Self-Soothing Vs. Self-Care – Is There a Difference?

“Treat yo’self” is the millennial anthem.

Self-care can be generally defined as being a friend to yourself. Recognizing when you need a soft, gentle environment, when you need a break, when you need a treat, when you need some space, when you should pay special attention to your mind, body, and soul.

Living in the world isn’t easy — everyone can agree on that. And for the first time in living memory, people are allowed to experience poor mental health without fear of being told:

  1. To suck it up.
  2. To get over it.
  3. It isn’t that bad.
  4. Do what you have to do to get it done.

None of those pieces of advice have ever been particularly helpful. It’s possible that people who have adhered to the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” axiom would have preferred another option, had it been available, like “take time for yourself first, and then see what you can do.”

The self-care movement has affected so many areas of modern life that it’s now heavily commercialized. Listicles abound promote products that will assist you in your self-care journey, and suggest activities that will refill your empty soul’s cup. Activities like:

  • Bubble baths
  • Coffee dates with yourself
  • Aromatherapy
  • Gratitude journals
  • Binge-watching your favorite show
  • Coloring
  • Face-masks
  • Knitting
  • Read
  • Making your favorite meal

And of course, things you can buy that will help you perform those tasks luxuriously. And the list goes on forever. 

Now, none of those things are bad things. And there’s nothing to suggest that you shouldn’t give yourself a break from the endless monetization of your Western life.

But an interesting counterpoint has arisen…

Self-Soothing Isn’t Self-Care [subhead]

Are those things actually restorative? Do they serve a purpose? Does everything have to?

Pertinent questions, indeed.

The general consensus is this: these things aren’t self-care. They’re self-soothing. 

What’s the difference? 

Self-soothing is a distraction.

That doesn’t make it any less valid or necessary, and it doesn’t negate that human beings are not production machines and should feel encouraged to spend time on activities that have no societal worth. After all, why should we feel guilty about day-dreaming? About reading romance? About filling an oil diffuser with a delightful scent, sitting on the ground, and just smelling it? 

We shouldn’t. Leaning into the world just as it is without wondering what your next step will be is incredibly important in protecting your personal energy. 

But self-care isn’t the same thing.

Self-Care at its Heart [subhead]

Self-care is what it sounds like — taking care of yourself. 

Eating a sumptuous four-cheese macaroni dish won’t heal you. It will comfort you in a moment of darkness. It doesn’t address the root of your feelings. It’s a band-aid on a sprained ankle.

An easy way to determine whether or not you’re self-soothing or self-caring is by asking yourself: “How will I feel once this activity is over?” 

When you step out of the bubble bath, will you still be drowning in credit card debt? When you finish binge-watching a season of your comfort show, will you still have to have that difficult conversation with your partner? When you’ve taken yourself out on a date to your favorite restaurant, will you still need to confront your boss about what went wrong last week?

If the answer is yes, then you’re self-soothing. Sometimes, self-soothing is what’s needed to stabilize yourself emotionally before you can tackle self-care. 

But ultimately, self-care should be the activities that strengthen you. Here are some of the ways that self-care manifests:

  • Going to therapy
  • Meditation
  • Exercise
  • Accepting ownership of your finances
  • Saying “yes” or “no” when you really need it
  • Eating the right food for your body even if it isn’t what you want
  • Eating regular meals even if you only want to snack
  • Going to sleep early when you’re tired
  • Keeping boundaries
  • Seeking medical care for physical ailments 
  • Confronting difficult conversations with thoughtfulness and maturity

The difference between these activities and self-soothing is that they seek an end.

You practice meditation to become comfortable with the present, your own thoughts, and silence without content.

You eat well for your body instead of snacking on chips and dip because chips and dip will make you feel worse ultimately, and your goal is to feel better.

You set and keep boundaries because ignoring them might make your social interactions easier temporarily, but they’ll set you up for much harder conversations down the line.

Both self-care and self-soothing are important.

Self-care isn’t always possible. Sometimes, just like children, we need to be soothed in order to handle the bigger and better things.

Just make sure that once you’ve soothed yourself, you know that you’re not finished. 
Now you have to take care of yourself.

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.