Can Self-Care Become Selfish?

Learn more about the difference between self-care and self-comfort.
By Chris Ownby
December 6, 2021

Personally, I’m all about a good, professional massage. Karen, my massage therapist, magically melts away the stress that makes its home in my muscles. Oh my, your shoulders are angry! Yes, they are, Karen. Yes. They. Are

Self-care is all the rage. Extra attention to mind, body, and spirit has become a treasured commodity in a stressful, anxious world. But is there a point where self-care becomes just plain selfish? Does visiting Karen for my angry shoulders make me self-centered and egotistical? Or, does self-care go beyond the self? 

Consider the clichéd parable of the oxygen mask on an airplane. When the masks drop, put yours on before helping someone else with theirs. (Because, as you know, you can’t help others if you’re passed out in the aisle.) 

Self-care works in the same way. 

Keep yourself healthy, and you’re more effective at caring for those around you and being an all-around better person. 

And the research backs this up. We know that when parents are stressed and anxious, it impacts the parenting relationship and the kids’ mental health.1 Marriages are more prone to communication problems and infidelity when spouses experience mental health issues.2,3 And self-care is shown to prevent these kinds of problems and more.4

But, believe it or not, self-care can become selfish if you’re not careful. I think it’s helpful to distinguish some terms here. 

True self-care is anything you do regularly to maintain physical, mental, and emotional well-being.5 And the three big pillars of regular self-care (memorize these!) are sleep, diet, and activity. 

The key here is consistency. Eating veggies does a body (and mind) good, but not if it’s only on Tuesday. With this in mind, it’s hard to self-care too much. 

But then there is the idea of self-comfort. (Some folks call this self-soothing.

These are isolated activities we do to de-stress, decompress, and detox from the stress of life. 

Crazy week? Relax tonight with a chocolate chip cookie and a good Netflix show. 

Is your brain mush from your work project? Walk a couple of laps around the block. 

Stress got your shoulder muscles all jammed up? Go visit Karen – she’s great! 

Self-comfort isn’t a bad thing, either. Often, it’s just what you need to take the edge off the day. 

But… (and there’s always a but, isn’t there?) … self-comfort can become too much of a good thing. 

A cookie and Netflix can be great for your well-being… unless it turns into a dozen cookies and 14 hours of binge-watching. An occasional visit to Karen can do wonders for stress. But a massage Every. Single. Day. (as wonderful as it sounds) would have a terrible impact on my family and work responsibilities (not to mention my bank account). 

So how do you know when self-comfort is creeping into the realm of selfishness? 

Here are some clues:

  1. You’re using self-comfort to avoid situations rather than temporarily de-stressing from them.
  2. Self-comfort hinders family or work responsibilities.
  3. What you do for self-comfort is harmful to yourself or others.
  4. Self-comfort activities become an addiction.
  5. Self-comfort is done at the extreme detriment of the three pillars: sleep, diet, or activity.

Inherent in all good things is an element of moderation. So don’t fret about enjoying a bowl of ice cream or buying yourself a new outfit because it’s been that kind of week. That’s not selfish. Simply keep yourself in check so that your self-comfort doesn’t work against your self-care. 

One last thing to note: I would add to the three pillars a fourth – a healthy support system. Supportive family and friends are essential to your well-being and help keep you accountable. Plus, there’s nothing like sharing a time of self-comfort with a confidant. 

Be sure to take care of yourself. Get plenty of sleep. Confide in a friend. Take a regular walk. And if Karen has any openings in her client schedule, pay her a visit. Your angry muscles will thank you for it.  

Sources

1Burstein, M., Ginsburg, G. S., & Tein, J. Y. (2010). Parental anxiety and child symptomatology: an examination of additive and interactive effects of parent psychopathology. [corrected]. Journal of abnormal child psychology, 38(7), 897–909. 

2McCrae, R. R., & Costa, P. T. (1997). Personality Trait Structure as a Human Universal. The American Psychologist, 52(5), 509–516. 

3Altgelt, E. E., Reyes, M. A., French, J. E., Meltzer, A. L., & McNulty, J. K. (2018). Who is sexually faithful? Own and partner personality traits as predictors of infidelity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 35(4), 600–614. 

4Ayala, E. E., Winseman, J. S., Johnsen, R. D., & Mason, H. (2018). U.S. medical students who engage in self-care report less stress and higher quality of life. BMC medical education, 18(1), 189. 

5Mills, J., Wand, T., & Fraser, J. A. (2018). Exploring the meaning and practice of self-care among palliative care nurses and doctors: a qualitative study. BMC palliative care, 17(1), 63. 

Other blogs:

8 Ways To Care for Your Spouse’s Mental Health

Why Spending Time Alone Is Good for Your Marriage

How to Stay Positive When Everything Seems to Be Falling Apart

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