The Difference Between Self-Care And Self-Indulgence

The “self-care” concept has been around for a long time. However, recently it has been promoted as a way to escape burnout and to promote well-being. The only problem is, that many of the self care routines that ‘fill up your cup’ are often used to indulge in rituals that don’t really improve our lives.

The Difference between Self-Care and Self-Indulgence

The easiest way to distinguish between self-care and self-indulgence is to ask yourself one simple question: Does it feel good or is it good for me?

Self-care is doing what will help you stay happy and healthy in the long run. It requires you to make responsible and conscious choices that may not be most comfortable at the moment, but will contribute to your long term well-being.

Self-indulgence, on the other hand, centers around activities and behaviors that provide instant gratification that is fleeing once over. Oftentimes, it leaves you regretting not taking care of things that need your immediate attention and in the end, make you feel even worse.

Self-Indulgence Disguised as Self-Care

I’m sure you’ve seen a ton of the self-care list ideas on social media. Many posts suggest that you deserve that bubble bath or me-time and that you’re entitled to that day off or yet another expensive latte. Unfortunately, thinking about self-care in those terms will only lead you to discontent and entitlement. It will not improve your life nor will it make you happy.

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Sometimes, certain practices start as self-care, but with time, turn into self-indulgence. 

For example, going out for a coffee with a friend once a while may have started as a self-care practice. You needed some social time. You needed someone to talk to, to vent to. Someone who could give you some advice. You wanted to chat with someone who could give you a different perspective on things and help you relax a bit at the same time. You left your coffee date rejuvenated, with a new outlook on life, ready to conquer the world. That’s fantastic. That’s self-care.

But then, the coffee dates became regular weekly meetings that started to cut into your work time and your finances. They no longer serve their initial purpose and even though they still feel good in the moment, they no longer bring that same level of rejuvenation and satisfaction once you leave. In fact, oftentimes you may think to yourself that you could have used that time and money for something else. They are no longer considered self-care, but rather self-indulgence.

This happens quite often. And it is important to recognize that things that once were intended to help and served as true self-care have become a thoughtless routine or simple self-indulgence. 

On the other hand, there are times when you yourself try to label your self-indulgent moments as self-care, knowing full well what you’re doing. Is that bad? Not necessarily. As long as you can distinguish the difference between self-care and self-indulgence and you are happy to indulge in your activities even though you call them self-care, that’s totally fine.

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Recognizing Self-Indulgence

It is not difficult to distinguish between self-care and self-indulgence. Simply take into consideration these four questions:

1. Are you proactive or reactive when participating in the activity?

In order for the activity to be considered self-care, you need to be a proactive participant. You have been thoughtful about the activity you chose and are keeping in mind the benefits it will bring to you in the long run. Basically, it is taking charge of and responsibility for your life.

Waking up early to meditate, taking a course to further your career, doing meal prep for the week on Saturday or going for a massage because your muscles are tense are all examples of activities that benefit your well-being in the long run. Therefore, they are considered self-care.

On the other hand, when you do something because you feel entitled to it, it’s no longer self-care, but rather self-indulgence. And as mentioned above, it may be a good idea to pay attention to those things that started as self-care, but turned into self-indulgence. 

Treating yourself to a morning Starbucks every single day, when you know you could use that money for something more beneficial is self-indulgence. Going for a massage, just because you deserve it, but you don’t really need it, is also self-indulgence. So before you order that morning java or book that massage appointment ask yourself: Am I being proactive or reactive?

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what's the difference between self-care and self-indulgence ~

2. Does this activity leave you satisfied or unsatisfied?

Self-care activities are usually pre-planned and often not very glamorous. But, when completed, they give you the sense of being one step closer to your goal. They influence your well-being in a positive way and provide purpose and meaning to your life as a whole. All that leads to an overall greater life satisfaction and potentially a sense of accomplishment.

Waking up in the morning to meditate may not be the easiest thing to do. But having a clear mind all day, feeling calmer and more in control of your feelings may definitely be beneficial to your short term and long term well-being. The same can apply to going for a massage when you really need it. You leave the therapy room knowing that you have done something to improve your mobility and flexibility. And you are mindful and aware of the long term benefits of your appointment.

Self-indulgent activities, on the other hand, leave you empty and unsatisfied. They are often based on instant gratification and the pursuit of fleeting happiness. Sometimes, they are even driven by the #yolo mentality and peer pressure. In the end, more often than not, they leave you feeling empty, regretful and unsatisfied. 

