Examining the Concept of Self-Care

HammockOnce in the midst of a dinner party conversation while I was describing my work, a smart and eccentric woman interjected with a thought I’ve considered ever since. “Exercise, good eating, lots of sleep—those are what keep me healthy. Self-care, on the other hand…” she explained leaning forward smiling and stabbing the air with her fork, “That’s what keeps me sane—the so-called extras. That’s what makes the good life.” There were several empathetic and enthusiastic nods around the table. I understood what she meant, but the concept got me thinking. What exactly is “self-care”? Beyond the requisite showers, teeth-brushing and nail-clipping, beyond the eating well, exercising, sleeping and sunning, what does this mean? Naps? Facials? As I’ve considered the idea over time, I’ve come to see it in less precious and gendered terms than I think is common. Ultimately, I’ve come to believe that self-care puts a name and value to self-attunement in action.

I think we all have known people who do everything they “should” and yet end up a frazzled mess. They may practice all the pieces, so to speak. They go to the gym 4-5 times a week. They eat a worthy diet—even by Primal standards. They go to bed by 10:30 every night and try to “manage” their stress. Yet, somehow they’ve missed something fundamental along the way. The sum of the parts ends up less than whole.

Even when we consider the added elements of The Primal Connectionthe time in nature, the effort to do something creative, the prioritization of social relationships, the center isn’t quite there. I think the Habits of Highly Successful Hunter-Gatherers ventured the outlines of this idea, but perhaps there’s more to it still.

The fact is, science (and anthropology) inform us about what activities can serve our health, but the nuance of self—when we’re in tune with this—puts it together in a way that ultimately serves our individual well-being—based as it is on our particular temperaments and personalities (factors that have both psychological and physiological roots). This is what keeps vitality more than the product of a simple formula. Flourishing doesn’t just come from the sum of recommended dosages of anything—no matter how healthy, well thought out or extensive.

Instead, we find the deepest manifestation of vitality where health and self-care merge—at the back roads intersection of genuine self-knowledge and responsive self-investment. This can happen with the rare and revolutionary act of knowing yourself (and accepting that self) and letting this understanding determine not just your goals but much of your daily life.

Sounds subversive—and, yes, it can be. The difference is you’re not trying to run the world or anyone else in it—just yourself, which can be a bigger challenge than most people will ever be able to master in their lifetimes.

Truth be told, we can’t always control our circumstances, but we can continually gauge where we’re at physically and emotionally and choose to respond effectively—which means being genuinely aligned with our needs and intentions. Taking care of ourselves is about more than hygiene and health. If you can humor me for a minute, understand that I’m not talking about devoting ourselves to navel-gazing or placating anyone’s narcissistic tendencies.

I’m talking about equanimity.

How, for instance, do we take care of our emotions in a day? Do we know how to handle them, or do we let them spill out and become other people’s problems? How do we take care of and steward our energy? Do we apply it thoughtfully—or chronically give it away unnecessarily or unwisely and end each day totally spent? How does this serve our long-term vitality or experience of life?

There’s a personal balance based not on time management or multi-tasking but on inputs and outputs (what feeds us versus depletes us) that we can develop over time. The attention to this balance and the choices that exist in alignment with it constitute self-care.

Inherent to this self-commitment (no one can do this for us, by the way) is the release of every excuse. We can have needs. We can make mistakes and choose to redirect. We can tune into the physical and emotional stress that build up in the face of circumstances we don’t get to choose. But we cannot have excuses and simultaneously live this kind of self-commitment.

The loose model of the Primal Blueprint leaves room for this. In fact, I think it requires it to some degree. I’ve always said the Primal Blueprint lays out principles but leaves the particular execution and variation to each individual. What is heaven for one person is hell for another, yet we can all live a good Primal life. Whether we’d file it under play or healthy indulgence or self-development or personal exploration, I’d say self-care is another dimension of the “optional” not really being optional.

There are a thousand different choices that will nourish each of us under the umbrella of self-care, which is as much a male phenomenon as it is a female one.

For some, it means puttering around, hiding out in the garage working on a hobby. For others, it means taking a personal retreat away from everyone and everything or practicing a simple ritual before bed (even if it’s just filing our nails and reading for ten minutes). Maybe it’s meditating or running. Maybe it’s a raucous night out. It could mean five minutes of total quiet in a dark room or the enjoyment of human touch during a massage or a hug. It could mean finding ways to laugh every day or working in a long hot shower at night. Sometimes it’s just leaving the office for that fifteen-minute break to go put your face toward the sun or to sit in your car—the closest thing to truly private space some of us have for the majority of our days. Maybe it’s a few hours off on a rainy day, a good book or a certain meal or a hot rice sock around our necks while we lay on the couch after a long day. It’s flowers on our nightstand or favorite music in the morning. It’s walking the dog or sharing an hour with a good friend—sometimes talking, sometimes working on a project, and other times just being in the same room watching a game. In the midst of a work day, maybe it’s taking five minutes to decompress from a meeting, choosing to not absorb the stress of the people around you—or to release it if you already have.

