#Selfcare is trending, folks.

A simple internet search will turn up plenty of lengthy lists of self-care practices and scores of articles about why you should be practicing it (or else!).

There’s no lack of online wellness platforms where you can see people doing #selfcare – taking baths, exercising, cooking nutritious meals, and wearing mud masks.

And yet, with all of these self-care options from all these self-care advocates, it can be overwhelming to decide what to do and what advice to heed, if any at all. Full disclosure: I run one of these online wellness platforms myself.

But it seems like everywhere we go we hear about hundreds of ways to practice self-care, and why we should be doing more of it. Is it just me, or has self-care gotten kind of overwhelming?

This self-care overload seems pretty antithetical to the spirit of self-care, if you ask me. There’s so much out there that it can feel impossible to find a way to make it meaningful to you.

Self-care, self-care everywhere, but no clue where to start.

Not Another Self-Care How-To

This article won’t focus on how to practice self-care, or how to make time for it, or ways to do it, per se. It will concentrate on how you can integrate an ongoing system for assessing your real values and needs, and knowing how to meet them so that you can really show up in your roles, responsibilities, and relationships as the person you want to be.

This approach considers self-care to be more than “stuff we do to prevent bad things from happening” (like burnout or illness). It’s a system for using self-care to show up and kick butt the way you want to.

I hope that this post will help you ride the self-care zeitgeist wave somewhere meaningful, rather than getting carried away by the self-care swell.

Redefining Self-Care

The definition of self-care as something like “things you do to prevent illness and avoid burnout” makes perfect sense. It sounds right, so we probably take that at face value: do self-care so you don’t burn out.

Self-care is often discussed as a means of prevention – as something we do to get rid of or avoid aversive symptoms. Since we usually think of self-care as the way to fight back against negative feelings, we’re missing a potentially exciting and motivating aspect of self-care: making sure we are able to really SHOW UP for life.

Imagine for a moment what it would mean if you got to really show up for life as the person, parent, professional, philanthropist, practitioner, or passion-seeker that you know you are in your core.

Not only would you have to be very clear about your authentic values, preferences, and unique essence in relation to how you want to show up for life, but you would also need to know about all of the mental, physical, spiritual, or emotional resources you would need to really show up that way.

I consider this type of awareness of your values and needs the foundation for meaningful self-care. Regularly checking in with yourself about how you want to show up at any given moment and what you need in order to fully show up that way is a profound act of self-care – you’re intentionally meeting the needs required for you to be YOU.

With this view of self-care, it’s about more than just the actions – it’s about being clear about the intentions behind the actions. I define self-care as fiercely protecting the resources in mind, body, and spirit that you need to do your best. Practicing self-care is strengthening the muscles you need to fully show up for life.

Here are the steps I suggest to start making self-care meaningful for you.

Step 1: Knowing

In order to practice meaningful self-care, you need to be clear about how you want to be showing up in your life at any given moment. You start by asking yourself, “How do I want to be showing up right now in my role as a parent, clinician, or friend?” and, “Am I showing up that way right now?

The answer to these questions is magical stuff – it’s the vision of how you want to show up for your roles and responsibilities in ways that reflect your authentic values, preferences, and essence.

It’s who you want to be – publicly and privately. This vision is like a lighthouse that you can always turn to to help you make decisions and guide your actions. You can use this information to help you to internally and consciously notice what you need in order to be fully present in the way you want to be.

Before moving on to the next step, take a moment right now to practice this one. Ask yourself, “How do I want to be showing up for life right now, and why is this important to me?” Then notice if you are currently showing up that way. Write down your answer.

An example could be: “I want to show up right now as a good listener for my friend, because I value genuine connection with this person. I’m not showing up that way right now.” Keep your answer handy as we move onto the next step.

Step 2: Assessing

Practicing meaningful self-care takes some hard work. Not just the type of work related to making time and taking action, but the prerequisite labor of self-reflection and assessment.

Once you know how you want to be showing up, it’s important to know what you need in order to do it. This involves assessing your needs of mind, body, emotion, and spirit that allow you to show up fully. This means you need to do an honest and in-depth analysis of what you need to have, feel, and do in order to feel the most like you.

Start by looking at the answer to the first step, about how you want to show up for life. Based on this answer, ask yourself, “What do I need in order to show up fully right now?”

Using the example from step one (“I want to show up right now as a good listener for my friend”), your answer to step two might be, “I need to put down my phone because I’m getting distracted and stressed out thinking about my work emails. I need to take a breath. I need to get a drink of water. I need to ask my friend to repeat what she just said because I lost track of the conversation.”

You can also think about this more broadly. So when you ask yourself, “What do I need in order to show up as a good listener to my friend generally”, the answer could be:

  • “I need to get a good night’s sleep the day before because it’s hard to pay attention when I’m tired.”
  • “I need to set the boundary with my friend that I can only talk for 30 minutes because I have work I need to get done that is important to me.”
  • “I need to not answer the call when I am not in the mood to talk to my friend.”


By tuning into your needs, you gain clarity about what has to change in order to meet them. This is how self-care transforms from a vague idea into specific actions. The action happens in the next step.

