by Ami Kunimura, Ph.D., MT-BC   •   October 2020

The term “self-care” might seem like a self-explanatory and a simple concept. However, because self-care can be hard to actually put into practice, maybe it’s not as simple as it seems.

So, what does self-care actually mean?

There are a lot of ways to conceptually approach self-care, and from the perspective of burnout prevention, here is a definition we can work with as a starting place for understanding what self-care is.

Self-care means caring for yourself in your various life roles with compassionate action and mentality.

This definition has three components –

  1. Caring for yourself
  2. Your various life roles
  3. Compassionate action and mentality

Let’s take a look at these three components one at a time.

1. Caring for Yourself

In its most basic everyday form, caring for yourself can simply mean being nice to yourself or doing something nice for yourself. Caring for yourself can also mean staying aware of your own physical, psychological, social, emotional, and spiritual needs and following through on tending to your needs.

Caring for yourself also means making a compassionate choice to do what is best for you, which is not always the same thing as what’s easiest to do and not always the same as what you want to do. Sometimes caring for yourself means making a difficult decision.

This means that caring for yourself can also include things that are not exactly relaxing or enjoyable. Caring for yourself might mean setting boundaries, having a difficult conversation, saying no, standing up for something you believe in, being honest about your feelings, or breaking an old pattern.

Caring for yourself means treating yourself with love and kindness and respecting yourself as human being who is both imperfect and deserving of compassion. When you care for yourself, you allow yourself to be who you are with acceptance, flexibility, and compassion.

2. Your Various Life Roles

Self-care involves all aspects of your life, not just your personal life. Other roles that are involved in self-care might be your role as a professional, student, parent, partner, caretaker, activist, or other roles in your life where you have a sense of responsibility.

For the prevention of occupational burnout and stress, self-care is needed in both your personal life and your professional life. This means self-care is not just what you do in your free time, before or after work, or on vacation.

Self-care is something that can happen at work too, with practices such as taking breaks, advocating for yourself, or asking a colleague for support. Although the self-care you do at home might be different than the self-care you do at work, we need to be careful of not separating self-care from work.​ Because burnout can impact the quality of your work, preventing burnout and prioritizing self-care is an ethical and professional responsibility. ​

It’s also important to note here that self-care and hard work are not opposite things. Making time for self-care doesn’t mean you’re not working hard and working hard doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not practicing self-care. Self-care and work can co-exist.​

Self-care impacts the people you care for and care about. We live in an interconnected world and your health, mood, stress, joy, and vitality will impact others. Self-care matters for all of your roles in life and the compassion you give to yourself contributes to overall compassion in this world.​

3. Compassionate action and mentality

Self-care is not just about behavior and the things we do, but also involves our mindset, self-talk, and attitude towards ourselves.

Many times when we think about what we need when it comes to caring for ourselves, we think of doing things. However, action is not always the solution. We also need to check in with our internal world to make sure our internal dialogues, beliefs, and values are are aligned and are working for us, not against us.

Because self-care involves your belief systems and values, it is important to treat self-care as multidimensional with personal, professional, and cultural implications.

Self-care needs to be respected in regard to individual preferences, beliefs, cultures, identities, abilities, work settings, and life situations. There is no universal self-care plan that works for everyone. To be effective, your self-care needs to be tailored to you and change with seasons of your life. Self-care is a practice that needs to constantly evolve with your life and your work.

By approaching self-care through the lens of progress and exploration, we are not aiming to achieve perfect self-care or trying to maintain a perfect work/life balance. Rather, we can approach self-care as a skill that can be cultivated and self-care can be a tool that supports living a life that’s meaningful and fulfilling for you.

And so again – self-care means caring for yourself in your various life roles with compassionate action and mentality. 

Be patient with yourself as you build your own understanding of what self-care means for you. Part of the human experience is the lifelong journey of exploring what it means to care for others and what it means to care for ourselves.

Ami Kunimura, PhD, MT-BC is the founder of the Self-Care Institute. She holds a Ph.D. in Mind-Body Medicine and is a board-certified music therapist. Learn more about Ami here.


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