Self-care as we know it today includes bubble baths, hitting the gym, setting boundaries in relationships. Plus, depending on who you ask, it can be different from one day to the next. So, what gives?
All self-care activities fall into one or two categories: comfort care and future care.
Comfort care could be curling up in a blanket with a hot chocolate and a romance novel, watching TV, taking a long shower, retail therapy, and sleeping in. These are all activities meant to make you feel good, right away.
Future care looks more like taking your car to get serviced, then buying healthy groceries for the week, followed by a review of your monthly purchases. It often includes exercising, socializing, cleaning, and things that you know are good for you (although you may not enjoy doing them).
A balanced life contains both types of self-care. Comfort care provides essential stress relief for your present self, while future care insulates your future self against stress.
The current moment stress-reduction aspect is important. After all, it's rewarding to live in the moment and be able to fully experience the sensations and feelings you have. Comfort care allows you to enjoy the present—it encourages mindfulness.
Yet it's also important to plan for and think about the future. It's how you ensure your survival, help your future self to have an easy time, and, ultimately, achieve any goals you have. Future care protects your desires—it encourages ambition.
Overdoing self-care of a specific type
Problems can quickly arise if your comfort care and future care are out of balance.
When a person only focuses on comfort care, they close themselves off to growth. In fact, being uncomfortable is a key way to identify when you're experiencing personal growth.
In this way, self-care becomes self-sabotage, as you reduce your opportunities in the future in order to feel good in the present.
On the flip side, a person who only focuses on future care will fall out of touch with their inner self. After all, identifying and responding to one's own thoughts and feelings is a valuable skill. But in order to develop it, some degree of mindfulness is required. Being present in the moment is also a part of the richness of life.
Healthy future care shouldn't be confused with hyper-productivity. A constant focus on productivity and your future self can easily turn into workaholism.
Balance between comfort care and future care will lead you to feeling the best overall.
Self-care vs. self-indulgence
Problems also arise when your comfort care and future care collide. A good example is indulging in comfort food, often high-carb, low-nutrition foods and snacks, while knowing it would be best for your future self to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet.
Another example of self-care colliding would be rest vs. activity. Nowadays there is a lot more advocacy for rest, even devoting entire days to it. But too much rest can quickly lead to muscle loss and deconditioning. Rest for more than a few days and it'll make it harder for your future self to exercise or do household chores.
With this said, one of the most important elements of growing up is realizing the need for and embracing future care. Future care can be overwhelming, uncomfortable, and scary, and many of us have had the experience of starting an exercise routine while being out of shape, or sitting down to pay bills that you've been ignoring. There are so many ways that we can (and should) take care of ourselves in adulthood that it can be really hard at times! Lack of support, guidance, and confidence only make it harder.
The two types of self-care are not always mutually exclusive nor clashing. Sometimes they overlap, and, at times, they even promote or complement one another.
The best type of self-care
Finding things that are both comforting and good for your future self can be particularly rewarding. It won't feel like you have to choose between one type of self-care or another. Plus, you can avoid the conflict that comes with potentially over-indulgent forms of self-care.
A good example of self-care that falls into both categories is mindfulness meditation. This activity can feel immensely relaxing and comforting in the moment. Coupled with deep breathing, you can experience a positive effect on your whole body. Regularly practicing mindfulness meditation has also been linked to enhanced health outcomes. So of course this sort of activity is good for your future self as well.
Journaling, exercising, and spending time with friends are more activities that people often do because they feel good. Each of these also have a positive impact on your future self.
What's the right self-care for you?
Self-care is deeply personal. What might encourage and inspire one person may demotivate and depress another. The key to caring for yourself truly well is to get to know yourself. Who are you? What do you need? What motivates you? Once you know how different activities make you feel and impact you long-term, you're better positioned to make positive life changes.
If you're trying to determine which types of self-care to add to or focus on in your life, you may want to start with drawing, sketching, or writing. You could draw a venn-diagram where you list out your favorite forms of comfort care on one side, future care on the other, and self-care that counts as both in the middle.
Another exercise you can do is to create a personalized self-care list. Write three headers, activities you already do, activities you want to do more of, and activities you want to try. Then place different self-care activities in each list. You can use my self-care dictionary for inspiration.