It’s not always about what you do but choosing to do it differently.

Over time we all develop our own bag of tricks, and the list becomes very personal. The choices not only fit ourselves but our stages in life and current circumstances. Someone going through a crisis might fill this well very differently than he/she would’ve just a few months earlier.

When we commit to self-care, we begin to intuit what that means for us. What do I really need in a day? It can be a transformative question.

Self-care, as I see it anyway, may be less a list of behaviors and more a mindset that you’re going to do what serves you rather than uphold the monolith of the typical routine and others’ infinite expectations. If that sounds selfish, I’d offer you the seeming irony that when we let go of the obligation to react to others’ expectations, we can actually be more present to their needs as well as our own. We’re off the manic carousel and standing on solid ground. It’s a much better vantage point from which to perceive, act, and relate in life. When we take care of ourselves we slough off less stress and projection onto other people. The impact is easy to underestimate.

Maybe it’s as good a time as any to think about what self-attunement in action means to us individually. What do we need space for in our lives today to feel vital and rested? Let me know your thoughts on this.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. Have a great end to your week.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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43 thoughts on “Examining the Concept of Self-Care”

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  1. Perfect timing. As an introvert, I always get run down by the holiday social whirl. And I have a heavy workload this month as well. It would be so easy to let self-care get lost in the shuffle.

    I think I’ll make a point of daily meditation, along with indulging my hoop dance addiction… even if only for a few minutes each day.

  2. The most precious ritual that keeps me from hypnosis and distractions of the modern world and keeps me focused and juiced up is a 10-15 minutes in quiet every morning. It’s not a meditation but it does have meditative qualities- I reflect on 3 things I’m grateful, 3 people I love and 3 things I want to achieve, either that day or longer term. I make it exciting and focus on all the pleasure I’ll get from getting it done.

    I think taking few mintes to “prime” your mind for a purposeful and passionate day makes orders of magnitude of a difference.

  3. Great topic and one I’ve thought a lot about since beginning a paleo lifestyle. I try to separate the “shoulds” from what I truly feel in my gut will be nurturing and healthy for me. It’s a balance since life demands that we show up where we’re needed, but I believe most people have a lot more control over their health and self care than they realize. Takes some quiet reflection and creativity, to start.

  4. you are truly a great writer, mark. it never ceases to amaze me how you present deep, complex issues in such a simple, well thought out manner.

  5. Interesting post, I often wonder if there’s an evolutionary purpose to down-time. Those days where you just don’t get anything done! When I’m caught in a whirlwind of getting stuff done, I’ll eventually go a bit crazy. Every so often I need a huge blow-out, usually in the form of a big night out.

    Afterwards, when I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus, I question whether it was worth it, but in the grand scheme of things I think it serves a purpose.

  6. This really resonates with me, especially the idea that self-care involves making decisions that serve you. And definitely the concept that self care might look different at 30, or 50, or 70. I am retired from the work world, but have designed a lifestyle that provides the kind of balance I know I need. More specifically, in my relationships I am finding I don’t need to be right as often, or prove myself. But I am also less likely to put up with people or behaviors that annoy me. I will simply remove myself from the situation, or avoid them in the future. Yes, I get massages regularly. I practice yoga. I try to eat healthy. I exercise my brain. But for me self care is largely a matter of making choices that make me feel good inside. Great topic and one I’ve discussed with my adult children, who have children ranging from 8 to 17. How a parent of teenagers does self care is different from a parent of toddlers, or a single 20-something person, or my own post-retirement self-care needs.

  7. Though I almost always find the blog topics interesting and enjoyable, the last three days have been stellar! MED, Cheat Meals, and Self-Care are all real daily issues that don’t deal with minutiae.

    Take care of you and the rest will follow. 🙂

    1. “Tare care of you and the rest will follow.”

      So true. I’m reminded of that every time the Flight Attendant tells me to put on my oxygen mask first. We can be of the best service to others only after we’ve been of best service to our own self. And I don’t mean that in a selfish kind of way.

      1. You can’t do a good job of taking care of others if you’re not taking care of yourself. I am reminded of this every time I see (invariably overweight) soccer moms catering to their kids’ ever whim. Not good.

  8. It’s the hardest part. To get up and do something. But when you start, get into the habit, you won’t be that inert any more. I’ve lost 22 lbs with the Loaded Gun Diet and skipping rope every day.

