Why self-care isn't selfish

Move over mindfulness, there's another wellbeing movement entering the fore. Abi Jackson looks at the kind side of selfishness

It's important to take time out for yourself to remain healthy and happy
It's important to take time out for yourself to remain healthy and happy It's important to take time out for yourself to remain healthy and happy

CARING for others often comes naturally than caring for ourselves, doesn't it?

Whether it's putting far more effort into cooking a meal for two than one, or the great joy of wrapping up a generous gift for a loved one – despite the fact you'd feel bad spending that cash on you.

How many times have you told an unwell friend to take time off work, when you wouldn't dream of calling in sick yourself?

Caring for others is something we're primed – biologically, socially and culturally – to do, and this in itself is no bad thing.

But should we be showing ourselves a little more TLC too?

The term 'self-care' is nothing new, but just as mindfulness was around for aeons before becoming a wellbeing buzzword, self-care has long been knocking around in the medical world where it has traditionally been rooted in practical purposes such as ensuring patients stick to their medication routines or get the right amount of exercise.

The concept is evolving as our understanding of the 'prevention's better than cure' and benefits of taking a more holistic approach to health and wellbeing continues to grow.

Suzy Reading (, a psychologist, stress management and health and fitness coach is a huge advocate of self-care.

"I think with the advent of positive psychology, which is all about how we can flourish and achieve wellbeing as individuals, you can see how self-care is changing, from not just fixing what's wrong to really enhancing," she says.

"I see it as the future of preventative medicine."

Reading recalls the first time she heard the term, while going through a "tough time" when the birth of her first child coincided with her father's terminal illness.

"I don't know whether it was post-natal depression, grief or exhaustion – whatever it was, it was tough.

"I was lucky enough to do some work with a post-natal depression counsellor, who asked me the question, 'What's your self-care routine like?'"

This was the first time Reading had heard the term – and the first time she'd really thought about whether she was giving enough thought to looking after herself.

It not only transformed her attitude towards her own wellbeing, but became central to her career as a coach, developing a 'Vitality Wheel' self-care framework, which takes in the more obvious elements of exercise, nutrition and sleep, as well as things like our values, positive emotions and coping skills.

"For me, self-care is about all these things being linked into one cohesive whole," says Reading, who will soon be publishing a book on the subject.

What self-care looks like for each individual will vary, but Reading says having the framework reminds us it's ultimately keeping a balance across all areas that's key – and that we're in the driver's seat.

She agrees there's a "shift" taking place, and we're gradually accepting the "you snooze you lose" culture we've created isn't sustainable.

Take sleep: "If you don't sleep, it's like a badge of honour," says Reading.

"But in actual fact, there's research now showing at what cost do we keep putting sleep at the bottom of the priority list."

While taking an interest in fitness and healthy eating's become massively trendy, there's still a bit of a block around actively prioritising our mental wellbeing.

And part of our reluctance to 'put ourselves first' is because we see it as selfish, and therefore feel guilty about it.

"It's a social thing, a cultural norm, we're taught we should put other people first," says Dr Elle Boag, senior lecturer in Social Psychology at Birmingham City University.

Boag says we tend to see many of the things we associate with nurturing positive wellbeing, such as beauty pampering or getting a massage, as "indulgent" and "luxurious" too, which further feeds the guilt and tips self-care to the bottom of the priority list.

Putting other people first all the time can also be a means of avoiding our own needs.

"If you're feeling a bit anxious or blue, or feeling like the whole world's against you, often it's easier to refocus on somebody else, and almost resolve your issues through them.

"It's a way of deflecting - for some people, not for all."

"If you're depleted, fatigued, low in energy or mood, there's no way you have a chance to be the best incarnation of yourself," says Reading.

"It's not 'me first'; it's 'me as well'. You've got to replenish yourself, so you can keep on giving."