The 4 Principles of Self-Care Can Change Your Life

Self-care lowers the risk for depression, burnout, and trauma.

thinking man

This Sunday night, I’m thinking about self-care. Statistically, that’s not a surprise. I’m a millennial, and data shows my generation thinks about personal improvement more so than the others. We think about it so much the self-care industry is now valued at $10 billion. It’s a clay mask-wearing, mediation app-using cash cow that some days makes taking time for yourself feel like a chore instead of something you actually want to do.

A version of this article first appeared as the Sunday Scaries newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it on Sundays.

Erica Wise, Ph.D., a clinical professor and the director of psychological services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explains that self-care is less about what activity you choose to do as self-care, and more so about the function of that activity.

Wise is a specialist in helping psychologists exercise self-care, and in the process of building those guidelines, she and her team developed four principles they believe are foundational for sustainable self-care.

The 4 Principles of Self-Care

  • An emphasis on flourishing, rather than merely surviving.
  • The notion of intentionality. This principle focuses on the importance of making self-care a routine part of one’s personal and professional life.
  • An awareness of reciprocity in the care of self and others — the kindness you show others should be the kindness you show yourself.
  • The benefit of integrating self-care into daily practices, rather than adding it to existing obligations.

If those concepts seem abstract, they boil down into the difference between mindlessly binging a show — which is a reasonable way to relax — and choosing an activity that’s connected to your values. For example, you might realize that one of your values is feeling healthy. To practice self-care, you can do something that relates to that value, like going on a hike over the weekend.

“The notion is that you are more likely to experience flourishing when you articulate value domains, and then you engage in behaviors and activities that are consistent with that,” Wise explains.

In other words, self-care is not any form of “me time” — nor can it be something you feel you should be doing but don’t really care about.

Catherine Cook-Cottone, Ph.D. specializes in mental health and wellness. She emphasizes that psychologists recommend mindful self-care.

“In general, self-care is really about self-regulation,” Cook-Cottone, a professor at the University at Buffalo, tells me. “It’s about creating a sustainable approach to life and balancing your efforts with your restoration.”

Cook-Cottone and Wise agree that what makes self-care work is exercising self-compassion. This involves taking steps like being aware of painful thoughts but not over-identifying with them, and treating yourself with kindness instead of self-criticism.

Cook-Cottone was involved in developing the Mindful Self-Care Scale (MSCS), which measures the balance between self-compassion and recognizing purpose. Those are two of the most important facets of self-care, along with taking care of foundational needs like sleep, health, and nutrition.

“If everyone went to bed when they were tired, there would be a lot fewer problems in the world,” Cook-Cottone says.

Psychologists also say small actions — leaving a early for work, taking in nature on your commute, practicing diaphragmatic breathing when you wash your hands — serve as self-care, and they make a big difference.

Self-care can mean taking care of your work. If you’re behind schedule and find yourself on Instagram, that’s not self-care — that’s procrastination.

“I find that when people say they don’t have time for self-care, they are not considering the time they already use in the day that’s considered mindless time rather than mindful,” Wise says.

“How we perceive our time is important. Sometimes it’s helpful for people to keep track of activities for a week and rate them on how valued, important, and enjoyable they are. Often times, people find that they are scheduling in mindless time that is neither enjoyable or important.” 

And when you do practice self-care, there are real results. Self-care lowers the risk for depression, burnout, and trauma; it decreases anxiety and increases positive body image. When you treat your body with kindness, you start to like your body more. When you are nicer to yourself, you notice the people who don’t treat you that well. You realize that you deserve more, and you give yourself that, which is really what caring is about.

Now Look at This Oddly Satisfying Thing

This is a hydraulic press smushing down bars of soap, courtesy of the appropriately named Instagram account Hydraulic Press Channel. Soap is just one of the many, many things this account smashes. If you move through the different videos, you’ll also begin to notice that the person behind the camera seems to be Mario, which seems enough on brand? (That … is a Super Mario Smash Bros. joke, I’m sorry.)

Now learn to take care of yourself after working out with Jenna Wllis.

A version of this article first appeared as the Sunday Scaries newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it on Sundays.