  9. I see taking time out to read Mark’s Daily Apple and the comments from others as a significant part of my Self-Care

  10. Some of my self-care comes in the form of cleaning up my messes, both literal and figurative. I try to reflect periodically on the different areas of my life: Are there any minor unresolved conflicts with friends or family? Annoying but necessary tasks to be done? Projects where I feel stuck? Actual messes in my house? Taking care of this stuff lifts such a burden off of my mind, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that sooner is better than later. Life is never perfect, but tending my own garden brings regular rewards.

  11. Knitting, reading, being creative, and most importantly for me – having some quiet time each day.

  12. Perfect – as I went to open the site today I thought ‘I really need some inspiration’ and this is just perfect – gave me some space to make some health choices that will work for me today.

  13. As a farmer, I have been through a number of droughts. Droughts mean extended periods of low – even negative – income, additional work and frustration. The most recent lasted four years, and as a consequence, I had also to learn to deal with Depression.

    One of the things that I learnt was the need to making “deposits” in the “sanity account”. By this, I ran putting a certain amount of time and money into self-maintenance, just as I did into the repair and maintenance of machinery and infrastructure. The psychological advice was that it was essential to do things that created “feel-good” hormones and provided periods of emotional release and distraction from the grind of everyday life.
    Remember that farmers do not have the ability to leave their work at the office. We live in the middle of it. There are no set hours beyond which it is “someone else’ problem” and no scheduled holidays.

    The solution for me was to take regular – and frequent – weekends away hunting. While often extremely physically demanding, the intensity of focus excluded the concerns and frustrations of normal life and the social interaction with the crew was an antidote to the isolation of single-operator farming.

  14. I’ve unconsciously built a life that could not be engineered by social circumstance. It’s meant being mostly low on cash for my entire career as an artist and musician. Most of my time/life has been writing, walking or researching. I must have worked my ass off in my last life time because this time I’m doing the opposite. I’ve traded making money — for free time.

  15. This. So much this. I love these posts the most–I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on recent decisions regarding work and the general direction of my career, and this is just a reminder that I’ve been making the right choices. You continue to be an inspiration to live a healthy, full life every single day. I am so thankful for this site and everything it has done for me over the last several years.

    My favorite quote: “More than anything, self-care as I see it is less than a list of behaviors and more a mindset that you’re going to do what serves you rather than what upholds the typical routine and others’ infinite expectations.”

  16. I love to have an hour in bed in the morning, before I get up. The alarm goes off at 6, and I lounge unashamedly for an hour.

  17. I’ve been thinking about this topic for quite a while. Of course it helps to eat healthy foods, exercise, get a periodic massage, to have a creative outlet, and to set aside time to spend in solitude, as well as time with loved ones. But what I’ve noticed lately that has made the biggest difference is watching and changing my thought patterns, from negative to positive and steeped in gratitude and appreciation. I feel better and I look better. I finally feel comfortable in my skin and in my life. I’ve found the magic.

    I think it comes down to truly loving ourselves. And I don’t mean giving ourselves “treats,” being narcissistic, or being hedonistic. But truly feeling love in our hearts, for ourselves and this life, and who and what is in it.

  18. Love this, thank you Mark.
    Fascinates me how emotions and health are interwoven. In my past two years of living Primally, I’ve become more attuned to that connection. If feeling low, I head to the woods, get more sleep…just take care of myself more. I don’t get sick as much, but more careful.

  19. I’ve been reading for a few months, but this is my first MDA comment. Fantastic post. I think the value of self-care is so underestimated and I love how you point out that it’s often more about the thoughts/feelings surrounding the activity rather than the activity itself.

    5 minutes to write in a journal, a warm shower with great products, a few minutes to stretch, or even planning to watch a favorite show or listen to a favorite podcast with a cup of tea — none of that is expensive or elaborate but these rituals — and how we think about them — can really replenish and restore us.

    I am really impressed with the quality of the content here. Thanks! PS: I’m a fellow Williams alum – class of ’02 🙂

  20. Are you sure that lady wasn’t using a euphemism for self-pleasure or having an affair?

  21. I’m sorry, but this is a bit too “high-level” for me… How is getting enough sleep, eating the right food for your own body, and getting good exercise NOT self-care???
    And personally, I have always found that too much of an inward focus on oneself tends to be less positive and satisfying than focusing outward on projects or other people.

    1. I skimmed over most of the post, because the sleep-eat-exercise formula says “self-care” to me. The rest is icing on the cake…er…icing on the…avocado?