Unlike going for a massage when you’re in need of one, when you just treat yourself to a spa day, it definitely feels great in the moment. But as soon as you leave the massage room, you may be considering the time you spent there could have been dedicated to a more meaningful activity. Or the money you paid, could have been allocated to a more important or pressing matter. The feeling of satisfaction in that example is rather fleeing and very short lived.

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3. Is this activity contributing to my long term well-being or does it provide instant gratification only?

Self-care activities are rarely as exciting as self-indulgent activities. They may be uncomfortable or time consuming. Often they involve creating new healthy habits and leaving habits that don’t serve you behind. There is more work required to truly take care of yourself. But they are often mindfully and carefully planned and placed on your calendar with your short term and long term well-being in mind.

Self-indulgent activities are often spare of the moment decisions without short term or long term goals in mind. Instant gratification and treating yourself are the drivers of self-indulgence. More often than not, they do not contribute to your well-being at all and as mentioned above leave you unsatisfied and regretful of your decision.

Going back to the above example of going for a massage… When used for self-care, this appointment is usually mindfully planned with a long term benefit in mind. Whereas when used as a part of self-indulgence practice, it is a last minute, feel-good decision that provides you will short lived, instant gratification. 

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4. Does it help you escape your present reality or does it help you build your new reality?

When it comes to this question, self-care always makes you look into the future and helps you improve the quality of your life. In this instance, self-care is often synonymous with leaving behind old, bad habits and building new routines that improve and enhance your day to day life. It often concentrates on mindful planning of activities that enrich your body, mind, and soul. They take a lot of self-discipline and responsibility. They push you to be more accountable for your choices and your well-being.

Self-indulgent activities do not do any of that. They are impulsive and try to satisfy you in the moment. They are often driven by your emotions and based on your present reality, rather than future possibilities. 

Once again, looking at the example above, if you’re going for a massage in order to improve your health and well-being, that’s self-care. You are considering your future and trying to make it better than your present moment. On the other hand, if you’re going for a massage just because you feel you deserve it, it only feeds your ego and promotes self-indulgence. It may have a positive effect on your body, but more likely than not, that was not on your mind when booking the appointment.

Planning Real Self-Care Practices

Real self-care practices require mindful consideration, planning, and commitment. They are often a part of your daily or weekly routines. And in order to be effective, self-care routines require you to be accountable for your progress.

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Where are you now?

The best way to start, is to examine where you are at right now. See what are the habits and routines that you have already implemented that are serving you well and are helping you build a healthy and happy life.

Consider different aspects of your life. Your physical health, your mental health, your spiritual health. Think about your relationships – family, friendship, romantic life. How about your social life? Consider your education and career. And think about your financial situation.

This also includes considering behaviors or circumstances you are in right now that are not serving you. Things that you feel you should abandon or say ‘no’ to.

What does your future-self look like?

Once you have identified where you stand right now, it’s time to imagine yourself a year or five years from now. Look at all of the categories and consider those that you’d like to improve upon. Think about what you’d be doing and how you’d be feeling when it comes to those specific areas.

Write it out! Writing it helps your brain connect to the feeling and seeing it on paper makes it more real.

What habits and routines will take you there?

Now that you know what you are doing and how you are feeling, it is time to set a real self-care plan in motion to get you there.

List the routines and habits that will help you get there. See if you can incorporate some of them into your life right now. Schedule your new habits. Replace some of the old habits with new ones or attach some of the new habits to some of the positive habits that you are already practicing.

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Get an accountability partner. You may find different accountability partners for different activities. For some activities, a simple habit tracker may do the trick.

Self-care is a process, but you may want to set specific goals and deadlines to help you along the way. And if you choose to do so, make sure that you have an encouraging reward waiting for you at the end of each goal you accomplish. Just make sure that your rewards are not taking you off your self-care path.

And watch how your life starts to become more meaningful, more fulfilled and how your overall wellbeing improves over the next while.

Balancing Self-Care and Self-Indulgence

Having said all that, there is always a bit of a space in our lives for little self-indulgence. Just make sure that you acknowledge that the activity is self-indulging and you give yourself permission to enjoy the moment for what it is. 

There is nothing wrong with an occasional day at the spa, a shopping spree or simply an extra desert. But to avoid the regret and dissatisfaction that may come once the moment is over, recognize that it’s self-indulgence and give yourself permission to enjoy it anyway.

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