SARAH KNIGHT'S BODY knew before her mind that something had to change. It let her know by serving her a nasty panic attack right in the middle of her Manhattan office. "I stood up, and the world was spinning. My arms went numb, and I felt like I was going to pass out," recalls Knight, who worked at a publishing house at the time.
After colleagues took her to the office nurse, she came to understand the attack had been a long time coming. She'd experienced symptoms like difficulty breathing, indigestion, headaches and insomnia, but she didn't have a name for it besides general malaise.
Now she does: a serious self-care deficiency. "That was the turning point," Knight says. "I decided that I needed to focus on myself and start doing things that made me feel better," whether that was lighting scented candles or subscribing to a trashy magazine. She even bought a litter box, filled it with sand from a craft store and put it under her desk so she could work with her feet in the sand.
Now living and working as a writer and editor part-time in the Dominican Republic, where she can constantly feel her feet in the sand, Knight is self-care deficient no more. "The last three years have been extraordinarily different in terms of my mental and physical well-being because I figured out what I needed for me," she says.
Self-care – or quite literally taking care of yourself – is a hot topic for good reason: As Knight's experience epitomizes, reports show Americans are increasingly anxious and stressed, and their physical health is affected as a result. By better tuning into what we need – be it taking an art class, walking in nature or committing to eight hours of sleep regularly – we're not only healthier and happier, but also better able to do our jobs, contribute to relationships and handle other responsibilities without breaking down.
"Self-care is a vital component of self-preservation and survival," says Dr. Tiffany Lowe-Payne, an osteopathic physician and assistant professor of family medicine at Campbell University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Buies Creek, North Carolina, who specializes in stress management and weight-loss.
But self-care, when misinterpreted, can have just the opposite effect. "The downside is that because it's become a buzzword, we've also diluted what it really means to take care of yourself," says Kristina Hallett, a clinical psychologist and coach in Hartford, Connecticut. "You need to think differently about what it means to care for yourself and to feel good about who you are. It's not just the actions – it's the internal piece."
Here are seven signs your self-care practice isn't fulfilling its purpose:
1. You're buying into someone else's definition of self-care.
Since self-care is "in," so too are products, Instagram stars and wellness retreats that promote it. While that can make the pursuit of it more socially acceptable, it can also make you vulnerable to suggestions about what self care "should" be. "Don’t let other people or a billion dollar industry define what self-care is," warns Knight, author of "You Do You" and other advice books for people who hate being told what to do. Instead, consider making a list of things that make you happy, as well as those that annoy you, she suggests. Work on adding more of the happiness boosters (say, a daily 30-second hug from a loved one) and eliminating some of the noise (perhaps that volunteer committee that brings you more aggravation than joy). "Once you start practicing self-care … you find out quickly how great it is," Knight says. "Then, it's much easier."
The trendiness of self-care can also make it tempting to compare your self-care efforts to others – and to feel worse about yourself when you don't match up. "If you begin to feel that you don't have that or can't create that or you're doing it wrong, that's where the self-care industry has maybe done a disservice," Knight finds. You may also find yourself pursuing self-care for the external rewards, which again doesn't honor its true meaning. Be honest with yourself: Are you ordering that matcha latte because it warms your body and soul, or because you secretly can't wait to post a picture of it on Instagram with the #selfcare hashtag? "When you feel like you have to post what you're doing all the time, you're not worried about yourself; you're worried about what other people think," Lowe-Payne says.
3. You think "self-care" means eating, drinking and doing whatever you want.
"I would define [self-care] as making the most caring choice you're capable of making in any given moment – not just around food and exercise, around everything that is our domain in life," says Kelly Coffey, a personal trainer and coach in Northampton, Massachusetts, who focuses on and blogs about overcoming self-sabotaging behaviors. For instance, if eating a pint of ice cream will really make you feel (and remain) happier and calmer, it can be considered self-care. But "if it results in your feeling lethargic or crazy or out of control," Coffey says, "then you can say it's a 'treat' all you like, but all it really is is self-harm tied up in a bow." Her top self-care tip? Prioritize sleep. "There would be a lot less of a need for bubble baths if people were going to bed on time," she says.
4. You do (and expect) too much, too soon.
Just like getting into physical shape, practicing self-care involves continuously making small, sustainable changes – and a commitment to keeping it up, Lowe-Payne says. "When you jump in too fast, you overwhelm yourself," she says, which is exactly what the practice is supposed to prevent. Then, you may conclude that self-care doesn't "work," and give it up entirely. Instead, start by adding just one small thing (say, reciting a positive affirmation you have posted on your mirror) into your daily routine. You'll know it's working if you begin to experience positive mood or energy changes, for example, Lowe-Payne says.
5. Your outer care doesn't match your inner dialogue.
Yoga, phone calls to friends, a bouquet of fresh flowers – all can be delightful parts of a self-care practice if you believe you deserve it, experts say. "You can't get enough massages to make up for the negative ways we talk to ourselves," says Hallett, who wrote the book, "Own Best Friend: Eight Steps to a Life of Purpose, Passion, and Ease." She considers self-compassion, feelings of worthiness, the ability to ask for help (guilt-free) and positive self-talk all to be key components of self-care. So before scheduling another manicure during which you'll just berate yourself for being so self-indulgent, consider working with a therapist or counselor, Lowe-Payne recommends.
Why pay those bills when you can take a walk? Why answer your landlord's third phone call when you can just go to bed? Your boss can wait – you've got a meditation class to attend! If these thoughts resonate, Coffey encourages you to remember: Some self-care strategies can ease momentary stress, but they won't erase what's causing the stress to begin with. "I've seen people who go overboard with boutique wellness treatments and then end up sort of getting themselves trapped in debt and letting other things fall to the wayside," Coffey says. "That's when self-care becomes an escape, just like alcohol or drugs or food." She encourages clients to face the stressors that are making them want to turn to "self-care," which in turn gives them a sense of accomplishment, control and empowerment. Unfortunately, a facial doesn't have that power.
7. Your "self-care" is harmful to others.
Done right, self-care is filling your own cup so that it overflows for others. Done wrong, self-care is filling your own cup – and leaving others thirsty. "This is a fine line that each person has to toe," says Lowe-Payne, noting that even unintentional self-absorption disguised as self-care can isolate you from meaningful relationships, which increases the risk for mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. "The thing about care is it doesn't involve harm – ever," Coffey says, whether that's to you or those around you. So instead of always thinking about self-care as a solo endeavor, remember that skipping your yoga class to pick up a friend from the airport or to volunteer in your community can be self-caring, too. "Giving for the benefit of others feels good and is good for you," Hallett says.