When you hear the words self-care, what comes to mind? If you’re a guy, probably not yourself. While the term “self-care” has become nearly ubiquitous within the greater cultural conversation on health and wellness, it still carries a very narrow connotation. Search “self-care” on any social media platform and you’re likely to mainly find images of bubble baths and flutes of rosé, vegan desserts, and yoga poses that defy the laws of gravity. Oh, and let’s not forget the myriad pastel-hued quote cards offering wordy reminders to “breathe” or “create space.”
The thing is, that isn’t what self-care is. If you haven’t noticed, the world is going through some shit right now, and learning what self-care is is more important than ever. Statistics on mental health aside, now that almost all of us are all relegated to our homes, it is. more important than ever to begin practicing self-care (if for no other reason than you are most likely quarantined by yourself).
What Is Self-Care, Really?
To understand the importance of self-care, the first step is to separate it from the marketing that has attached itself to the term. As commodified as self-care has become, all it really means is taking the intentional initiative in maintaining your own well-being — physical, mental, and emotional.
But while relaxation and even indulgence can certainly contribute to your well-being, self-care goes a lot deeper than fizzy wine and “healthy” chocolate … or their traditionally male counterparts. (Say, craft beer and organic potato chips?) According to Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas, a psychologist specializing in suicide prevention and cofounder of ManTherapy.org, self-care starts with finding things that renew your soul and rejuvenate your engagement in life. Along with treating yourself, self-care can and should sometimes involve a healthy dose of personal challenge in order to reach a goal that is meaningful to you.
That said, it’s important to bear in mind that reaching a goal, even a meaningful one, is not the point. For men caught in the cultural gristmill of professional and social one-upmanship, it can be a challenge to make time for something that doesn’t promise external validation.
But that’s precisely what makes self-care so important, says psychotherapist Dr. Ira Israel. “There’s this self-righteousness about busyness — we think we’ll be more respected by other people. But unless you’re curing leukemia, you’re probably just earning money. We delude ourselves into thinking that we’re being productive — it’s like this mania that we’re addicted to. As men, we’re not really taught that this hyper-competitive, winner-take-all society makes it very difficult to lead a balanced life.”
Defining your worth by the number of hours you put in this week, the intensity of your hustle translated through your paycheck or level on the promotional scale, ultimately cuts down on your productivity by cutting you off from the things that make you truly happy.
Go Beyond “Optimization”
Even for men who do make a priority of self-care, it’s usually exclusively in the realm of fitness and nutrition. While physical health is an important aspect of self-care, it’s all too easy to channel these efforts into yet another form of competition.
“Trying to be healthier is great,” says Sally, “but sometimes it can morph into striving after perfection. The goal post is always going to move — someone will always be faster, or stronger, or whatever.”
“We’re all just mammals at our core — just like animals in the wild, we want to play when we’re playful, sleep when we’re tired, eat when we’re hungry…”
That, she adds, is why physical self-care has to be tempered with other types — spiritual growth, connection, emotional well-being, and exploration. Rather than finding ways to “optimize,” the key to self-care is finding ways to counteract the overstimulation of your everyday life with activities that speak to your authentic inner life.
Ira points out that in Freud’s book Civilization and Its Discontents, he reminds us that we’re all just mammals at our core — just like animals in the wild, we want to play when we’re playful, sleep when we’re tired, eat when we’re hungry. Living within the constraints of a highly competitive society, he says, has weakened this connection with our true nature. And that disconnection becomes more dangerous the longer it goes on.
“If you keep on oppressing an animal, they’ll either harm someone or harm themselves.” That’s why, he says, the key is balance. “I try to impart to my patients that there’s always shit to do. But being an extraordinary person means leading a balanced life. You need to know the preconditions that will inspire you to be your highest self.”
Build Out Your Bench
If renewing your soul looks like a bubble bath, no shame in your game. But experts agree that the key ingredient in effective self-care, especially for men, is human relationships. The health of your friendships is perhaps the best gauge of your mental and emotional health.
For that reason, Dr. Sally recommends that men kick off their self-care with building out their bench.
“For a lot of men, as they age out of school and into their career, their social networks start to shrink. It gets smaller and smaller, the higher you climb on the ladder. It’s not uncommon for men to wake up in their middle years and think, ‘Where did all my friends go?’”
