The difference between self-care and self-indulgence

strongtreesI have to admit that I’ve been pretty on edge lately. At times I feel unsafe. The house I rent is up for sale, and I know I need to move soon.

Being in limbo mode with my living space brings up all my “stuff” around safety, feeling like I don’t have a true home base, and, well, strangers. Strangers coming through my home and seeing all my stuff, deciding if they’re interested in living here themselves.

It’s weird and, somehow, it makes me feel like a little kid. It brings up the part of me that wants to hide out.

And so, I’ve had to practice extra self-care in order to stay sane, to feel safe.

I’ve had to remind myself, it’s okay, you’re an adult, you can take care of yourself with these strangers who suddenly show up.

I’ve had to pause and ground myself, remind myself to breathe, more than usual.

What’s interesting is how, because I’m also extra-busy right now, another voice comes up a lot.

It’s a high-pitched voice that snaps at me, “What’s with all this self-care stuff? Self-care? Aren’t you being just a little self-indulgent? I mean, look at all you have to do! And you’re letting yourself sleep an hour later than usual?”

This voice is old. Years ago, I thought “self-care” meant taking bubble baths and sitting on a cushion drinking tea. Or spa treatments. Or buying expensive moisturizers.

Self-care can look like those things, but what I’ve come to realize over the past twenty years is that it goes much, much deeper.

What I’ve also come to realize is what self-care is not: it’s not self-indulgence. There’s a big difference, but I think many of us confuse these two terms, which are most definitely not interchangeable.

I’ve mentioned quite a few times on this blog that in my twenties I developed a chronic illness and ended up in the hospital. Then and only then was my cynical twenty-five-year-old too-hip-to-do-self-care self forced to recognize that I had to take better care of me.

That’s all self-care is, really. It’s acknowledging that without putting YOU at the center of your life, there ultimately is no life that feels like you.

Many of the clients I’ve worked with over these past several years have had a pattern in common: feeling bad about not showing up for their creative work in the world as fully as they’d like because they just can’t make it important enough to put themselves front and center in their own lives.

Or: They’re doing their creative work in the world, they’re getting it out there, but they’re so overwhelmed and overstimulated from both the work itself and their interactions with others that they’re totally depleted and aren’t sure they can go another step on their journey.

Self-care, in my book, is about recognizing that YOU are at the center of any creative journey you’re on. Both when you begin the journey, and during it.

And yet, so many of us have a judge-y inner voice like mine that insists that taking good care of ourselves might just actually be, you know, self-indulgence.

How is self-care different from self-indulgence?

For me, “self-care” is about noticing what I am needing — truly needing — in the physical, emotional, and spiritual realms, and making it important that I provide it for myself.

The focus of self-care is not doing, but noticing and acknowledging — and then doing, if necessary. (Often, practicing better self-care means practicing un-doing!)

It’s the noticing and acknowledging piece that we tend to lose sight of in our driven society. And often, when we do notice and acknowledge, we don’t allow ourselves to know what we know about what we need.

Self-indulgence, on the other hand, is fueling the part of us that doesn’t notice or acknowledge what we need. 

Self-indulgence is buying six more sweaters when we already have fifty and only wear ten (I’m raising my hand here!) — and the buying of the sweaters feels like an avoidance rather than a coming home.

It’s eating or checking Facebook or staying on the phone too long or having an extra glass of wine or pushing ourselves to work longer hours in order to avoid checking in with ourselves.

It may feel good or “righteous” or like we “deserve it” in the moment, but in the long run it’s actually continuing to do something that hurts when we know it hurts us.

Self-indulgence can also look like committing to something, or someone, and only giving it half our effort, or half our attention. It can look like always holding back just that little bit so we’re never fully present to our lives.

Now, I do want to emphasize that a little indulgence is not wrong, and sometimes it’s exactly what we need. (Particularly if we have a tendency toward perfectionism, we may need to “balance ourselves out” a little with some indulgence.)

The key is to be honest with yourself. When are you crossing the line from enjoyment to making yourself sick with enjoyment (I’m thinking about French silk pie here) simply because it’s hard to be present with yourself?

When are you crossing the line from doing an extra hour of work on the book you’re writing to feeling burned out but forcing yourself to continue? That, too, is self-indulgence. It’s starting to hurt, not help, and you’re rationalizing doing it anyway.

Self-indulgence always has a seed of avoiding ourselves in it; self-care always feels like coming home to ourselves. That’s how we know the difference.

And so, all this extra grounding myself and focusing on my breath and allowing myself to sleep more than usual? I know it’s self-care because it feels like coming home. Which reminds me that home is within me, wherever I happen to be. It’s a great reminder when my external living space is in flux.

What challenges you about practicing self-care, especially during times of a lot of stress when you need it the most? I’d love to hear from you.

