A young woman peacefully looking out a window

What is Self Care and How to Practice it?

In the therapy room, self care is a very common term utilized by both clinicians and clients. Self-care and self-soothing are often conflated, though they refer to different behaviors and motivations. There is a misconception that self care relates to selfish behavior and is something only accessible to people with the time, energy, and money to do involved hobbies or take lavish vacations. And while those are aspects of self care, there is much more that is left out of the conversation if we just focus on large indulgences.

So what exactly is self care?

Reflection: Before continuing to read, take a moment to reflect on what immediately comes to mind when you hear the term “self care”. 

A Brief History of Self Care

Self-care as a term originates from medical terminology in the 1950s and 1960s for mental health patients and doctors to discuss how a patients medical conditions are affecting their quality of life and then put measures into place to address those concerns with the goal of increasing autonomy and self-worth in patients. But the act of self care extends far beyond that. Self care has been something that people have done for thousands of years, as human beings have always needed to look after their health and well-being. Communities have always integrated self care into their spiritual and medicinal practices. Practices such as meditation, traditional forms of dancing, herbal medicine, mindfulness, singing and more have been practiced by cultures and communities throughout history.

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, self care became incorporated into “community care” due to the Black Panther Party. Thus, turning self-care into a radical act that was used to encourage anti-racist activists to both understand their individual care needs and to invest back into their communities. This then leads into their fight against medical racism and activism for free and accessible healthcare for all, particularly for Black and other oppressed peoples.

As the decades went on, the mainstream narrative around self care became separated from that of community care and disability justice and it became more focused on the individual, particularly white, able-bodied, wealthy, thin, cis-heterosexual people. This has done a disservice to the term and has led self care to be associated with privilege. Self care will not, and should not, always be enjoyable or pleasurable, but sometimes it may be. It cannot be seen as being only accessible to the wealthy as everyone should have the right to being able to take care of their basic needs. 

In essence, self care is taking care of oneself. This can mean making time to shower daily, making time for regular nutritious meals, spending time with family and friends, or attending doctor's visits regularly. But it also means investing back into your communities, while taking into account your own capacity, so that self care can be accessed by the most marginalized.

Journal prompt: after reading the history of self care, what stood out to you? Was any or all of the information new? Note what feelings come up as you reflect.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
-Audre Lorde

Why is self care important?

Self care is important because it encompasses practices that support an individual’s growth and promotes well-being. Under capitalism, self care is not supported by the culture of productivity, so self care gives people the permission to focus on themselves to rest and recharge when they need to. Doing self care can improve distress and mental health symptoms.


Additionally, keeping track of your ability to self care can be an indication of burn-out, depression, trauma or other mental health concerns. However, this can work in a loop, as burn-out, depression, or mental health concerns can also make it more difficult for an individual to engage in self care activities. Using self care as a metric can be helpful for clients and clinicians to identify and discuss how mental health concerns are affecting their quality of life and steps one could take to manage those concerns. 

Self care is misunderstood as indulgent undertakings, not centering marginalized voices prevents people from understanding the radical roots of self care. That being said, there should always be room for joy in self care; engaging in activities that give you pleasure and happiness is part of taking care of yourself.


However necessary self care is, it can often be inaccessible to many people due to systemic oppression. A person who lives in a food desert might not have the ability to eat nutritious food regularly. A plus sized person who has experienced systemic fatphobia from doctors might not get adequate health care. A single parent with multiple jobs might not have the time to shower regularly. These are just a few examples of experiences that are not centered when discussing self care. The systemic inability and inaccessibility to self care is also a source of poorer mental health outcomes. For many, if not most, people there is no self care without community care and healing justice.

Reflection: in your life, what barriers, systemic or otherwise, have prevented you from engaging in self care or community care. Think back to one example, what was that experience like for you? What would have made it easier to engage in self care?

Consequences of not centering marginalized voices when discussing self care.

Self care content today is dominated by hyper-individualistic western voices. This is appropriative when many spiritual practices that have been separated from their origins and commodified are touted as self care, such as yoga, meditation, sage smudging, or ayahuasca. Committing to decolonizing self care can be a way to invest back into communities and respect the spiritual origins of certain practices. This can look like supporting organizations that are run by people who are part of the culture that originated those practices and doing research on these practices to engage with them respectfully. This could also look like not engaging in the practices of a culture you are not a part of that members of that community would deem to be cultural appropriation.

Not centering marginalized voices prevents people from understanding the radical roots of self care. However, there are people who are trying to bring the mainstream understanding of self care back to its roots. One example, is Tricia Hersey of The Nap Ministry who is the creator of the “rest is resistance” framework and a proponent of rest as a tool for liberation. Her voice is one that is promoting rest as being a necessary and radical act that everyone, especially those who are most systemically oppressed, deserves access to. 

How can I practice self care?

Experiment and define what is healing for you

When determining what self care methods work for you, trying things out using trial and error may be a helpful way to start. While it may feel frustrating to not have self care methods immediately work for you, taking the time for yourself to focus on your mental health and try things out can be self care in itself. When thinking about self care, ask yourself:

  • What did you like to do when you were a child?
  • If you check in with your body at this moment, what do you need?
  • What do you wish you had more time for?
  • What practical steps do you need to take to take care of yourself and are they accessible?
  • What currently brings you joy?

Continually ask yourself what is possible

  • Some days it may feel impossible to do any task and self care may look different day to day. If that is the case what small steps can be taken to make self care more approachable?
  • Examples include: 
  • Asking a friend to help pick up medication on a high chronic pain day
  • Using a sick day at work if you’re ill
  • Eating snacks instead of cooking a meal if cooking is too overwhelming that day
  • Lessening the hours you volunteer if you are struggling with activist burnout

Look into culturally relevant self care methods

  • This can be useful as a way to begin healing generational and historical trauma, connect with ancestral healing, and find community.
  • This can look like reading books or poetry connected to your culture, engaging in ancestral practices such as dancing, learning about herbal medicines, cooking food, or looking at art. Taking time to research and reconnect (or connect) with these aspects can be a way for individuals to incorporate culturally relevant self care methods 

Connect to the radical origins of self care

  • Join or rejoin communities or organizations working towards social change and collective liberation
  • Read articles and books written by authors who are taking back the term self care, particularly BIPOC, queer, and disabled authors.

Further Reading