Self-Care: More Than Bubble Baths

Written by Nicole Caines, R Psych

Somewhere along the way, self-care became a trendy topic, which I’m pretty happy about because it’s an important topic in our burnt out society. However, it has also become another burden to add to the to-do list, another benchmark to measure ourselves against. For many of us, when we think about self-care, we think about going to yoga, having a bubble bath, or making that vegan, gluten-free, low-carb, low-sugar, 56-step recipe for dinner.

Self-care has become moralized and has become synonymous with external activities to achieve. And if we don’t do them, we’re somehow not enough.

But, I would like to offer a different description. One that is much uglier than what we post on facebook but also more nurturing, more sustainable, more reflective of true caring. Self-care often does involve doing. However, actions that are truly self-caring reflect something much deeper: our true needs. Now, there are some pretty universal needs (and I will get to those), but, beyond those universal needs, self-care is a very personal thing.

True self-care is about making choices each day to build a life that we don’t need to escape or recover from. 

It is not something we resort to because our out-of-control life has caused us to fall to pieces (although, that’s often the impetus for getting real about it). It’s about building the type of life we would want for the people we love. In a way, it’s parenting ourselves by giving ourselves the love and care a parent would.

An important note: self-care is a privileged concept and may not be accessible to all, particularly those experiencing systematic oppression, poverty, or addiction. What we need most is community care. Self-care will not fix a broken system, but it can help to strengthen us so that we can. 

So, how do we get in touch with our true needs?

First, step off the hamster wheel of life and give yourself the space to get mindful and get real about what’s working and what isn’t. It might be helpful to take a step back and try to look at your life from the perspective of an outside observer. Where is the negative stress coming from? What external or internal pressures are you getting caught up in? How did you get off track from what is really important to you? Where are you over-extending yourself? What are the things that need to be done and the things that can be taken off the list (burnout tends to make us think there is no difference)? Where are you being too hard on yourself? Where are you not holding yourself accountable? What are your unhelpful coping strategies? Where are you putting others needs above your own in excessive ways (moms, I’m talking to you)?

Next (and here’s perhaps the hardest part), get in touch with what is making you overextend yourself in the first place. Perhaps you just got caught up in the whirlwind of life and things got out of control without you really noticing. Perhaps you just need a reset. But, perhaps your value has gotten overly tied up in busyness, or in doing things only for others, or in achievement. Or, perhaps the busyness is a means of avoidance or distraction – what are you afraid will catch up to you if you slow down or stop? Or, perhaps you’ve gotten swept up in societal expectations and pressures about roles and goals.

Once you become aware of what’s leading you down a path of destruction, you can make a conscious choice about how you want to proceed.

Next, put your insights into practice. Look at your life from the perspective of a loving and caring parent and think about what you would want for the person living that life. Do that for yourself. This will look different for everyone, but there are some common themes. First, it’s often not pretty. Maybe there’s a candlelit bubble bath in there somewhere, but, more likely, there’s a lot of mundane or non-glamorous things involved: meal planning, setting boundaries, having difficult conversations that require you to be vulnerable, saying no, making a budget, getting okay with being normal and unexceptional, accepting your cellulite, downgrading to the less expensive house or car, asking for help, making plans with a friend, letting your house be dirty, putting your phone down and going for a walk instead, or seeing a therapist. For some people, it will mean turning off Netflix and dealing with life. For others, it will mean learning to allow yourself the occasional Netflix binge. Sometimes it’s about treating yourself and, sometimes, it’s about holding yourself accountable to make informed choices for a better life. Only you can decide what it needs to look like for you. If you did not have loving parents and this stance of care was never modeled for you, you might need some help with this step, either from someone already in your life or from a therapist.

Now, let’s talk about those universal needs. Here is a list of habits that are universally associated with health and longevity that we should all aim to follow (recognizing that perfect balance doesn’t exist, moderation is key, small changes over time work best, and we are always a work in progress):

  1. Maintain a healthy diet. There is no one perfect diet that works for everyone, but focusing on eating a variety of real (non-processed) food is a no-brainer.
  2. Quit smoking or don’t start.
  3. Move. I prefer to use the term movement over exercise, since exercise tends to invoke images of gruelling, torturous workouts and feelings of dread for some. Moderate activity for a minimum of 3.5 hours per week is the baseline for health.
  4. If you drink, keep it to a moderate amount (one drink a day or less for women; two or less for men; and no, it’s not considered healthy to save them up and binge drink them all in one setting….I know you were thinking it).
  5. Maintain a healthy body weight.
  6. Connect socially. And not online. We are social creatures who need to connect with others, and online interaction does not satisfy that need.
  7. Get adequate sleep, rest and relaxation. 7 to 9 hours of sleep is the gold standard.
  8. Manage stress. Not all stress is negative, but many of us are consumed by too much negative stress. If you are stumped about where to start with this one, go back to the beginning of the article.
  9. Foster mindfulness. The typical way to do so is through meditation. However, if meditation isn’t for you, it’s not the only way. Stayed tuned for a post about mindfulness later this fall!
  10. Embrace that perfection in any of these habits does not exist. Hold yourself accountable to progress, not perfection (this isn’t officially part of the research-based list, but I think it’s important).

On the topic of changing behavioural habits, remember to start small and be realistic. Also, remember that it is much easier to make goals for what you will do rather than what you won’t. So, rather than focusing on beating yourself up for eating the junk food, focus on incorporating the healthy food. Here’s a list of steps to follow to support success in creating new habits:

  1. Decide on a goal that you would like to achieve for your health.
  2. Choose a simple action that will get you towards your goal which you can do on a daily basis.
  3. Plan when and where you will do your chosen action. Be consistent: choose a time and place that you encounter every day of the week.
  4. Every time you encounter that time and place, do the action.
  5. It will get easier with time, and within 10 weeks you should find you are doing it automatically without even having to think about it.
  6. Congratulations, you’ve made a healthy habit!

Bottom line: Get clear about what it means to you to take care of yourself: the ugly, the pretty, and everything in between. And start doing it. In small ways or big ways or a combination of both. Even if it’s means being unexceptional or boring, letting people down, or facing your inner demons. You deserve it!

Click here for more information on counselling services as Monarch Psychology. 


Canadian Institues of Health Research. (2016). Boost your mental health. Retrieved from http://www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca/e/49753.html

Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: The psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. British Journal of General Practice, 62(605), 664-666. doi:10.3399/bjgp12X659466

National Institutes of Health (2018). Healthy habits can lengthen life. Retrieved from https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/healthy-habits-can-lengthen-life



Who We Are

We are a team of compassionate and welcoming Psychologists and Social Workers in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. We create space to understand people and their stories by looking beyond symptoms and diagnoses. Learn more about our team here

Nicole Caines