And, I have a new program called Stellar Self-Care (for Sensitive Creatives). If you’re wanting to put YOU at the center of your life, or get back to it, I’d love to be that support for you. You can learn more about the program, here.

Image is “Sunset at Peace” © Shannan Thiel | Dreamstime Stock Photos

13 thoughts on “The difference between self-care and self-indulgence

  1. Your words remind me of the old axiom: you can’t take care of any else unless you take care of yourself first. Taking care on oneself is HUGELY important.


  2. Yes! This is all so true. And the more you think about others as a natural part of your personality, the harder it is to do any of this without feeling guilty. Takes time and practice to allow yourself to do it, but yes, so agree, you feel so much calmer in general, when you give yourself that permission. (And hope that the sales situation with the house is resolved quickly, so you can have your space back, so to speak, soon!)


    • Kathryn, I definitely agree that these are things we learn over time and with practice. We learn what works for us and what doesn’t, and yes, separating our needs from the needs of others can be tricky for sure. For me, it’s really helped to build “evidence” (through practicing!) that the world doesn’t come crashing down when I do what I need to do for myself. Thanks so much for reading, and for your good thoughts about my living situation! Much appreciated. 🙂


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  4. Thanks for this great post, Jill. Your definition of self-care is one of the best I’ve ever read and agree with you 100%. Being a introvert and in recovery from PTSD, self-care is what I do to keep myself grounded and living in the moment.

    As a kid, my family moved alot. Sometimes to several different homes and schools in one year. I understand your feelings about your impending move. Hope it all goes smoothly.

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    • I’m so glad to hear this post spoke to you! Yes, for introverts — and definitely if we’re recovering from PTSD — a foundation of self-care is a must for staying present. And thanks so much for your support around my impending move — I didn’t move as much as you did as a kid (that is a lot!), but the moving my family did do had a big effect on me, too, and I have a hunch that is some of the “stuff” coming up for me right now. 🙂


  5. Such a helpful post. Thank you, Jill!
    This is such a useful definition, “Self-indulgence always has a seed of avoiding ourselves in it; self-care always feels like coming home to ourselves.” Yes, and when I am able to pull out of avoiding, and give myself that comfort or do the hard thing that is in-that-moment-true self-care, I notice that my shoulders drop and my breathing is deeper.
    I look forward to sharing your article. Debbie


    • Debbie, thanks so much for reading, and for your comment. I love what you notice in your body when you pull out of avoiding and into the present moment with self-care. And gosh, it’s so true that sometimes practicing great self-care means “doing the hard thing”! (It’s simple, but it’s not always easy!) 🙂


  6. I feel like your blog has been a gift to me. Not only for the obvious reasons, but our writing styles are very similar, even down to frequently using quotation marks, something I had started to feel self conscious about because I didn’t see others doing it. (I think I let those “you’re a real writer if” lists get to my head, even though I actively try to avoid them.) There’s something about reading an article that’s written in the way you’d have written it, that helps you absorb the content even more, like the way we integrate our writing better when we speak it aloud.

    I feel like your blog is everything I wish I could’ve written about in the past year… I’ve experienced so much that I either couldn’t put into words, or COULD put into words yet preparing them for public was an entirely different monster that I wasn’t willing to engage with. So all in all, I guess: Thank you for helping validate and put into words these shared human experiences and thought processes, all of which resonate so very deeply right now.

    I always expect an answer to my prayers but it never ceases to amaze me how quickly that can happen. I found your site literally within minutes of my most recent prayer, asking God/The Universe to help me identify whether I needed action, acceptance, or both, for this current stage of my life… We always end up exactly where we need to be, when we need to be there, if we listen. A little guidance doesn’t hurt. ♥

    I’m grateful knowing there are conduits like yourself out there with a willingness to help others directly, and also indirectly with your public writing. Expect a promotion on my site and a sidebar link as soon as I get back to publishing! I want to support your efforts.

    As for this particular post, my favourite part was this: “When are you crossing the line from doing an extra hour of work on the book you’re writing to feeling burned out but forcing yourself to continue? That, too, is self-indulgence. It’s starting to hurt, not help, and you’re rationalizing doing it anyway.

    Self-indulgence always has a seed of avoiding ourselves in it; self-care always feels like coming home to ourselves. That’s how we know the difference.”

    I’ve been writing a lot about that privately today, so when I publish something public I’ll try to ping back to this highly-relevant post. 🙂 Thank you again,



    • Kit, thank you so much for this heartfelt comment! It’s so gratifying to know my posts have made a difference for you — what more could a writer ask for? 🙂 My writing for this blog has been very much about processing my own experience, but also about sharing what I’ve learned in hopes that it will touch someone else who needs to read it at just the right time. So thank you for letting me know that it’s done that for you! And do keep writing and sharing about your experience. I’m looking forward to checking out your blog. I appreciate your support and willingness to share very much. 🙂

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