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Self-Care vs. Self-Soothing: Knowing the Difference Could Save Your Mental Health

Alcohol and video games vs meditation

In times of distress, we are often advised to take a break, create some space, and indulge in activities and rituals that bring us back to something resembling homeostasis. I regret to inform you that guzzling wine, binge-watching Dawson’s Creek, splurging at Sephora, and snorting lines of Cheetos dust in your Lulus is not self-care.

“Self-care” has become a blanket term, used loosely to define any self-serving activity that promotes comfort or relief. It has become conflated with the destructive millennial religion of “treat yo’self”, a term that originated from TV show Parks and Recreation, when Tom and Donna, two financially self-destructive adults, decide to spend an entire day pampering and spoiling themselves, destroying their bank accounts in the process. Sound familiar?

Self-care vs. self-soothing

Self-care is often conflated with self-soothing, which is an entirely different thing. Although both are necessary, registered psychotherapist Sheffy Bhayee, MA, believes it is important to differentiate between the two because the latter can become destructive. “Self-soothing is something we do when we’re in a time of stress,” Sheffy explains. “We soothe as a result of going through some sort of crisis or some sort of distress.”

Self-care, on the other hand, is being mindful of your needs and taking steps to fulfil those. Self-soothing is more of a way to deescalate. Sheffy gives an example, “As a baby, or as a child, if you’re crying, your mother might sooth you with milk or food.”

Self-soothing activities include things like food or eating, shopping, drinking alcohol, even getting that endorphin rush from social media. Whereas self-care activities include things like eating nutritious food, going to therapy, or taking care of your finances.

Self-soothing is something we do when we’re in a time of stress.

While many self-soothing activities offer a quick hit of comfort, they are not necessarily productive. Sheffy explains that self-care is much more industrious and more beneficial in the long term. “Self-care is a way to increase your window of tolerance. You have a certain window of how much can you do when you are in a stressful situation. With self-care you might be able to increase that window a little bit more.” She explains that self-care can be more preventative – treating the problem vs. drowning out the symptoms.

You may also like: The best ways to meditate, based on your personality type.


We need both self-care and self-soothing to heal

“Self-soothing is a way to make yourself feel better in the moment, to open yourself up to self-care if you need to,” Sheffy clarifies. Self-soothing clears the path for self-care. “It’s important to differentiate between the two because it helps you balance them. That way you can use some of these coping strategies as a way to move through something that is distressing.”

Self-care and self-soothing are often used interchangeably because some of the associated practices fall under both categories. One example is exercise.

Sheffy explains that our nervous systems react with fight or flight responses. “When you’re in a situation like a break up with a partner or receiving a horrible grade on a test, one of the ways you might self-sooth is to do something like exercise because it impacts your fight or flight system. You shoot up that system, and it pushes your body to relax.”

Illustration of healthy plate and woman exercising

She explains that that is why we feel a sense of relaxation when we finish exercising, especially when something is really stressful. That use of exercise falls under self-soothing. In the long term, exercise of course helps you build a healthy lifestyle, and so can also fall under self-care.

Therapy is another one that can be both. Sometimes people seek therapy in a crisis when they are at the peak of distress. “In that moment, as a therapist, I’m not working on helping them see the logical side of things. It’s important for us to calm our body down and calm our emotions down and regulate that to be able to access the logical part.” One they are out of the storm, therapy can progress towards self-care. “Therapy as a self-care tool would be more geared towards self-improvement, changing habits, change relationships, etc.”

Related: 10 affordable self-care strategies for your mental health.


Culture can make or break your self-care practice

I asked Sheffy if self-care was selfish. Her response was surprising. “‘Selfish’ has a bad rap. I think it’s actually a very positive and a very empowering thing to do to claim your space in the world.”

She went on to explain that the environment in which we find ourselves casts self-serving practices in either a positive or a negative light. “If you’re going to go out for a run and you see everyone else who is going out for a run too, it motivates you. It makes you feel like you belong in this group. Whereas if that’s not the case – if that’s not prized or valued in your society – then you’ll find often that you’re the only one there and you don’t belong to this group.”

Illustration of Buffy and some beer bottles

Ultimately Sheffy feels North American culture pushes us more towards self-soothing behaviours because we live in a capitalist society, where being productive is how we prove our value as individuals. “The person isn’t seen as a person; they are seen as robots, and they need their fuel. Whether that fuel is wine, or food, or sex, or the instant gratification we get with Facebook and Instagram, those things are boosts in dopamine – the feel-good hormone – to make you feel more alert at work, which makes you more productive.” My ritual of binging Buffy the Vampire Slayer while slurping bourbon quickly went from innocuous to dystopic with this analogy.

Related: 21 celebrities share their self-care and mental health tips.

We can skirt a faulty system to pursue self-care by seeking out available resources

“Although we can make change at an individual level, systems-level change is where we notice the greatest impact,” Sheffy explains. So what are some of the ways we can work around this capitalist system to foster and support self-care habits? Sheffy cites employment assistance programs, digital mental health services like Mind Beacon, and other cognitive-behavioural therapy programs available online.

Sheffy also encourages us to reach out to friends and family, or create a support system for ourselves by joining communities like mommy/daddy groups and caregiver groups. “We’re social beings so we want to be connected with other people. Although we might find that a lot of the issues we face come from social situations, it’s also the same place where we heal.”


Illustration of resource book and chat bubble saying "i need to talk to someone"

Once we are able to help ourselves, we can also help to bolster societal wellness initiatives that are already in place, like environmental defense and renewal programs, movements for living wages, gender equality, and racial justice.

Joining these movements can help to create the society we want to live in – one that fosters mental wellness, celebrates self-care and promotes self-expression, paving the road to utopia instead of the bleak, Orwellian conveyor belt of doped up robots that capitalism seems to offer.

Related: We tried different Saje products and here’s why we’re adding them to our self-care routines.

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