We see this term thrown around a lot these days, but what does it actually mean?
‘Self’ – a person's essential being that distinguishes them from others
‘Care’ – the provision of what is necessary for the health, welfare, maintenance, and protection of someone or something
While the dictionary’s definition is more or less accurate, the more important question is what does self-care look like to you? In a world where we're expected to be turned on and tuned in, finding something that brings us back to ourselves is increasingly important.
However, there are iterations of self-care.
One version is self-care as a commodity. This ‘consumer care’ is less about the act and more about the purchase. It has shifted from something we do to something we can only have if we buy it. Moreover, the media genders this iteration of self-care, catering towards cis-women and focusing on external beauty rather than the cultivation of joy, wellness, and personal harmony.
Don't get me wrong, looking good and feeling good go hand in hand and there is nothing wrong with pampering ourselves in the name of beauty. But more important is the internal beauty. Feeling beautiful and confident. Radiating.
And for the record, I’m not saying we shouldn’t spend money on the things that bring us joy either. I'm all for supporting small and local businesses! But I think we can all be more mindful of how and where we spend our money.
A second version of self-care is ‘soft-care.’ This is the kind that feels nice and gives us a brief reprieve from daily stresses, but doesn’t alter our maladaptive coping strategies and can in fact be part of maladaptive coping strategies. Soft-care is often about escape from the tough stuff – distraction rather than introspection.
So back to the big question: What is capital ‘S’ self-care?
This kind of self-care is deep care. It is about creating the time and space to remember who you are and what you stand for. It is the practice of compassion and kindness towards yourself. It’s about carving out 30 minutes of your day where you get to focus on you, without feeling guilty. Ultimately, this kind of self-care is about tending to yourself, gently and with love.
This can be anything from an indulgent day at the spa to a myriad of more mundane-seeming chores. Believe it or not, vacuuming can be self-care. Decluttering your desk can be self-care. Both the to-do’s and the should-do’s can be self-care if they provide you a sense of equilibrium. If you take a step back and look holistically at your life, self-care might be as simple as setting a routine around daily tasks or a time to balance your finances. Turning the quotidian into an act of self-care is all about the intention behind the action.
When the intention is there, it doesn’t matter what kind of self-care you think you’re practicing – it becomes the deep kind of self-loving care.
Ask yourself: “How can I nourish myself with this action?”
You could do something healthy or "good" for yourself, like going for a jog, but if you're doing it to make up for last night's dessert or you’re running away from the thoughts in your head, then this isn't self-care. Sure, it's physically good for you, but it's not an act carried out with love. It’s not nurturing. On the other hand, if you go for a jog, maybe along the beach or in the forest; or maybe with a curated playlist of tunes that make you feel elated; and you notice the warmth in your body and the beat of your heart; or if you let yourself run like Phoebe for a few minutes; if you run because the act of running is nourishing you – your physical body, but also your mind and your soul – then that is deep self-care.
I believe self-care is born out of ritual. And ritual is created through the repetition of an action that is imbued with meaning. You create that meaning. Your meaning, your action. Your version of self-care could be very different than mine, but I think it’s important to have a conversation about how we look after ourselves so I’ll start.
Here are some of my self-care rituals:
1) Forest bathing. I have a few spots in the woods not far from where I live and go there whenever I need peace. I've been on these trails more times than I can count. I know the patina of the trees I pass left by the hands of fellow forest bathers. The familiarity of this forest allows my mind to wander. To take in the sounds and scents. To notice the birds and the blue-green of the river rushing past. This concept of immersing oneself isn't new. In Japan, it's called shinrin-yoku and the health benefits are well-studied.
2) Epsom salts. A bath is a bath and that's already enough to have me feeling like I'm carving out some quality time for myself, but when I add epsom salts I feel like I'm taking that extra step. Epsom salts promote relaxation of both muscles and mind. If I'm really treating myself I add a few scoops of Boreal Folk’s Wild mountain bath soak which has hand-harvested fir, cedar, sage, and labrador tea to name a few.
3) Body care. This could really be part b) to number my number 2. After a bath I always take a few extra minutes to show my body some love. Once I’ve dried off I massage one or more of my favourite botanical body creams by Sangre de Fruta (my faves are Rose and Jasmine). This company embodies the notion of deep self-care. Founder, Allison Weldon lives by the incantation beauty, magic, medicine and uses this mantra as the inspiration for her products. Allison’s creams are a tapestry of scent and texture woven together by her appreciation for the sensual. You truly can’t help but be enveloped by the same passion.
4) Tea and _______ I dry a lot of my own herbs so I have a bit of an at-home apothecary, This makes tea steeping itself a creative process where I get to pick the herbs that suit my mood or health needs. However, when I want to sip on someone else’s magic, I turn to matcha. My absolute fave company for organic matcha made with love (and a lot of knowledge!) is Whisk. Not only are the health benefits compelling, the preparation of matcha is an art; a tradition passed down for generations. I often recommend tea to patients because it offers them a ritual and allows them to engage with their body in a way that is mindful and medicinal. What you take with your tea is up to you. For me, it’s tucking into a good book with my favourite mug of tea. For you, maybe it’s a crossword, immersing yourself in music, calling a heart-friend or watching a great film.
