Last week, I shared 5 reflection questions for the new year:

1. What have you always believed about yourself that life is showing you might not be true?

2. Where do you complicate life by turning outward for advice or information instead of trusting the answer within?

3. What’s scary and what’s thrilling about trusting yourself more immediately and more often?

4. What kinds of self-care truly feel like self-care to you (and not like a self-care to-do list)?

5. Where in your life might less (less effort, work, time, perfection, research, activity, etc.) actually be enough?

This Thursday, I’m hosting a free call. I’ll guide you in finding your answers to these questions, tell some juicy stories about how these topics are showing up in my life right now, and share what I’m learning along the way. You are invited! You can attend live or get the recording afterward by signing up HERE.

Today, I want to explore one of the questions: What kinds of self-care truly feel like self-care to you (and not like a self-care to-do list)?

I loved Ellen’s honesty when she posted on Facebook about this question: “People say ‘take care of yourself’ and I’m never sure what to do.”

No wonder. We’ve been left impoverished in our notion of self-care. Women’s magazines tell us self-care means getting a manicure, taking a bubble bath, or making time for exercise. Nothing wrong with any of those, but they constitute a rather narrow definition, one that doesn’t resonate for many of us.

This is the first self-care trap we can fall into: taking our cues from what the culture tells us self-care is supposed to look like. I’ve done this one. Several years ago, wondering why I felt so drained much of the time, I noticed that many of the things I’d slotted as rejuvenating down-time in my calendar weren’t really really rejuvenating for me: they were things the culture told me were supposed to be “fun” or “nourishing.” Going to a party? That was supposed to be a good complement to a work day, something “for me” – but was it really? Well, it depended a lot on the nature of the party and who was there, but most of the time, the answer was no. Getting a manicure? Not really rejuvenating, in any way, shape or form for me.

I like psychologist Christine Meinecke‘s definition of self care as “behaviors that balance the effects of emotional and physical stressors.”

What activities truly “balance the effects of the emotional and physical stressors” in your life?

Self-care might be listening to your favorite music on the way to work. It might be reclaiming  a lost love like cooking or painting or singing in a choir. It might be making a little more time for friends — the friends that actually make you feel de-stressed, happy, more like yourself. It might be talking with a therapist or coach to process what’s happening in your life. In response to Ellen’s post, one woman said that one of her favorite forms of self-care is taking five minutes to read the New York Times. To me, the core criteria is: does this thing leave me more relaxed, more refreshed, more rejuvenated, more joyful or connected to myself than I felt before?

The second trap of self-care is ending up with a self-care to do list. There are all those things we do to help build the lives we want for ourselves, but that aren’t stress relievers in themselves — things like tracking expenses, or getting mammograms, or or taking time to chop all those vegetables on sunday so we have nourishing food for the week.

If you want to make a career change and need to do a bunch of intensive night school classes in a subject that scares the heck out of you to do it, is taking those classes “self-care”? In some sense, yes, because you are prioritizing your goals and doing it “for yourself'” – but in the sense we’re talking about here, no – it’s a stressor not a balancer of stressors!

I encourage you to hold these kinds of “building the life I want for myself” activities in a separate category than self-care. Maybe come up with a separate name for them like “life-maintenance” or “life-care”  something — your ideas for good terms for this welcome in the comments, please!  These are things we do to set up the lives we want. The size of this list needs to stay manageable (strike off things that are coming from your inner perfectionist or inner critic) and make sure you balance this list with truly yummy self-care – things that change your state in the moments you do them.

Join the discussion in the comments: What do you think constitutes real self-care for you? What has your journey with self-care been like so far?