Illustration by Sofia Bews.

Illustration by Sofia Bews.

The first time I heard the term “self-care,” it sounded like one of those sayings that should be cross-stitched on a pillow on a dusty, uncomfortable couch. In my head, self-care was for wimps and complainers, a thing you did when you weren’t tough enough to hang. I was wrong. Time, maturity, and a little bit of education taught me what self-care actually was, and also taught me that my knee-jerk, negative reaction to it was part of the problem. I didn’t think self-care had worth because, in part, I wasn’t sure that I was worthy enough to deserve self-care. But I do. And so do you.

Self-care, at its simplest, is a self-initiated, deliberate action taken to regulate yourself. That nice, general definition includes things you do to take care of yourself physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Self-care practices in these avenues are often pretty clear-cut: eat healthily, exercise, pray, meditate. These are all important things to do for yourself.

Emotional self-care is a little trickier, though, because your emotions are nebulous, immeasurable things that exist solely inside you. Assessing your emotions isn’t as easy as realizing that you should be eating more vegetables. And even if you are aware that you’re feeling stressed, unloved, overwhelmed, or just stuck, how do you figure out what actions can help fix those issues in yourself? Often we end up using the standard-issue emotional self-care tools: bubble baths, journaling, talking to friends. And while these are incredibly useful resources (that’s why they’re the standards!), you can create self-care practices that are tailored just to you.

Below are some basic areas of emotional neediness that can help you think about the reasons you may need emotional self-care. This is not an exhaustive list, but a starting point for identifying what you need and how you can fulfill it.

A need to feel comfort or stress relief. You’re overwhelmed, you have too much to do and not enough time to do it, and you need to reduce your anxiety level. Right. Now.

A need to feel awe. Maybe you’re stuck creatively. Maybe you’re feeling down about the way the world works. Maybe you just need to be reminded that the world is mysterious and amazing.

A need to not think. This isn’t exactly stress, but rather that your brain has been working hard on school stuff or other projects and you need to not think about anything for a bit.

A need to feel heard. Perhaps you’re feeling lonely and frustrated. Maybe you feel like no one understands you or that nothing you’re doing matters, and you need to reconnect to the people in your life who make you feel normal.

So how do you come up with ways to feel heard, or to just shut your brain off or satisfy any of the other needs on that list? You may have a few ideas already, but if you’re stuck, try answering these questions:

1. What did I enjoy doing as a child, when I had nothing to do but amuse myself?

2. What am I drawn to now, in my online habits or when I’m not on the internet at all but just living in the real world?

3. What have I found myself doing, in the past or present, when I am feeling overwhelmed?

4. Who do I want to see after having a long, frustrating day, and what do I want from them?

These habits often hold clues to your own emotional self-care strategies, because they remove all the “self-help” stuff that may have been absorbed in popular culture and take you back to how you’ve soothed yourself in the past. Your body and mind will do what they need to do. It’s your job to step in, take a look around, and figure out how your actions are connected to your emotions so you can use them deliberately in the future.

For example, when I was a kid, I often made music videos to my favorite songs, so now when I get home from a long day at work, I put on music and dance around my house, singing at the top of my lungs, before I do anything else. It’s how I relieve stress, burn off energy, and connect back to my own sense of independence and fun. In college when I was overwhelmed in class, I would write down every name of every person I could think of. That’s developed into me writing down the names of all 50 states when I’m feeling anxious, because it’s a great way to distract my brain without giving it too much to do. When I was little, I loved looking at fashion magazines. These days when I’m stressed out, I’ll go to high-end clothing websites and just look at page after page of beautiful dresses. I fantasize about the places I’d go wearing those dresses, how comfortable my shoes would be, how much I’d be dancing, and I feel…removed from the stress.

Here are a few more non-standard self-care techniques that help some Rookie contributors. Hopefully they’ll inspire you and help you find new ways to take care of yourself:

“I order the shitty suburban Chinese food I loved in my childhood and watch the Kardashians.” —Brodie Lancaster

“I listen to my favorite songs and harmonize with them, and make dance routines, imagining what I would do if I directed music videos. It makes me feel so much better.” —Chanel Parks

“I walk around the classic parts of whatever city I live in at the time, headphones in, looking at everything.” —Dylan Tupper Rupert

“Dance class!” —Marie Lodi

General Hospital. That’s a seriously dorky admission, but I love my stories. And I always have episodes to catch up on, so when I need downtime, cue up Hulu and lose myself in cheesy daytime drama.” —Stephanie Kuehnert

No one can tell you what self-care skills will be best for you. Things like bubble baths work for lots of people because they’re warm and smell good and you can’t do work while bubbling it up, but don’t think that’s the only way to take care of yourself. The important thing to connect to when creating your own list of self-care skills is what your emotions were before you did the action and what they were after. This regulation isn’t an accident, but rather a deliberate action by you to help yourself. ♦