5) Meditate. This doesn’t have to look like a meditation pillow, crystal and candle altar (although it can!). But you can use meditation techniques anywhere, anytime. This is the ultimate super power. Being able to carve out 10 minutes in a busy day without anyone knowing. You can put headphones in and use an app as a guide to get out of your head and into your body. HeadSpace, Calm or Breathe+ are great apps to get you started.
6) Move. ‘Free yoga’ is the thing for me. I called it that. I don’t know if other people have already called it that, but for me this means stretches and breathing inspired by years of yoga classes, but being fluid and moving into positions that more resemble modern dance than yoga (at least in my mind!). In reality I’m just getting into the nitty gritty tight spots and moving through them without judgement of how awkward or inelegant I look. If I find a motion that feels really good or necessary I repeat it a few times while breathing, cycling through. It’s as much about physical movement as it is about exploring my body. Where is the tension? Was that from yesterday’s run or is that an emotional holding pattern? Can I let this go if I just breathe into it?
7) De-cluttering. This is something I used to HATE doing. I hated that it took time away from all the other seemingly more valuable things I could be doing. And I hated that there was clutter in the first place. Now that I have a space of my own something has shifted. My external environment informs my internal (and vice-versa). When my space feels messy so does my mind. And incidentally, when my mind feels messy it’s when I let my space get cluttered. Clutter actually serves as a good reference for how I’m doing mentally/emotionally. When I notice things starting to get chaotic, I play motivating music or an engaging podcast and turn my attention to the task at hand. I practice gratitude as I do. Thankful for the space I have and the luxury of all the things I have to make clutter, the task seems far less daunting and I’m able to de-clutter consciously making my space and my mind more settled.
8) Aromatherapy. I use uplifting essential oils to get me going in the morning and relaxing ones to calm my nervous system at night. At the office, I spray a blend between appointments to clear the space and my mind before sitting down with my next patient. Interestingly, our capacity for both smell and emotions involve the limbic system of the brain. This connection is the reason that a certain scent can evoke vivid memories from childhood. We can use this connection to our advantage. By diffusing the same essential oils during meditation, for example, we train our brains to associate that scent with a calm cognitive state. Any subsequent exposure to that aroma can trigger the same state! In this way, aromatherapy can augment your self-care rituals. Vancouver’s leading authority on aromatherapy is Saje. A company with integrity and true commitment to wellness, they are uncompromising with clean products and amazing resources to aid in your self-care rituals. I recently discovered their terrific podcast Well Now.
9) Massage. Touch is a powerful way to connect with your body. Whether I’m massaging (or rolling out) tight muscles myself or I’ve booked a massage with an RMT, I instantly sink into a state of body awareness that quickly gives way to bliss. Just lying on the table is an opportunity to give yourself permission to relax. A few of my favourite places for massage are Therapy Health and Honey+Garlic.
10) Sauna. When in doubt, sweat it out. OK, obviously saunas are not for everyone (check with your health care provider if you have cardiovascular conditions or think you might be pregnant), but for the majority of people they are ah-mazing for your skin, circulation, metabolism, and immune system. Health benefits aside, the sauna is a sacred space for me and I prefer to go on my own to the community pool and sit quietly, stretch, and observe the other wonderfully diverse sauna worshippers. If I’m really treating myself, my mecca is the Scandinave Spa in Whistler where you get the added benefit of hydrotherapy, a Finnish health practice that improves circulation and immune function.
As a naturopathic doctor, I get the privilege of spending an hour with people to delve into their health concerns. It is apparent in my practice how much we all need to engage in more deep self-care, but often people don't know where to start. Use the above suggestions to inspire your own rituals, but I encourage you to start a conversation. Ask your community: “How do you put yourself first? What are your rituals?”
Lastly, I’ll leave you with a few considerations that may help guide you if you’re feeling derailed or depleted and unsure of where to start.
1) Does this bring me joy?
2) Will I feel well? Will I feel better than I do currently?
3) Am I using this to escape or does this offer space to gently confront things?
4) Does this bring me back to myself/help me feel grounded and centred?
If you can answer these questions confidently, you're already engaging in the radical act of self-care.
Written by Dr. Nicole Van Poelgeest, Naturopathic Doctor, Vancouver, BC.
Dr Nicole van Poelgeest is a naturopathic doctor in Vancouver, BC who specializes digestion, hormone imbalance, autoimmune conditions, emotional health, and adjunctive oncology care. Integrating traditional medicine practices with current research, she primarily uses natural and nutritional therapies to tailor treatment to the individual. Dr. van Poelgeest recognizes that health is not simply the absence of disease and is committed to restoring equilibrium to body, mind, and spirit
Book a consultation with Nicole at Vancouver Naturopathic Clinic.
2 x Sangre de Fruta products (Psyche Face Oil, Morning Light Face Cream)
1 x Saje Pocket Farmacy
Look for the Winter Wellness Collage on our Instagram page to enter! Good luck!