If that’s you, self-care should start with identifying your A-team — the handful of people whom you know have your back, whom you’d call at 3 a.m. to help you out of a jam. Fostering these connections doesn’t have to involve a lot of soul exploration — it can be as simple as cutting an hour out of your week to go on a hike or meet up for beers with a buddy, “any kind of activity where you can chat about anything freely.”
Sally saw this in action during a program that took place in rural Australia, where depression and suicide rates among men were skyrocketing just a few years ago. Known as The Men’s Shed, the program facilitated men coming together to work on projects or hobbies together — from building furniture to tinkering with cars to participating in indigenous ceremonies. Wherever these men’s sheds popped up, Sally says, suicide rates went down. The reason was clear: “While these men were focused on doing a thing together, they were also having conversations such as ‘How’s your family? How’s your health? My kid needs help — do you have any ideas?’ They were having these intimate conversations, but not in a therapy or support group set-up.”
If the idea of intimate conversation makes you uncomfortable, don’t worry — self-care doesn’t require baring your soul every time you hang out with your friends. The main thing, says Ira, is learning how to replace competition with connection. “You need to know how to not work, and not talk about work.”
Reconnect With Your Hobbies
For many men, the only time they disconnect from work is in doing something mindless, like video games or Netflix bingeing. Oftentimes, it’s accompanied by a low-key vice, such as drinking or gambling. While those activities are pleasurable, they fall more under the category of distractions than true self-care.
Sally acknowledges that distractions feel like self-care in the moment — a burst of oxytocin after hooking up with someone you just met, a dopamine rush from reckless behavior. “In many circles, this is congruent with masculinity — we go out together and get drunk, hit on women, etc. But taking those shortcuts to feeling better will bite you in the butt later.”
Dr. Ira agrees that it’s important to have times for blowing off steam. But what many men don’t realize is that the best cure for professional overstimulation is stimulation in a new form — intellectual, cultural, or even spiritual.
But even something as simple as rediscovering a favorite hobby can offer a breakthrough for mental and emotional well-being.
For some men, this might mean attending cultural events like concerts or theater. For others, it might mean a morning meditation session, attending a weekly religious service, or finding a way to give back to their community through volunteering. But even something as simple as rediscovering a favorite hobby can offer a breakthrough for mental and emotional well-being. Finding things to do that aren’t strictly “productive” — that are fulfilling to you on a deeper, individual level — is foundational to living a balanced life.
A great place to start, says Dr. Sally, is with your childhood pursuits. If you loved participating in Boy Scouts as a kid, you might find fulfillment in volunteering on a trail cleanup crew or being a mentor with the Boys & Girls Club. If you were in a band in college, you could try dusting off that guitar or drum set and playing along with some of your favorite records.
If nothing comes to mind, consider a new hobby you could venture into. Anything that intrigues you, from learning a new language to refining your cooking skills to joining a dance or martial arts class, is a great way to break out of the “always be hustling” mentality and begin discovering what your true self is.
No matter what hobbies you take up, Sally highly recommends that every guy make a habit of journaling. No matter what form you adopt (bullet journaling, freewriting, sketching, etc.), journaling trains your brain to search for positive things (gratitude, dreams, positivity) instead of focusing on the negatives or imperatives in your life. Over time, this habit rewires your brain in a way that benefits every area of your life.
Another benefit of journaling is that it makes you aware of your self-talk. As you review the events of the day, Sally says, you’re able to reflect on how your actions aligned with your true desires and needs. “Am I really enjoying this? Is this something that makes me go ‘Yes, when I wake up, I get to [fill in the blank]…’”
It also helps you fine-tune the way you let outside influences define you, particularly in the form of self-talk. “Do you talk to yourself as your best friend, or the way your dad did?” As cheesy as it sounds, a real mark of successful self-care is learning to be more gentle with yourself. (Maybe those quote cards are really onto something.)
Don’t Shrug Off Happiness
Dr. Ira points out that we all have a way of being in the world, usually one that we’ve developed in the interest of our own survival. Starting from earliest childhood, we create a false self that we believe will get our emotional and psychological needs met. This self gets even more narrowly defined once we enter school and get acquainted with society’s general categories — the jock, the funny guy, the straight-A student, the ladies’ man, the geek, etc.
