The history of “Self-Care” the good the bad and the ugly

Everywhere you look today, someone tells us to self-care, that self-care is the answer to our problems, and we should be if we aren’t doing it. If we’ve spoken before, you have likely heard my opinion of the word “should.” I know it is a bit ironic to say this. I feel that the word should, should be removed from our language. Funny right! As a mentor recently said, I believe that “should” is “the most disempowering factitious concept” in our language today.

It can be easy to get caught up in the pressure placed on us from all sides to “self-care” or feel that it is a sales gimmick. This expectation that if we only did this or bought, our lives would be better or finally good to me is unethical. The pressure to not self-care to not get caught in its consumerization can be just as profound.

The History of Self-Care

While it is often portrayed as something new, a trendy new thing to do, the concept of self-care has been around since Ancient Greece. The desire for affluence and a life of luxury leads those with less in service to those with more.

Before the 20th century, self-care was seen within the societal expectations highly linked with affluence and privilege. In some cases, standards such as hygiene, diet, clothing, and education were forced on others through the colonialism of Western society.  Our history in Canada and around the world has utilized these standards of self-care to determine access and deny rights in our culture.

I feel that understanding the dark past of self-care and how it has been used can teach us so much. I believe we have learned some, but as long as we use it as a lever to determine worth, we are missing the point.

A Historical Shift

In the ’60s and ’70s

During the 60’s and ’70s, a shift begins toward self-care, self-governance, and social justice. Studies began to look at the effects of intense stressors in emotionally challenging professions such as social work and trauma therapy. These early stages of recognizing that what we do can impact our health and wellness lead our work today. In our communities, activism becomes a way of creating change as a new form of awareness emerges locally and abroad. We see an influx of community-based organizations forming to bridge the gaps in the governmentally run supports needed to address low income and lack of access to quality care. Small groups break from society, searching for new ways of living that address the desire for something more consistent with newly arising value-based choices.

These early stages of this changed look at self-care and self-expression inspire the possibility that individual choice is possible, not simply a hindrance or gift of economic class. While these changes have changed our society forever, we have also begun to find new ways to use self-care as a measurement lever.

The 80’s

In the mid-’80s, we measured our self-care with words like time management, productivity, and work-life balance. Either individually or through a company lead training, we are introduced to ways of “doing more with less.” Companies like Covey begin to emerge, systematizing ways to be better, do better and be measured at work and home.

Ironically at the same time, the early stages of wellness and lifestyle conversations begin as Meditation, Mindfulness, and Yoga, that has been in the west for over a decade, begin to gain quiet traction. A silent minority is looking for ways to lessen our planned and productive time, allow acceptance, and invite curiosity.

The 90’s

Through the ’90s and rolling into the 21st century, phrases like “Think Different” encourage living a life you create. To stand out and be seen. At the same time, this sounds positive and certainly encourages forward-thinking progress. It’s important to connect this phrase with a company looking to connect with all that has happened over the past 30 years, the desire for self-expression, and to challenge the status quo, inspiring us to buy their products.

Our focus has shifted to having more of the things we love. It doesn’t take long for this to enter us into the era of what you own as a new measurement of self-care. Personal luxuries begin to take on cultural meaning as walkmans, iPods and cell phones are introduced.  In a world where our basic human need is to feel connected, we are consistently asked, ” Are we connecting in this newfound way. These early connection tools expand as you read this as new forms of social communication are formed and designed to keep us “connecting” through their platform.

Ironically, today we have begun to measure our self-care and how much we have disconnected from these same connection tools. Each week, a new video that shows the need for more human connection and connection to self and nature is portrayed as the new “self-care.” Usually right next to an ad for another technological distraction.

Are you frustrated yet?

When this all showed up for me, I was furious. Like many others I have spoken to, I began looking at minimalizing, limiting technology in response to this awareness. And then it occurred to me, is that the newest measurement of self-care? So how can we self-care in a way that is helpful to our well-being?

Let’s get back to the basics! What does self-care mean? Here is the definition of self-care from the Oxford dictionary.

  • 1.0 The practice of taking action to preserve or improve one’s health. ‘autonomy in self-care and insulin administration.’
  • 1.1 The practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s well-being and happiness, particularly during periods of stress.

I don’t know about you, but I felt relieved when I connected myself to what self-care means. Stated self-care means taking care of myself to preserve and improve my health. That’s it! It is not measured externally and can not be sold to me. So instead of providing a top 10 ways to self-care post, as you may have imagined, I will give you a way to figure that out for yourself.

Before we begin, I also want to emphasize that in no way do I want you to leave this post feeling like spending money on self-care or material possessions is good or bad. One of my favourite forms of self-care is a bubble bath and doing my nails; both actions invite being at home, cozy and giving to me. I want you to ask, looking for yourself free from the often associated external influences and measurements.

Self-Care designing questions

These questions are designed to create awareness and spark curiosity. Therefore, they are in no particular order and may not all resonate with you. This is also not a to-do list. Pick a few at a time and allow what shows up for you to show up. Allow yourself to try on what comes knowing you have the choice to accept, negotiate or reject.

Understanding our parasympathetic nervous system

  1. When do I feel calm?
  2. What activities support me in feeling a sense of calm?
  3. What is different after these activities?
  4. How do I experience being calm?
  5. What is the difference between when I feel calm and when I do not?
  6. What helps me feel rested?
  7. When do I feel at my best? What am I doing? What is around me?
  8. When do I feel a need for that sense of calm?

What does your body good?

  1. Which foods support my body’s ability to do what I ask of it?
  2. What foods leave me feeling tired and achy?
  3. Which activities support my mind’s ability to feel calm and clear?
  4. Which activities leave me feeling tired, stressed or frustrated?
  5. What type of environment do I feel the safest in?
  6. How do I feel during moments of stillness?
  7. What types of stillness support me?
  8. How do I feel during movement?
  9. What types of movement help me feel healthy and strong?

Understanding your Stress and Fears

  1. How do I know I am stressed?
  2. When I feel stressed, where and how do I feel it?
  3. When do I feel stressed?
  4. What activities allow me to distract from stress?
  5. How does my stress change after these activities?
  6. How do I experience fear?
  7. When I feel fear, where and how do I feel it?
  8. When do I feel fear?
  9. What activities allow me to distract from fear?
  10. How does my stress change after these activities?
  11. What one thing could I give myself at this moment?


No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinicians.


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