Sam Holstein

The Life-Changing Difference Between Self-Care and Excessive Indulging

The Life-Changing Difference Between Self-Care and Excessive Indulging

Self-care is usually framed as an act of self-love and valuing oneself. The phrase “self-care” makes me think of bubble baths, soothing music, candles, and getting your spouse to watch the kids for a little while. It makes me think of expensive, time-consuming, aristocratic luxuries.

Honestly, this conception of self-care kept me away from self-care for a long time. Bubble baths are time-consuming and my sense of smell is too dull to appreciate candles much. More importantly, if luxuries are necessary for our mental health, we’re dooming everyone below the upper-middle class to ill health.

I know some people will eagerly affirm this. They’ll say “This is why poor people in America are so miserable!” But I don’t think it’s so simple.

One of my role models is this voluntarily homeless man. One can never know what another person is feeling, but he seems a damn sight happier than most people in America, and he doesn’t practice “self-care” according to that definition.

He’s not the only poor person to have ever been happy in the history of the world. Many people over the centuries have found contentment and even happiness despite being subsistence farmers, indentured slaves, or otherwise having nose-to-the-ground lives.

Most people throughout human history have been subsistence farmers. Subsistence farmers work hard during the planting and harvesting seasons, but the growing season and the off-season are effectively time off. Even the people who weren’t subsistence farmers were still landowners who managed farmers.

If poor people with no resources can find happiness and contentment, then we don’t need luxurious modern self-care to be happy.

This begs a lot of questions. What do we need to be happy? Where does self-care fit in? If self-care isn’t necessary, why does my therapist tell me I need to work on self-care so much?

Part of the reason self-care has become so important in our collective understanding of mental health is because modern life is uniquely destructive.

Farmers don’t need to make time to hit the gym. Nobody had central air or smartphones pinging them time and time again. Even Kings had fewer interruptions than the average citizen of a developed nation. All that time off meant plenty of time to exist, and a lack of modern technology meant there was nothing to do but exist.

We are obviously better off in the developed world. We have antibiotics and a consistent supply of food year-round that can feed the entire population. But there have been some trade-offs. Our food doesn’t have many nutrients in it anymore and most of us spend most of the day sitting on our butts.

Self-care has developed a different definition for me: Things we do to meet our own needs that are healthy over the long run.

These things can be pleasurable for us in the short-term, but not always. Sometimes that does mean laying down in a quiet room and burning a candle. Most of the time, it means something else: exercise, clean eating, saying no to drugs or alcohol.

Most people don’t think of these things as self-care. There are a lot of people who will claim a glass of wine is self-care! If a glass of wine is self-care, though, that means self-care is something we do for our own selfish pleasure in the short term, even if it will hurt us in the long run.

Having a glass of wine is an example of an indulgence. An indulgence feels good in the short term but is not beneficial in the long run. (Something that’s beneficial in the long run is an investment). Having a glass of wine and shopping therapy are common examples of indulgences that masquerade as self-care.

Indulgences have gotten a bad rep in the last few centuries. Most of us think of indulging as a bad thing.

Indulging is not itself a bad thing. As you’re not harming anyone else by force or fraud, there is little moral hazard in indulging. But being free to indulge as much as you like does not mean indulging as much as you like is a good idea. We all learn when we’re children that a dinner of only Halloween candy will make us sick, so as adults, we don’t eat dinners of chocolate candy even if we want to.

I think this is the origin of why we shame people for indulging. We know factually that overindulging can be bad for you, so we judge others for doing things that are bad for themselves.

That’s an attitude we need to drop. If we see someone else indulging, we should assume they are the expert on what will be best for them, and affirm the choice they make for themselves unless there is a glaring reason not to (such as if they’re shooting up heroin in a dark alley). Even if we think we know better. (Sometimes they haven’t, that’s true, but that’s none of your business).

And then there’s the accusation that practicing self-care is selfish. But who says being selfish is bad? It’s not a bad thing for us to privilege our own needs above the needs of others sometimes. People will often justify this by saying “I can’t give to others if I myself am falling apart,” but you don’t need to justify taking care of yourself by making a case for how it will help others. You can justify taking care of yourself by saying simply “I am worth taking care of.” Period.

To me, doing stuff that will hurt in the long run (doing drugs, eating unhealthy food) can never qualify as an act of self-care. Doing something that will hurt you is an act of not caring about yourself.

Let’s redefine self-care to mean doing things that are good for you. These things can be immediately pleasurable — burning a candle, eating healthy food — but they do not hurt in the long run.