When I first came across the idea of self-care, it was a total game changer. Suddenly I could say “no” to dinner plans without feeling guilty. I could do things for me, just me, simply because I knew what was best for my well-being.
Self-care — at least my interpretation of it — taught me that when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I can flick on an old episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine in the middle of a hectic day or lay down for a quick nap to recharge. These little free passes have, at times, helped me to feel more balanced. They’ve abated my stress levels and even made me more efficient at work than if I’d slogged through task after task after task without a moment of rest.
Initially, self-care changed my life. But after a while, something felt off. It got to the point where sometimes I couldn’t tell if I was engaging in genuine self-care or just procrastinating — disengaging and detaching myself from my responsibilities.
A few weeks ago, I was incredibly stressed with work and school and decided to take a Netflix break. One episode turned into two until, three hour-long episodes later, I decided I’d finally gathered up enough energy to keep working — but by then it was midnight and I figured I’d better get to bed. Did I really need three hours of entertainment for self-care, or was I hitting “Next Episode” because I wanted to put off my to-do list, to run from my obligations?
Too often I found myself confusing self-care with relaxing (but unhealthy) indulgences that detached me from the minutiae of my life. I’d look down at my phone for a five-minute break and burn out my thumb tapping “like” while scrolling Instagram. A 15-minute power nap would become a full REM cycle.
It became hard to draw a line because, when I’ve been stretched to my limit, sometimes I legitimately do need to take a full night for myself. Other times, what I dub a “self-care” break is far less for the preservation of my mental health and, I suspect, much more about a temporary escape, of being able to do whatever I want without worrying about the bigger picture. Finally I realized that the line was too important to leave undefined.
So I’ve started to parse self-care from indulgence by tracking how I feel after I do it. I’ve noticed that when I really do need a break and I take a bubble bath or read a few chapters of a book, I feel refreshed — I want to get back to the grind, I’m gunning to get things done, I feel energized. But when I use self-care as an excuse, the opposite happens: I feel less productive than I did before.
Self-care is important to me. But I’ve learned over-indulging can have consequences, too. And left unchecked, who knows? Maybe I’d be watching Netflix instead of writing this very sentence.
Victoria Chiu is a student and writer. Follow more of her work at her website victoriachiu.com. Collage by Emily Zirimis.