If you pay attention to trending conversations, chances are you’ve heard talk of  “self-care.” It’s not like the concept of caring for oneself is new, but the way we talk about it is.

My first encounter with “self-care” occurred during my 6-year stint at Montreal’s Centre for Gender Advocacy—a feminist & anti-racist social justice organization.

My job? Working ‘round the clock with countless volunteers on difficult-to-navigate issues: gendered violence, missing native women, reproductive rights, and transphobia—for starters. We organized educational workshops, lectures, marches.

It was meaningful, yet exhausting. And thankless, in many ways. Anyone with a background in social justice organizing will likely know what I mean.

Enter “activist burnout”

A few years ago, self-care workshops began to surface, largely in response to this widespread tendency to work without rest or repose until one feels like a hollow shell of oneself. Yet I, who was sorely suffering from said burnout, had a negative reaction to these workshops, almost one of revulsion.

My self-care is going the hell home, I would think to myself, ironically and judgmentally. What can I say?

Burnout, for me, meant losing interest in work that was really personal and important to me, and beginning to resent anyone who made demands on my time.

Personally, I attribute the rising level of discussion about its importance to a more obsessed all-around work ethic. Self-care has seemingly surfaced in tandem with terms like “work-life balance.”

While some might blame the omnipotent constant known as the internet for our ability to work from anywhere, anytime, the deeper problem is an inherent lack of deeper self-love — rather than an easily prescribable need for better self-care routines.

Self-care vs. self-love in the world series of happiness

What is self-care, anyway?

woman-sleeping-in-bed
Photo Credit: Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash

Essentially, it’s the act of taking care of yourself — both physically and emotionally. In other words, it’s making sure you take the time you need to feel generally at peace.

This could take the form of spending the night in rather than going out, limiting your social media time, getting a facial massage, going running, reading more novels, or eating something that makes you feel good.

Self-care is allowing yourself enough good stuff to help you grow

To really love yourself, however, you need to dig even deeper. Self-love means learning to manifest gratitude and acceptance toward yourself—both physically and emotionally. 

This could mean revising your self-talk to make it more positive, throwing out your scale, or letting go of regret and jealousy of others.

Self-love, by its very nature, is supposed to be unconditional and unapologetic, while self-care is about taking time needed to feel good in your skin.

Why is self-love more important than self-care?

Here are the kinds of problems that I have observed with notions of self-care in the social justice world, which I also apply to the corporate world — and many other contexts as well:

1. It’s so surface-level

Let me rephrase: the problem isn’t so much about self-care as that the conversations around it tend to remain insular, not expanding beyond self-care.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ll be the last to nix self-care, but I’ve never met someone who needed more bubble baths without also needing deeper self-love, understanding, and kindness.

This wouldn’t be a thing if baths, face masks, and the like didn’t often get treated as a stand-in for more deeply rooted peace of mind.

2. It shouldn’t create more work for you

In my former line of work as a social justice advocate, people approached the perceived need for self-care… with workshops.

That’s right: workshops to counteract the effects of too many workshops.

While this route most definitely works for many people, it seems to me that self-care needs can be as personal as the palm of your hand—if you let it be.

In my case, my needs involved finding a way to take an extended hiatus from work that involves constant interaction with others. I felt guilty for a long time that my way of caring for myself was on the antisocial side. But I needed a break from work — and that’s what a lot of people need.

3. It should be integrated, rather than occasional

The entire urge for self-care to begin with comes from a lack of ability to integrate relaxation, fun, and good health into your day-to-day life.

Although we don’t like to face it, often what is truly needed is a reimagining of our life as we know it — because the way we structure our time is often detrimental to our mental and emotional health.

Not what you want to hear? I know, I hear you. But it happens.

How to turn self-care into self-love

Here are a few helpful strategies I have learned in my colorful trek from burned out to rekindled:

1. Say no — just do it

Lots of us have trouble saying no to requests and/or expectations of various shades, be they at work or at home or even among friends. Especially women.

Don’t feel like doing something, or simply don’t have the energy? Say so.

Having less time to play roles or engage in activities that deplete you means more time for welcoming brighter, better things. And those things don’t always take the form you expect.

2. Get over the need to be liked

While you’re relinquishing your need to say yes, you might as well relinquish your need to be liked too.

As someone very wise once said, “if everyone likes you, you’re doing it wrong.”

It can be a tough and toxic world out there, and staying healthy in body and mind can mean existing somewhat at odds with its stickier elements. It’s important you find peace in that.

3. Discover what you’re capable of giving on a full tank

Bottom line: Don’t stop taking bubble baths — just don’t confuse the bubbles for hearty, messy, enduring self-love.

Once you feel true self-love, there’s no telling what you’ll have to give others.

If what you want is to increase your capacity to do, then loving yourself is a great start.