaired professional competence. In 2012, the APA amended its “ethics code” to include the importance of self-care among practitioners.

So, how did we get from ancient philosophy…to nurses…to therapists…to getting our shoulders rubbed with fancy-schmancy coconut oil in the name of self-care?

On a basic level, there’s the fact we’re all desperate for that magic anxiety-reducing bullet.

From a broader cultural perspective, there’s the individualistic era we live in: Technological, financial, and medical advances in the 20th and 21st centuries have given the average human more control over her economic and health destinies, sparking an emphasis on me more than we.

But I believe that, in the origin of modern “self-care for all,” the general wellness boom plays the starring role. “Professional disciplines—even those outside of the health-care profession—are talking more about wellness and self-care and encouraging employees to engage in wellness-oriented strategies,” says Talkspace therapist Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D., who co-owns a mental health business where she consults with professionals on self-care. “Over the past few years, the self-care industry has become, well, an industry.”

This industry, which has spawned “treat yo’self” memes, has in some ways overshadowed the true meaning of self-care—which O’Neill describes as “carving out some space to be fully focused on your mental, emotional, and physical well-being.”

Consider the words “fully focused” in the context of the bubble bath cliché: “If you take a bath just to get away from the kids, the minute you open the door, it’s like you didn’t even take a bath,” Fred Luskin, Ph.D., associate professor at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology and director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, tells SELF. “Or how many people take a vacation, and on the plane coming back they’re just as stressed? It’s attitude and where your mind is, not just what your body is doing,” he explains. “You have to consciously practice bringing intention inward, consciously letting go of all the things that worry you, actively kiss them goodbye.”

The bit about “where your mind is” could explain why my sister, physical therapist Sarah Cleary, uses Days of Our Lives, of all things, as self-care. She, my mom, and I used to watch the soap together, and for years after we no longer lived in the same house, we’d still call each other and endlessly discuss how clueless “millionaire businessman” John Black was, or that iconic moment when Carrie slapped Sami for sleeping with Austin. “Watching it makes me happy because it makes me think about you and Mom,” Sarah says. “And I can imagine our convos about some of the story lines.”

Beyond its addictively cockamamie storylines, Days, for my sis, is an example of how self-care methods don't always have to be self-centered. It brings her joy—and takes her mind away her stressors—because it reminds her of people she loves.

Love, it so happens, is crucial—and not just for others. “Self-care is a product of loving ourselves. If I don’t feel worthy, I’m not going to take care of myself,” says certified psychotherapist Stefan Deutsch, president of The Human Development Company and author of Love Decoded.

Like Deutsch (and Huey Lewis, if you happen to be that old), Luskin believes in love. “The biggest self-care is let yourself love and be loved,” he says. But it’s hard to do that when you’re so busy you can’t think. In fact, “the two biggest obstacles to self-care in the 21st century,” he says, “ are to always be in a hurry or always multitask. To our nervous system, this is a sign we’re in danger.”

That’s exactly why, when he was full time at Stanford and “rushing around everywhere,” he’d force himself to pause for a minute, giving himself the brain space to think, Wow, I’m really lucky that I have my two kids. Luskin goes on, “The minute you think you’re lucky, the adrenaline goes away, endorphins run through your system, and your mind shuts down that you’re in a desperate run for survival when you’re just standing in line at Whole Foods.”

So it’s not that self-care can’t involve tub time and products. But to turn essential oils and soapy bubbles into actual self-care, you’ve got to simultaneously tap into your emotional needs.

If bathing reminds you of the awesome time you had visiting the Turkish baths, bathe on, sister. If you and your college roommate used to catch up for hours with a backdrop of lavender essential oil—and sniffing it makes you happily nostalgic—stock up, and think of her when it wafts past your nose. (This is not an affront to beauty products. I love beauty products! I was a beauty editor for nearly 12 years.)

Just remember that if you’re buying lavender simply because everybody says it’s gonna calm you down—even though you don’t particularly relish the scent of lavender—it may not do much. Consumerized self-care can have potent results so long as it involves an activity you enjoy, and you also include those layers of appreciation and self love.

Since self-care has gotten so muddied over the years, you may still be wondering whether certain rituals you’ve sworn by are actually working for you. Check out these bits of wisdom I picked up from my conversations.

Self-care doesn’t have to cost a thing. Two of the biggest misconceptions O’Neill’s clients have about self-care, she says, is that it has to involve spending money and it has to be a grand event (like a full spa day). O’Neill herself makes self-care a part of her day without shelling out a cent. “I set aside ‘no phone times’—when I’m exercising or with my family,” she says. “I also practice ‘self-care breaks’ throughout my work days—one to two minutes where I’ll either do a focused breathing exercise or take a mindful walk around the block.” (Of course, if your self-care is an expensive trip or spa day and you’ve got the means, no judgment. Carry on.)

