Self-care. It’s the term du jour that, for marketing purposes, seems to be equated with spas, yoga, and long baths. Some people equate self-care with selfishness. But what does self-care really mean?

I was intrigued by its meaning when I first heard it many years ago. I thought to myself, “I take care of my basic physical needs, so how does self-care go beyond that?” I learned that self-care applies to not only physical health but, importantly, our emotional health.

Basic self-care includes eating nourishing foods, sufficient rest, feeling safe physically and emotionally, and having access to other necessities. Feeling safe to express your emotions and thoughts without negative repercussions is also self-care because unexpressed emotions negatively impact us physically and emotionally over time. Being able to share what’s on your mind can help your overall health.

One of the ideas I associate with self-care is knowing when you are becoming overwhelmed or exhausted and need to take a break. Our bodies give us cues when we are exhausted physically or emotionally. The stresses of life can take a toll on us, but if we listen to our bodies, we can learn positive ways to care for ourselves by noting our personal limitations.

Identifying areas needing care

One of my limitations is regarding how much I socialize. I’m an introvert by nature, as well as a highly sensitive person, so I can become tired quickly in new settings while I’m trying to absorb it all. This can leave me feeling without emotional energy to engage in conversations and meet new people.

When I find myself in this situation, I have learned to remind myself that I can engage in small talk for a short amount of time, I can move on from conversations that don’t seem to interest me, and I can bring my own topics into a conversation—as my thoughts are just as important as everyone else’s. The self-care piece is preparing myself mentally ahead of time by reminding myself of these truths before I find myself possibly frozen or feeling stuck. Knowing when to excuse myself to visit the restroom, refill my glass, get more food, or talk with someone else are all forms of self-care. I’m listening to my body and my soul to guide me as to what is the next best thing for me.

Another form of self-care is knowing when to engage emotionally. Sometimes we are thrust into a situation that doesn’t appear as if we have the choice to participate; however, we can still choose our emotional level of involvement. I feel a great sense of freedom and overall empowerment when I can say to myself or someone else, “that’s a topic that I enjoy conversing about,” or “I won’t be discussing at this time.” I used to think I had to get emotionally tied up in any conversation that was taking place around me. I’ve since learned that even if I have opinions and feelings about a subject, I can choose to engage or not engage in the discussion. Having mindfulness and the conscious ability to make these decisions has been very liberating for me. I can say “not at this time” with no explanation or justification if I so choose. And that’s okay.

I have been in situations where I knew ahead of time that someone would want to bring up and discuss or debate controversial subjects. I’ve been able to anticipate some of that and decide whether I would want to discuss these things. If I opt out, and I receive pushback, I can plan my response. In this instance, self-care comes in the form of mentally preparing for these exchanges, rather than feeling obligated to participate and exhausting myself.

Practicing self-care is not unlike knowing our physical limits. As my mom told me after my first child was born, “you’ll figure it out as you go along,” has proven to be true and comforting that everyone’s path is so different. That’s okay and even good! We are all so different individually, and it’s important to have the confidence to forge your own path based on what helps you.

If you need to take physical or emotional breaks from something during the day, start noticing what time of day that is or what activities tire you. If discussing certain subjects, watching certain TV shows, listening to certain music, or even engaging in certain leisure activities increase your stress level, consider decreasing, eliminating, or planning differently in preparation for those activities. Only you can protect your emotional health. That’s what self-care is about: knowing yourself, knowing your limits, and knowing what you need emotionally and physically to be your best self.