When Do We Need Self-Care?

Medically reviewed by: Wendy Rasmussen, PhD
Friday, August 13 2021

Self-care has gone mainstream. It’s hard to go a full day without hearing friends, co-workers, or social media influencers talk about the importance of their luxurious self-care routines. There are even billboards devoted to “self-care products” that promise to rejuvenate our mental wellness. 

For the sake of clarity, let’s use “self-care” to refer to any individual practice of health that is intentionally chosen. These self-care behaviors recharge us and allow us to take care of our mental, physical, and emotional health.

Of course, self-care is an important part of our lives; however, it seems to be something that nearly all of us fail to regularly practice. Recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that the average American spends only about 30 minutes per day engaging in activities associated with “relaxing/thinking.” 

Perhaps instead of talking about what we do for self-care, we should be talking about when

When do we need to take care of ourselves? In this article, I’ll outline a helpful analogy and several tips so you can better answer this important question. 

Checking your emotional “oil light”

Many of us hold a vague belief that we are always in need of self-care; however, we wait until acute moments of burnout to actually do anything about it. That’s like waiting until your car engine starts smoking to check the oil. With the deluge of distraction, social comparison, and “hustle culture” in our world, it’s no wonder that we have been trained to ignore our own engine.

How many times have you sincerely checked your emotional temperature — or emotional “oil light” today? If you’re like many people, the honest answer is likely none. Instead, we often force ourselves to push forward until we either get distracted or burnt out. In order to maximize productivity, we often convince ourselves that maybe it isn’t so bad to just go until we can’t go anymore.

If that’s the case, we need to figure out a way to lift up the hood and check the oil before the engine starts smoking.  

Creating an internal odometer

Depending on your car, you’re supposed to check your oil every 5,000 miles or so. And since we have an odometer that tells us how many miles we’ve driven, it becomes pretty easy to know when we need to check our oil. Imagine if we had a gauge like that for our mental health, which told us when we needed to practice self-care in order to live the happiest, healthiest, most productive lives possible. We all want this kind of life, so it’s safe to say that we would take the time to practice self-care whenever this gauge told us to.

Since we don’t have a self-care gauge yet, it’s important that we make an effort to regularly check-in, unprompted. For example, we may ask ourselves the simple yet powerful question, “how am I doing right now?” 

While it’s admittedly difficult to start a habit like this, we are definitely capable of doing so. For example, we have learned to remember to brush our teeth before going to bed or to lock the door when we leave home. Similarly, we can get in the habit of checking in with ourselves. 

Perhaps we could make an effort to check in every time we end a meeting at work, every time we wash our hands, or every time we open social media apps on our phones. It may even be helpful to put notes in our environment or reminders in our phones that prompt us to check-in. 

After all, if you were driving a car without an odometer, wouldn’t you lean on the side of changing the oil too much to avoid an expensive engine failure? It’s a much better option than facing a catastrophic burnout.

Hitting the road

If we really want to do what we can to engage in a healthier, happier life, we need to take our self-care seriously. Researchers in positive psychology — the science of happiness and well-being — suggest that “intentional actions” account for about 40% of our happiness. These intentional actions (e.g., practicing gratitude, meditating, or socializing) are often what we think of when we consider self-care. When we compare this to our genetics (which

account for about 50% of our happiness, according to research by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., a leading expert in positive psychology) we can see that these intentional actions, often in the form of self-care, are our best bet for improving our happiness.

If we get better at checking in with ourselves, we’ll be able to see when we need self-care before burning out. And then, we can go plop down on the couch, kick our feet up, and watch reruns of The Office without feeling lazy, guilty, or desperately reactive. We can change our oil and then hit the road. We can do so by taking the question of “when” seriously.

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