Is it Self-Care or Sabotage? How to Spot the Difference


The self-care movement seems like a trendy, newfangled notion popularised by Instagrammers and lifestyle bloggers. But actually, the concept of self-care has been around since the 80’s. No less than the World Health Organisation defined self-care as “the activities individuals, families, and communities undertake with the intention of enhancing health, preventing disease, limiting illness, and restoring health.” It should be simple, but in a world of conflicting needs and responsibilities, what counts as self-care can get confusing, e.g. is going to bed early self-care, or an indulgence?

Put your self-care choices into context by examining intention. Are you going to bed because you’ve done a good day’s work and need to recharge before hitting the books again? Or are you simply turning in because you’re simply not in the mood and want to put off studying for tomorrow? The line between self-care and just plain being selfish is often blurred - and no one has ever walked it perfectly! To make things clearer, here’s how you can tell if your choices are self-care or sabotage.

It’s self care if: It’s beneficial to your body

Sure, yes—sometimes it’s spending a night in the tub with a bathbomb and scented candles. However, these indulgences only scratch the surface of what’s ailing you. Self-care is asking yourself the difficult questions: Why am I so tired in the first place? What have I been eating lately? When was the last time I saw a doctor?

The hard truths might surprise you. Perhaps your job is burning you out, and it’s time to transition to a gentler one. Perhaps you’ve been subsisting on instant ramen all week. Perhaps there’s a medical symptom you’ve been ignoring.

It’s not bad to indulge - never underestimate the benefits of an endorphin rush that comes from treating yourself to a luxury! But the core of self-care is primarily focused on health, and looking after your health is not always luxurious or indulgent. Getting a checkup, deciding to get therapy, withdrawing from coffee, or making a lifestyle change - these are all self-care decisions to make in favour of your health for the long-term, not just a night’s appeasement.

It’s sabotage if: It's detrimental to your health

Let’s get one thing straight: self-care is never anything that is harmful to your health. Sneaking a smoke when you’re stressed? Not self-care. Rewarding yourself by getting piss-drunk? Not self-care. Unwinding with the newest recreational drug on the street? Not self-care.

Examine your intentions. Are you reaching for a smoke because you’re jittery about work? Try taking a walk and getting some fresh air to soothe your nerves instead. Are you ordering an entire pizza for yourself to celebrate a special occasion, or is it just because you don’t feel like cooking for the third time this week? Again, indulgences here and there are fine. But if you indulge in outright destructive things, or if you fail to moderate “treating yourself”, you’re headed for sabotage.

It’s self care if: It enhances your relationships

Just as you need to look after your body, self-care also means nourishing your spirit with the company of other people. Take time off to see your friends. Live off the fuzzy feeling you get when you do something kind for a stranger. Sometimes whatever’s bugging you gets put into perspective when you connect with other people and realise your problems are not as singular as you envision them to be.

Conversely, this can also mean taking time off from the people you see constantly in order to restore your sense of self. If you live in an apartment where you can’t use the bathroom for five minutes without being interrupted, for example, self-care can be about finding time alone. Self-care is believing that putting yourself first shouldn’t be a source of guilt. It’s knowing you’ll be unable to satisfy others’ needs if your own cup is empty.

It’s sabotage if: It’s hurtful to someone else

Self-care is also never anything that is harmful to others. Certainly in the course of choosing the right things for yourself, you’ll run into people whose needs run contrary to yours, but the way you respond boils down to intention. Unfollowing friends with problematic politics is self-care; bad-mouthing them in a post of your own is not. Confronting conflict with someone honestly and politely is self-care; deliberately saying things to hurt their feelings is not. Serving negative vibes can rebound on you in the form of guilt, a bad reputation, or worse, karma.

On this note, it’s worth saying that unhealthy friendships or connections with people also count as sabotage. If you’re using them as a crutch or a distraction from sorting out your issues, you’re not hampering your own progress, you’re sabotaging their growth too.

It’s self care if: It promotes much-needed rest

Self-care is knowing how to classify tasks into the context of “should do” versus “need to do”.  You should agree to cover a coworker’s shift - but you’ve been pulling too many shifts this week and you’re sleep-deprived. You should go to your friend’s dinner party, but you need to go home because you feel the flu coming on.

Beware, though, of burning yourself out by trying to squeeze too many self-care activities into a day. If you’ve only got one day off this week, it may be tempting to hit the gym, get a massage, see a movie, and go out with your friends for dinner - all before you return to the grind. But is that really what’s going to recharge you, or would it be better to set no alarms and just lounge on your couch with your dog all day? Learn the difference between self-care that requires you to spend energy as opposed to self-care that restores energy.

It’s sabotage if: It interferes with daily functioning

Taking a mental health day is supposed to recharge you so you’re more productive and creative when you get back to work. But when taking time off is followed by a stressful period of trying to catch up on all the work you abandoned, you’re defeating the purpose of self-care. Soon your intention to benefit from a mental health day (or two, or three) away from your job will lead to sanctions at work, which could result in you being unemployed, broke, and feeling worse about yourself than when you started.

Avoid turning self-care into sabotage by managing your time wisely. Use checklists and schedules to keep you on track, and commit to them. Don’t procrastinate on things that you can do today to avoid tasks piling up, and stop at your scheduled time to get yourself enough rest to tackle tomorrow’s list. You won’t need to take any extra mental health days if you take care of yourself every day—avoid reaching high levels of burnout in the first place.

The wisdom to know the difference

Self-care becomes sabotage when it’s based on immediate gratification and paves the way for self-destructive habits. If you’re uncertain about the intentions behind your actions, look at what happens after. Does it leave you feeling energised and ready to jump back into the fray? Or does it create more problems than it solves?

Whatever your choices, they should always be followed by self-reflection - what is causing me stress? - and re-evaluation - how can I do better next time? At the end of the day, the only requirement is honesty, because whatever your rationalisations, the only person you’re caring for or sabotaging is yourself. ■