What Self-Care Is and What It Definitely Isn’t

I was lying in bed one morning reading from author Anne Lamott’s beautiful little book Small Victories. In one of her stories about parenting, she shares—with a little self-deprecation, but mostly tenderness—how she doesnt bake for PTA fundraisers, is often disorganized, and sometimes forgets to follow through on updates from her sons school. I find her ability to accept who she is both endearing and freeing.

Her story got me thinking about how so many people I meet have a misguided sense about the concept of self-care. I often hear a lot of “shoulds,” and many confess that they are downright awful at self-care.

As a life balance coach, I have studied, researched, explored, and taught self-care to men and women for more than 15 years. I can wholeheartedly share that self-care—a practice that has changed my life more than any other—is not about any of these things:

  • Being perfect
  • Fixing yourself or turning yourself into a self-improvement project
  • Trying to become a better person who “has it all together” or who keeps their New Year’s resolutions
  • Doing what our parents, friends, or the media say we should do to be our “best” (take up yoga, go gluten free, keep a clean house, grow our own vegetables, etc.)
  • Striving to be more worthy through accomplishing more or adhering to society’s list of “shoulds” around parenting, relationships, or (fill in the blank)
  • Spending a bunch of money on services or products that are supposed to make us more fit, beautiful, smart, etc.

Self-care isn’t a goal you strive for. And it’s not about becoming You 2.0. Here’s what it is about:

  • Meeting yourself where you are with a soft and open heart
  • Believing “my ordinary self is enough” (thank you Carol Orsborn)
  • Feeling safe enough to show up in the world 100 percent you, and inherently giving others permission to do the same
  • Attuning and responding to your needs and desires, moment to moment
  • Forgiving yourself when you make a mistake
  • Being compassionate with yourself when you bump up against your faults
  • Treating yourself with the same love and tenderness you would have for a four year-old who’s had a really hard day.

Self-care is not about adding something to your to-do list, cracking the whip, or finally getting in shape. It’s about cultivating a kinder, gentler relationship with yourself and asking for the nurturing and nourishment you truly need—whether that’s a hug or a kale smoothie. It’s knowing that YOU have your back. And that, no matter what you say, do, or flub, you will not abandon yourself.

Renée Peterson Trudeau is an internationally recognized life-balance coach, president of Career Strategists, and author of The Mother’s Guide to Self-Renewal: How to Reclaim, Rejuvenate and Re-Balance Your Life and Nurturing the Soul of Your Family: 10 Ways to Reconnect and Find Peace in Everyday Life. This article is adapted from her blog.