Self Care versus Self Indulgence: What’s What?

by Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW

Our society has a whole mountain range of mixed messages about self care and self indulgence. Ask people what they do to take care of themselves and their answers will range from the appalling “nothing” to “shopping till I drop” to “drinking until I pass out” to the more benign but still problematic “watch TV every night until I fall asleep.”

Quick! What’s the difference between self-care and self-indulgence? Give up? Here’s my take: Self-care includes the activities and experiences which meet our deepest emotional needs (i.e.: to be safe, physically healthy, loved, nourished, taken care of and to experience novelty) and paradoxically (here’s the important part) by engaging in them we increase our ability to be present for and attentive to others.


In contrast, self indulgence robs our ability to be present and attentive to others by occupying and consuming our time, our mental focus, our finances, our serenity and our health.  All addictions fall into this category. 
Viewed through this lens it is the consequences of the activity which allow us to assess if we are engaging in self care or self indulgence.

Let’s take exercise as an example. Some people love it, some people hate it, but we all need our fair share of it to be healthy. A moderate amount of exercise (30 to 60 minutes of cardio per day, 3 to 6 days per week) promotes strength, endurance, energy and boosts serotonin and dopamine in the brain. This amount of exercise provides a physical release, decreases stress, leads to increased productivity and focus, and thus this level is good self care.

On the other hand indulging in couch potato behavior is self indulgence, because it decreases our physical and emotional well being and thus our ability to give of ourselves to others (not to mention setting us up to require the kinds of preventable medical care that take us away from work and drives up the cost of everyone’s medical insurance).

But wait! On the opposite end of the exercise spectrum, turning into an aerobics-aholic is also self indulgent, because spending our lives at the gym robs us of time with our family and friends, (not to mention setting us up to require the kinds of preventable medical care which take us away from work and drives up the cost of everyone’s medical insurance).

I speak from personal experience here: in my early twenties I did step-aerobics so obsessively I developed bursitis in both of my knees, a searing pain, but still managed to ignore my doctor’s advice to lay off the high impact for six weeks. Instead I kept right on rock-stepping my stubborn way. As a result I wound up limping around like Frankenstein for several months and to this day when I am stressed out my right knee swells up like a balloon and feels like it’s had an unfriendly encounter with a sledge hammer.

If we don’t pay attention to the out-of-balance alarm clock when it starts to ring, the noise gets louder and louder.

One last idea: If the key to distinguishing self care from self indulgence is outcome, one of the surest ways to create a positive outcome is practicing moderation.

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