Step 3: Doing

This is the step that many people jump right to when they practice self-care – this is what the lists and #selfcare posts focus on.

When we skim over the first steps, we lack clarity about what we genuinely need in order to be the version of ourselves that we want to be. Without clear intentions and purpose behind the acts of self-care we try, it’s likely that they’ll fail to really work.  

In this step, you select things that protect, restore, and enhance the parts of yourself  that allow you to show up fully (based on step two). This can mean anything from proper daily nutrition to engaging in creative pursuits, making time for silence, seeking social interaction, participating in psychotherapy, taking breaks, exercising, or providing service to others. The list goes on.

Here’s an example of how to put these steps into action:

Suppose you’re feeling compassion fatigue at work, and your boss tells you need to practice self-care. You decide to get a massage, throw on some sweatpants, and veg out in front of the TV for the weekend.

On Monday, you’re not feeling less stressed, so you up the self-care ante. You find a list of self-care activities and work your way down the list. Day after day, meditation after yoga class after salt bath, you still feel stressed.

You’re frustrated because this whole “self-care thing” doesn’t seem to be working. Likely, self-care is ineffective in this case because it’s being done in the name of self-care, and not in clear service your underlying needs. This happens all the time.

Now, let’s approach the same scenarios using the three steps.

This time, when your boss tells you to practice self-care, your first step is to ask yourself how you want to be showing up for life right now. Maybe the answer is that you want to be showing up for this job as an efficient, empathetic, and realistic clinician and employee with ample energy, and you want to show up as a funny and reliable person to your coworkers.

You don’t feel like you’re showing up much like this at all, so you then ask yourself, What do I need to show up like this? You begin to notice what you need.

You’re tired, so you opt for an extra hour of sleep each night rather than an extra hour of TV. You spend a lot of time feeling pressed for time, which distracts you from your clinical work, so you commit to improving your time management skills by asking co-workers for advice and listening to a podcast about the topic on your commute home.

You don’t have an opportunity to process some of the reactions you have to the individuals you serve, which distracts you during sessions. So you decide to work it out in your journal regularly.

You’re hungry since you hardly have time to hit the cafeteria, which makes work more challenging. So you start bringing lunch. Your mood is low, so you decide to start doing light movement in the mornings because you know it makes you feel a bit happier.

In this example, the acts of self-care are targeted, specific, and intentional, which will make it more likely that they will be effective. Self-care just got personal!

Step 4: Witnessing

Once you start engaging in these steps, it time to take a step back and witness what’s working and what’s getting in the way. Notice what barriers make these steps challenging for you and which steps are harder than others.

Is there something you’re saying to talk yourself out of meeting your needs? What are you telling yourself about the importance of self-care? Get curious about the things that block you from engaging in the activities that restore and protect the energy you need to fully show up, and get creative about how to overcome them.

Step 5: Repeat

Repeat the steps over and over. This is a process, not something you do once. You can do it in any moment.

Start by asking yourself, “How do I want to show up, and what do I need in order to do it?” Intentionally do something to meet the need, and if it doesn’t, then notice what gets in the way of meeting the need – and address that.

The Formula

  1. Get clear about how you want to be showing up.
  2. Take a good look at what you need to show up.
  3. Do something to genuinely meet those needs.
  4. If you have trouble meeting your needs, step back and look at what’s getting in the way. Get creative about how to overcome those barriers.
  5. Repeat.

It’s simple, but it’s not easy. Just like anything, it takes practice. When you feel like you’re getting lost in the self-care sea, use the formula to focus.

But, what if I don’t feel like I deserve self-care?

My friend and I started a self-care organization at our school, but it was hard to get people to show up. When we first started the organization, we asked our faculty supervisor how to get people to love themselves enough to start practicing self-care.

She took a long pause, as if to say, “No, no, that’s not how this works.” What she said was: “You don’t have to love yourself enough to practice self-care, you practice self-care and the self-love comes. You just have do something, anything.”

It’s amazing how the act of taking a few moments to put on lotion even when you don’t think you deserve it or have the time can actually lead to you believing that you do have time and you’re worthy of it.” It rang over and over in my mind: you don’t have to love yourself enough to practice self-care, you practice self-care and the self-love comes.

Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, writes, “love is a verb. Love – the feeling – is the fruit of love the verb or our loving actions.”

I think my advisor was saying something similar: if you wait to practice self-care until you love yourself “enough” to feel worthy of it, you could wait forever. Instead, don’t wait for the feeling. Take action in the spirit of the feeling, and the feeling will come. If you want to feel worthy of practicing self-care, start practicing self-care.

No matter where you are with the notion of self-care – whether you’re fully immersed in self-care or cautiously looking from a distance – you can use this framework to ride the self-care wave like a pro, and fully show up for life as the wonderful, authentic YOU.

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Sarah Hittinger, MA, MS

Sarah is a doctoral candidate in Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine’s Clinical Psychology PsyD program. She is completing her pre-doctoral internship at Princeton House Behavioral Health/University Medical Center of Princeton Center for Eating Disorder Care. In the future, she hopes to work as a psychologist with interdisciplinary treatment team providing care to individuals seeking treatment for eating disorders. Sarah loves both her clinical work and her downtime with family and friends.

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