Self-care versus self-indulgence

Yesterday, my husband told me that he wished a woman we both know and love would “take care of herself.”  I suggested that we could buy her a massage. He responded, “But that’s not self-care.”

This initially struck me as odd.  How could buying someone a massage be anything but helping her to take care of herself?  I get a massage about once a month and consider it self-care in a big way.  I also regularly take days or hours off of work just to relax, check out a new yoga class, get a pedicure, go secondhand shopping, or get coffee with a friend.  Once a week or so, I’ll treat myself to a vegan cupcake from The Flying Cupcake.  And I almost always have a glass of kombucha and a piece of dark chocolate at night.  I considered all of these rituals to be “taking care of myself.”

But Ben’s statement made me think.  Maybe these little indulgences aren’t taking care of myself.  Maybe they’re just…well…indulging myself.  Not that it’s bad to have a treat every now and then.  But I shouldn’t confuse the treats themselves as something as practical and necessary as taking care of myself.

Earlier this week, something happened to me that hasn’t happened in a few years: I overdrew my bank account.  A perfect storm of automatically-deducted bills came out of my bank account two days before payday.  Had I been engaging in the self-care practice of checking my daily account balance, I could have shuffled some numbers around to cover the gap until the check came in.

To soothe myself after the embarrassment and stress of discovering that I was in a financial hole, I ate a big piece of chocolate cake.  I considered the cake to be self-care, but really, it was crisis intervention.  An actual self-care practice would be to monitor my bank account and be aware of my bills.

Self-care is much less glamorous than self-indulgence.  Self-care is taking a shower.  Self-indulgence is taking an aromatherapy bath.  Self-care is eating regular meals.  Self-indulgence is eating those meals at trendy, all-organic restaurants.  Self-care is getting enough sleep.  Self-indulgence is taking a nap.  Self -care is making a budget.  Self-indulgence is ignoring the budget to buy a new dress.  Self-care is warming up before doing vigorous yoga postures.  Self-indulgence is showing off that fancy new posture (with or without a proper warmup).  Self-care is scheduling down time into my week.  Self-indulgence is taking a “mental health day” off of work because I haven’t had down time in weeks. Self-care is grocery shopping.  Self-indulgence is shoe shopping.

Again, this is not to say that I shouldn’t ever go shopping, or eat chocolate, or take a day off of work “just because.”  But self-indulgence shouldn’t ever become part of my self-care routine because I’ve neglected some of the basic, unsexy stuff.  To distill the paragraph above: self-care is daily management that can keep self-indulgence from becoming a necessity.

In this and every other topic, my yoga practice serves as a metaphor for my life.  My ashtanga practice is undoubtedly self-care.  It’s part of my routine.  As my teacher and many others have said, “It’s like brushing your teeth.”  On days I don’t practice, I can feel the difference in my bodymind.  I’m less focused, less open, and more irritable. When people ask me how I wake up for a 6:00 or 6:30 AM practice, I tell them it’s self-care.  I like myself better when I practice.  Since I have to live with myself, it would be stupid not to.


Auriel in urdhva dhanurasana in yoga studio

Auriel, nearing the end of her morning practice.


Maybe it’s time to apply this mindset off the mat, too.



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