It can be something super personal and quirky, something maybe only you would enjoy. Kimberly Phillips, who works in marketing and business development, tells SELF she mixes up masks at home with lemon juice, yogurt, sugar, and olive oil. “It makes me feel good to use something my dog can lick off my face that soothes my skin. Plus, olive oil is so creamy it just feels very yummy.” (Wait, I ask, the dog literally laps it off your face? “Oh, he loves olive oil! He always licks it off,” she tells me.) She also slathers the oil on her legs, wraps them in plastic wrap, then puts on sweatpants and marinates for an hour. “Your legs are so frickin soft.” She’ll up the chill factor with music, like The Incredible String Band’s album “The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion.”

Engaging in self-care can actually involve someone else. “Say you have a decent marriage or partnership,” says Luskin, co-author of Stress Free for Good. “If every single day you ask yourself, ‘What nice thing did my partner do for me today?’ your heart will get warm and fuzzy, and you think, ‘What can I do back for them?’ In that moment, you’ve had both self-care and other care,” he explains.

Michelle Tham Metz, M.D., an ob/gyn in the Mount Sinai Health System, tells SELF she practices self-care with her 5-year-old daughter, Maika, by making paper mache sculptures. “It’s goopy and cold and it feels good to do something messy as a grown up,” she says. “It’s rewarding to do the layers, and because there really is no way to be neat about it, I don’t have anxiety about making a mess with Maika, so it’s an activity we can do together that I don’t have to micromanage her at all.”

Self-care might not be something you do at all; it can be something you don’t do. “Setting boundaries with friends and co-workers and not overextending ourselves can help guard against burnout,” says O’Neill. Ellen Zguta, director of e-commerce site operations at a fashion company, uses this strategy. “Sometimes I choose not to pick up the ringing phone because I know I’m going to listen to a monologue instead of being involved in a conversation,” she tells SELF. “Or I know that the person is going to tell me all about how busy and exciting his life is. Meanwhile I was sitting on my couch watching Scandal with my dog. So there are times when I decide to give myself a pass to not be the always-accessible, always-happy-to-listen friend or sister because sometimes being me on my couch watching Scandal with my dog is exactly what I want to be doing.”

Which brings me back to what I want to be doing: scouring Home Goods.

Considering how crucial the emotional thought process is to making self-care methods truly productive, are my Home Goods runs legit?

They certainly check off the “no rushing” box and, as Deutsch says, “once you see what it is that relaxes you, what opens up is permission to think about yourself.” But there’s that other necessary element: consciousness, which is key for my creepfest binges too.

Luskin explains: If you just plop down and flick on the TV (or mindlessly roam the store of your choosing), you’ll finish just as stressed as you were before. But “if you take a moment before to recognize how lucky you are to have an hour or two to yourself, you prime the pump for it to have a good effect on your nervous system,” he explains. “Then when you’re done, prime your pump back by saying ‘wonderful break, now I’m going back to a good life I have chosen.’”

As I finished up this column, my 4-year-old son sidled up and asked if I would come look at the latest of hundreds of marble runs he created.

He named his latest marble run—blocks you build into a structure that allows a marble to run from top to bottom, for the unfamiliar—The Catcher.

I felt a twinge of irritation. Couldn’t he see I was typing? Couldn’t he ask my husband to admire The Catcher instead? Couldn’t I get a GD minute to myself?!

But then I thought about all I had learned about what self-care really is: about appreciation, about how acknowledging the great things in your life causes a rush of endorphins and a retreat of stress-causing cortisol, about slowwwwing down.

In that moment, I had the opportunity to make a deliberate choice: to say no, or to just be in an intimate moment with my son, no matter what else had me pulled, taffy-like, in another direction.

I looked up from my laptop and saw his cute little face, his “Tacocat is tacocat spelled backwards” t-shirt. What popped into my mind then was how cool it was that he has such an architectural streak, and that he wanted to share it with me.

I smiled. I felt happy, and proud, and lucky. A bit giddy, even. Then, I chose. I hit pause. I got up and went downstairs to admire The Catcher.

And that, my friends, is self-care.

Amy Keller Laird is an award-winning journalist and SELF’s wellness correspondent. She was previously the Editor-in-Chief of Women's Health and the Beauty Director of Allure, and has appeared on The Doctors, Today, and Good Morning America as a health, wellness, and beauty expert. Follow her on Instagram at @aklaird and on Twitter at @amykellerlaird.


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