None of these categories are inherently wrong, says Dr. Ira. “Whatever tools you devised to get your needs met as a kid are fantastic. Unfortunately, those same tools are probably hindering you from showing up in your adult relationships in a way that allows you to get the love you really want.”
Your best hope of true happiness, he says, lies within good relationships at every plane — professional, romantic, familial, etc. And good relationships with others start from a good relationship with yourself — in a word, authenticity. By unwinding the false self you’ve built through busyness, you can reconnect with your authentic self, rediscover genuine sources of pleasure and inspiration, and reclaim some balance in your life.
Sally adds that self-care is just another name for building resilience. “It’s training like professional athletes do. You don’t expect to wake up one day and run a 4-minute mile. You train every day so that when you need to draw on that strength, it’s there. Self-care provides reservoirs of resilience. Not only does it benefit us on an everyday basis, but when the hard times hit, we are far more able to bounce back more quickly. Everybody hits a chronic level of toxic stress — divorce, layoffs, etc. When you have these tools to get you through — strong relationships, healthy distractions, emotional intelligence — you’re able to be decisive and problem solve.”
For a lot of men, creating a practice of self-care can feel awkward at first. That, says Sally, is totally normal. So go easy on yourself as you begin. Don’t expect everything you try to light up your life right away. Instead, take the long view to gauge your progress. Again, the form of self-care that you choose is far less important than the intention you bring to it. Are you doing what you’re doing for the sake of external validation, or for the sake of your own happiness and fulfillment?
You’re going to be a better worker, a better dad, a better partner if you’re taking care of yourself.
Living in a hyper-competitive society has trained men to downplay the importance of personal happiness. Slogans like “no pain, no gain” and “sleep when you’re dead” are meant to sound like motivational badassery, but the studies show that this ethos ultimately leads to burnout at best, health disorders and dangerous behavior at worst.
“A lot of men are conditioned to be the provider, the person that everyone leans on,” says Sally. “To think about self-care might feel self-indulgent or weak. To address that, you have to think about the oxygen mask analogy. You’re going to be a better worker, a better dad, a better partner if you’re taking care of yourself.”
How to Start a Self-Care Regimen
Self-care is best pursued one step at a time. Rather than try to overhaul your life overnight, pick one area where you can build in a new habit. As you notice the benefits in this area of your life, you’ll find more motivation to shift toward self-care in another area. Here are just a few ideas to get you started:
Instead of pushing yourself into “beast mode” every time you visit the gym, swap out one workout per week for a low-intensity activity like yoga, tai chi, or even just a slow, meditative walk through nature. Don’t think about “gains” or calories burned — instead, focus on building mind-body awareness while enjoying the benefits of improved blood flow and the rush of feel-good hormones.
Pick one day a week to prepare and enjoy a “slow meal.” This doesn’t have to be a complicated endeavor — if gourmet cooking isn’t your thing, keep it simple and try out a new slow-cooker recipe, re-create your mom’s legendary spaghetti, or just elevate a humble everyday dish like meatloaf or mac ‘n cheese.
Take one day a week to really pamper yourself. Visit a massage therapist or another type of bodywork specialist to work out the kinks, spend some extra time on your skin or beard-care regimen, or sweat out the week’s stress in the sauna, steam room, or an Epsom salt bath. (We recommend this bath soak from Bathing Culture, which enriches muscle-nourishing magnesium with relaxing CBD and groovy-smelling botanicals.)
Improving your sleep is among the most effective forms of self-care … and it’s one that you can do everyday. Start by ensuring absolute darkness with a light-blocking shade or eye mask that signals your body to turn up the melatonin. Invest in a high-quality pillow that supports your head, keeping your airways open and nourishes spine health. (We recommend the new Serenity pillow from Coyuchi.) When you’re ready to turn in, switch your phone onto airplane mode (here’s why), block out any ambient noise with a white-noise machine, and pull up a weighted blanket to help settle any lingering nervous energy.
Set a reminder in your phone to connect with a friend or close family member once per week. It can be as simple as a text message that doesn’t have to do with “business,” but try to build in at least an hour or two of actual face time — meeting up to walk your dog, throw a Frisbee, or work on a project side by side. Don’t pressure yourself to “accomplish” anything during this interaction — what gets talked about is less important than the fact that it happens.
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