Balance: Self-Care and Self-Indulgence

Balance: Self-Care and Self-Indulgence


One of the trickiest balances to maintain is the balance between self-care and self-indulgence. With all information sources, from social media to t-shirt slogans advocating for eating entire tubs of ice-cream and downing bottles of wine, it can be difficult to identify the difference between the two.

To that end, it might make sense to start with a definition of the word. Dr. Meinecke, in an issue of Psychology Today, defined self-care as ‘choosing behaviour that balances the effects of emotional and physical stressors: exercising, eating healthy food, getting enough sleep, practising yoga or meditation or relaxation techniques, abstaining from substance abuse, perusing creative outlets, engaging in psychotherapy and/or learning to self-soothe or calm physical and emotional distress.’ 

Self-indulgence, on the other hand, could be defined as choosing behaviour that feels like self-kindness, but may only provide short-lived feelings of positivity with few sustained benefits and may even contribute to medium to long-term harmful habits forming. 

A simple analogy to illustrate would be self-care as a nutrient dense meal while self-indulgence would be a tasty but empty-calorie snack. The latter feels pleasurable in the short term, but can leave a feeling of being unfulfilled, and also potentially contribute to the habit-shaping desire to focus on short-term pleasure. 

This is not to dismiss the importance of an occasional indulgence; the source of pleasure and comfort is vital and sustaining. But how and when it is accessed is significant; some of petrol-station chocolate scarfed while starting the car en route to pick up the kids from school will not register as pleasurable for longer than the time it is in your mouth. A slow savouring of your favourite chocolate, on the other hand, allows both the mind and the body register the experience and feel sated by it.

The challenge with self-care is that it can feel like a chore and the gratification can sometimes be delayed. For example, it is rare to feel the physical benefits of a high nutrient meal immediately on consuming it. Another factor that can make self-care more difficult to sustain is that behaviours which fall under the auspices of self-care can feel labour intensive: meal prep, exercise and sleep hygiene.  

So how to make self-care less tedious so that self-care and self-indulgence can balance out?

  • Remind yourself that going for a run, eating healthy and finally booking in for that dental appointment are not time and money sacrifices, but investments in yourself, for yourself. 
  • Dig around and find the pleasure where you can; in exercise or cooking, such as going to a farmer’s market for meal prep or putting on your favourite music while cooking.
  • Pair the indulgence with care; if you have to run do it in shoes that feel good!
  • Share the care; identify specific self-care behaviours that you can do with a friend: yoga or running or even a healthy cooking class or a healthy supper club. 
  • Try to avoid the extreme short-term strategies (Dry July etc) as the sole means of accessing self-care. They can be a fun and community building way to self-care but are so extreme they become unsustainable. Therefore, they should be considered in addition to more routine self-care. 
  • Work on making whatever self-care you do consistent. And for self-care to be consistent, it should be sustainable. Much like crash diets not having sustainable outcomes, sudden extreme changes of behaviour can’t maintain health in the long term. So, pick ways to care for yourself that you can reasonably do on a regular basis.
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