Self-Indulgence is not Self-Care

“When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.” Benjamin Franklin

In case you are living under the proverbial rock and haven’t noticed, self-care is having a moment.  It has become somewhat of a national movement, popping up in mainstream media stories, in workplace programs, and on instagram feeds everywhere. Social media influencers, self-help gurus, and your next door neighbor, Gina, are posting, tweeting and writing about the importance of self-care and sharing their self-care strategies. As of this writing, a google search for the term self-care produced almost 4 billion results.

Self-care, or the holistic care for one’s mind, body and spirit, is not a novel concept. Philosophers, writers, and elder statesmen have long written about the importance of purposeful rest and rejuvenation.  As an official construct, self-care traces its origins to the mid-twentieth century health care system as a way for patients to treat themselves without the supervision of a medical professional and create health-promoting habits.  Today, self care has become a $10B industry, with interest spiking in 2016 post a US Presidential election that was particularly stressful and divisive to our national consciousness.  There are now countless products, services and resources available that promote good mental and physical hygiene and treating ourselves with kindness.  

But how exactly are we caring for ourselves?  Just a brief scroll through a few of the 23M Instagram posts tagged with #selfcare tells a concerning story.  

Crazy week at work, thank God for Ben & Jerry’s!  It may be a 2-pint evening!  #allthesugar #selfcare.  

Life is stressing me out! Shopping binge at Niemann’s and the new Louis Vuitton handbag to add to my collection.  I can’t pay my rent, may need to move into my closet!  #retail therapy #selfcare 

I can’t deal with my kids!  There may be wine in this coffee cup!  #mommyjuice #self-care

I think this misses the point!  Instead of engaging in activities that promote true health and well being, these destructive numbing and avoidance practices just provide a temporary escape from life.  Rather than helping us cope, these strategies for alleviating stress only exacerbate anxiety and harm our physical health in the name of #self-care.

Self-Care vs. Self-Indulgence

True self-care is health-promoting.  It has a a preventative aspect and helps stave off fatigue and illness.  Research has proven there are real medical benefits to proper self care, including boosts in immunity, reductions in cortisol, better sleep, and lessened depression.  Mindfulness, meditation, eating healthy foods that fuel you, effective boundary setting and moving your body are among the many constructive methods of self-care.

The problem arises when we confuse self-care with self-indulgence.  Miriam Webster defines self-indulgence as “excessive or unrestrained gratification of one’s own appetites, desires, or whims.” Overshopping, eating your weight in chocolate, and binge drinking alcohol are self-indulgent activities that are commonly misconstrued as self-care.  While these behaviors may feel good in the moment, they have more damaging consequences in the longer term.   

So how do you discern the difference?  The key is to look at the impact over time.  Good self-care practices have a positive compound effective on overall health and well-being.   Self-indulgent behaviors, beyond the temporary dopamine boost, leave you worse off in the long-run.  Too many celebratory cocktails turn into hang-overs or alcohol dependence.  Too much sugar turns into weight gain or diabetes.  And too much shopping turns into credit card debt you can’t get out from underneath.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting you need to become an ascetic and renounce all  forms of pleasure to practice good self-care.  Joy and pleasure absolutely have a central role in your life and in your self-care practices.  It’s when we overdo it that it becomes a problem. 

How to Choose

It can be challenging to make the wise choice in the moment.  A strategy that works for me is to ask myself a powerful question:  “What would my future self thank me for?”  Or “What would a person who takes excellent care of herself chose?”  By assuming the mindset of someone who practices good self-care, I find I am guided to the choices that best serve me and my life.

Where in your life are you practicing self-care and where are you being self-indulgent?  Do you need to up your self-care game?  Learn more at 

Aisha Harris, Slate. (self care origins)


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