      1. I think the eat-sleep-exercise is definitely a necessary component to self-care and necessary for all of us to be healthy and sane. But what Mark is referring to is the self-care rituals that bring vitality, passion, peace, and well-being to our lives. These are different for everyone. They are those things that really recharge us and help us reach that next level of peace and tranquility (spiritual health). For me, it’s knitting on a cold day next to a warm fire, HIKING! or snow shoeing. Just being out in nature. Thanks again, Mark! Awesome post!

  22. I wrote this a while back, “We might not be 100% responsible for our circumstances in life, but we are 100% responsible for the way we react to them.” This article really resonates with me, thanks Mark. (Noticed how many people think self care is someone else’s responsibility?)

  23. Mark, I hope this doesn’t sound like hyperbole, because I am not exaggerating at all: this is one of the most outstanding posts I have ever read. Not just on MDA, but anywhere in the “health sphere.” This is exactly why I come here, and why I appreciate your work so much. This is the kind of perspective–the kind of simple, elegant *humanity*–I don’t find anywhere else. You go so far beyond food, so far beyond the “eat this, not that” angle — and the truth is, the food piece is actually much easier for people to change and manage than the larger issues of caring for oneself — psychologically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. If only good health and true happiness/fulfillment really *could* be found in a bottle of cod liver oil, or in a deep orange egg yolk. That’d be so much easier than tackling the difficult business of *life,* wouldn’t it?

    What you’ve talked about here reminds me of my post on “Vitamin J,” which, thanks to a Weekend Link Love post a while back, is now the most highly viewed page on my blog, by about 10-fold. (https://www.tuitnutrition.com/2014/04/vitamin-j.html)

    I have learned the hard way the physical and emotional tolls that result from *not* engaging in self-care — and more so, years ago, from not knowing what that even *meant* for me, personally. (Because it’s so different for each individual.) Now that I do know, and I try to honor myself by actively seeking activities/people/situations that bolster me and build me up, and actively avoiding soul-depleting “energy sinks” to the greatest extent possible, I find my physical and emotional health both improved, and I would even say my physique is benefiting, too.

    I’ve had a few clients who I think fall into some of what you talked about here — people who were looking to lose “the last few pounds,” or who are doing absolutely everything right with their diet — not one inch of room for improvement — and it’s hard, as a practitioner, to find ways to explain that what’s going to take them those last few steps of the way really has nothing to do with food. It’s almost disappointing to them, because like I said, it’s *easier* to add or remove some specific vegetable or oil than it is to admit, for example, that you don’t get along with your family, or you’re lonely, or feel trapped in the wrong job, or even though you love your kids more than anything in the world, sometimes you just need a day off from being mom or dad.

    I wonder how many people just rush from one event to the next, crossing things feverishly off their to-do lists, maybe feeling a sense of “accomplishment” at everything they crammed into a day, but are they even self-aware enough to stop and wonder if they *cared* about any of it? If doing whatever they got done brought them any *satisfaction?* (But of course, there’s also the risk of being *too* contemplative in this regard, and we can get really down because maybe we’re *not* regularly engaged in things we care about, for whatever reasons.) I heard a great line a while back: “Don’t confuse motion with action.” (Meaning, just because we’re moving around a lot doesn’t mean we’re actually *doing* anything. Not anything meaningful, anyway.)

    It’s all very complex…and not a little scary, to think about. But so important for those of us who want not just to be physically well, but to be the most genuine selves we can be, and honor our own passions and principles, whatever those may be. Posts like this, that remind & encourage us to contemplate ourselves and our higher goals, put stuff like “How much fruit should I eat” to shame.

    Mark, yours is a gifted, unique voice, and I am so grateful you share it with us.

  24. For me this is about spiritual health. If I make time and space in my day for God, the rest falls into place. If I don’t then the world can start to get to me. I think we all need peace.

  25. It basically mind re- focusing,gives a deeper insight to self care and relaxation.

  26. This was perfect timing for me. Thanks for the good reminder, as always. Have a good weekend, Mark.

  27. Woulda, coulda, shoulda…but didn’t. Emotional self-care begins with learning to let go of the daily incidents and irritants. Whatever the issue, postmortems serve no useful purpose. Neither do guilt trips. Doesn’t matter who did the dumping and who was the “dumpee.” The outcome is going to be the same regardless, which is to say a hundred years from now it won’t matter. So why let it matter now?

    One of the nice things about getting older is that much of the petty stuff just seems to fall away. Either it loses importance or we finally recognize that it was never important in the first place.

  28. A rather timely and poignant post. These thoughts and words may just be the link to those who whirl around that cycle of sustainable and gratifying change in their life. The grind of a new healthy life-pattern can often rob one of what was uniquely “them.”
    I would suggest an early childhood memory of pure bliss. Your adult self is much more connected to that inner child than you think. Go for that kind of bliss!