Self-care or Self-indulgence?

At this morning’s yoga class, the instructor urged us to think about the difference between self-care and self-indulgence. She was urging the class to understand how to develop and nurture ourselves with yoga asanas, breathing techniques, and meditation.

There is no question that yoga philosophy creates awareness of the choices we make in caring for ourselves. Yet, sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between self-care and self-indulgence as both result in positive feelings about the self.

Yet, there’s a big difference between the two!  Self-care results in feelings of well-being and peace of mind while self-indulgence often brings feelings of anxiety and reproach. What feels good may not be good for you!

The plot thickens, however, as what constitutes self-care for some people may be self-indulgence for someone else.

Definitions of Self-Care and Self-Indulgence

Before too much confusion arises, here are some definitions of self-care and self-indulgence that I’ve found on various websites.

Self-care means taking actions that will affect long term well-being. Doing what is good for you in the long term involves understanding personal values and making conscious choices to honour oneself. For example, making a decision to forego a vacation in order to pay off credit card debt or leaving a party early to ensure that sleep is not compromised.

Self-indulgence usually refers to feel-good actions such as treating yourself to an extra glass of wine that gives a short term buzz.  Taking a vacation but putting the cost on a credit card might feel like self-care but re-payment may cause long term pain as carrying charges on credit card debt add up quickly. Likewise, staying late at a party may be fun, but result in tiredness and irritability the next day from lack of sleep.

Both self-care and self-indulgence are essential for happiness. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. Sometimes self-indulgence is explained away or rationalized to be self-care.

Importance of Self-Care

Most readers know the importance of self-care, especially when facing a difficult time. Taking care of physical, mental, and emotional health gives positive feelings and creates confidence.

Self-care should strengthen and sustain us in the long term.  It might involve eating nutritious foods, getting enough sleep, exercising, fostering positive relationships, and regulating emotions.   It might mean walking away from negative people and spending time with real friends who lift you up. It might involve techniques of lovingly nurturing the brain, body and spirit by caring for oneself with compassion and respect. Self-care focuses on actions for long-term happiness. This doesn’t mean self-denial but rather, avoidance of excess.

Self-care is a useful strategy for getting through a difficult time or a difficult season (like the seemingly endless Canadian winter).   But sometimes self-care can look and feel more like self-indulgence. There is nothing selfish about self-care although, at times, it may seem boring.

Fleeting Benefits of Self-Indulgence

Self-indulgence gives a pleasure jolt but has no lasting benefit. Drinking a glass of wine to reduce stress or eating a bowl of ice-cream when something goes wrong gives temporary satisfaction but does nothing to strengthen physical, mental, or emotional health. Everyone self-indulges. A consumer culture that depends on marketing surrounds us.  It continually urges rewarding the self or gratifying the self.  Happiness is promised with the acquisition of a new car or a new dress or a new phone. We spend too much or eat too much and end up feeling bad about our behaviours. YOLO (you only live once) messages from savvy marketers permeate the conscious mind at every turn.

Occasional self-indulgence has no consequences but regular engagement in certain indulgent behaviours can have negative consequences. The effects of excessive consumption of alcohol or over-eating and be harmful as can wasting precious time on social media or playing video games while ignoring social relationships. Some types of self-indulgence lead to regret and shame.  I’m thinking of such things as displays of anger, losing one’s temper or lashing out verbally. There’s an element of self-centeredness to such outbursts and no long term gains. Allowing negative emotions to rule behaviour is a form of indulgence that may have long term life consequences.

Self-care and Health

Self-care is an essential component of health. Conscious choices to care for mental, spiritual, and physical well-being are critical for survival.

It’s a common trap to care for physical health needs through exercise and good nutrition.  Many find it more difficult to care for emotional needs by learning forms of self-care. This is especially true when dealing with painful feelings of regret, memories of traumatic experiences, or unresolved grief. Caring for emotional needs involves learning to monitor negative self-talk and stress levels.  Long-term stress has been linked with many physical health issues including chronic conditions such as hypertension, digestive issues, eating disorders, headaches, and weight gain; mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and addictive behaviours have also been linked to stress and regulation of emotions.

Spiritual self-care with rituals that nurture a connection to a higher power can offer powerful health benefits. Disconnecting from a plugged-in online existence to make room for meditation, prayer, walking in nature, yoga, and involvement with a community that shares your values are ways to undertake spiritual self-care.

Finally, no matter the form of self-care you undertake, consider what it means in your life.  Nurturing the self with love, tenderness, and compassion leads to more enjoyment and energy for the mundane tasks of daily living. Thinking about self-care and consciously choosing self-care techniques over self-indulgence will enhance well-being and happiness.

Thanks for reading my post.  I’m interested in your comments about how you differentiate between self-care and self-indulgence in your life.


2 Replies to “Self-care or Self-indulgence?”

  1. Wow! The points you made in this post are things I have never thought about before. Self-indulgence seems to have a moral component of which it is important to become aware. Thank you for digging into this topic and writing about it clearly and directly.

    1. It’s easy to fall into self-indulgent activities while thinking we are caring for ourselves. After working on the post I’m more aware of when I am engaging is self-indulgence in the name of self-care. I won’t give up all self-indulgence but I’m striving for awareness!
      Be well,

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