Is It Really Self-Care? 3 Questions to Ask Yourself to Find Out

A diverse woman stands in a grocery store aisle holding a basket and looking at a product from the shelf

Picture this: A 20-something freelancer (me) in her local grocery store (Trader Joe’s), stressing over whether she should buy an item that was not on her grocery list (a jar of pickles). 

In retrospect, I can look back at that moment and laugh at myself, but at the time I was having some real anxiety. I was between jobs, trying to budget, and also trying to allow myself little moments of self-care/joy by indulging in an extra item that caught my eye. 

The word “self-care” gets thrown around a lot these days, and the practice looks different for everyone. For me, it’s ordering a meal out or purchasing some new clothes or skincare products that I’m excited about. What I’ve found, however, is that while we need to make sure that we are taking care of and, at times, spoiling ourselves, it’s also important to be reasonable and stay within our means. 

Because I used to have a problem with impulse purchasing, I became really strict with myself, to the extent that I felt bad about buying the aforementioned $4 pickles at the store. My guilt about purchasing this less-than-$5 item was such an extreme response! Over time, I learned that there is a balance between not impulse buying $100 items and letting myself buy a fun snack at the store. 

Here are the questions I ask myself before making a purchase to determine whether or not something is really “self-care”: 

On my best day, would I still want to purchase this item/do this activity?

If I am about to buy something in hopes it will bring me joy, I always ask, “If I wasn’t in a slump right now, would I still feel good about purchasing this?” If the answer is “yes” I go ahead with the purchase. If the answer is “no” I don’t, and if the answer is “I don’t know” or “maybe” then I will bookmark or screenshot the item, wait 24 hours, and come back to it.

Sleeping on it is really an effective tool. Also, I try not to buy anything in the middle of the night. If you can’t purchase it proudly at 10 a.m., it might not be the best idea. 

Related: From Self-Care to Soul-Care: 5 Creative Ways to Pray During Lent

Is this thing that’s making me happy now going to cause me stress in the future? 

Fun self-care isn’t always out of the question. I just try to make sure that it’s not something I will regret later. For example, if I decided to buy a new fluffy robe, will I still be excited about it in two weeks? Or will I be financially stressed out tomorrow at the grocery store? All things to consider. 

Also, if I decide that I want to book a vacation or dye my hair purple in a moment of self-care, will I regret it tomorrow? Depends on the day! Considering my future self helps me make better decisions in the moment. 

Is this a reward or is this something to distract me from processing my feelings/issues?

Caring for ourselves can take many different forms – going to therapy, going to bed early, drinking water, setting boundaries with co-workers and family. But when it comes to making purchases, it’s important that what we buy does not get in the way of processing difficult things. I think it’s important to ask myself, “Am I going to my favorite bakery to get a fancy cupcake to celebrate myself?” or, “Am I going to get a fancy cupcake to distract myself from feeling a hard feeling?” 

RELATED: Dare to Self-Care: 5 Tips for Treating Yourself Right

While making ourselves feel special is absolutely important; it’s also important to ensure we’re not using self-care to avoid real life. 

The last thing I always remind myself of is that self-care truly looks different for everyone. Make sure you find what works for you and not just what’s trendy. 

Originally published on March 24, 2022.

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Arielle Beth Klein is an NYC-based creative. As an actor, she's performed off-broadway and regionally. As a writer she’s a produced playwright and poet. On days off you can catch Arielle with her dog in nature and/or eating french fries at literally any establishment.