5 Self-Care Strategies That Aren't F**king Mani-Pedis

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I don’t know about you, but I’ve been tired the last couple weeks. Like existentially tired. The current political climate is testing the limits of my emotional resources in ways that I haven’t quite experienced before. I find myself, more than ever, drawing on the practices that help me regroup and recharge so I can participate in life in the ways I want.

But self-care isn’t easy for many people. And the messages we get about it are often steeped in gender role essentialism and commercialistic intent. Since I talk a lot about self-care in my work teaching about empathy,  many friends have come to me asking for advice on how to implement more of it in their lives.

Women can struggle with self-care because they have been taught their value is in caring for others, often to the detriment of their own wellbeing; they fight against the notion that self-care is at best indulgent and at worst deeply selfish. Men are taught that self-care is weakness and shows they “can’t handle it.” But most of us realize, at least intellectually, that we must put on our own masks before helping others. Doing that is another matter.

I think it’s safe to say that all the people I know who have sustainable self-care systems in place have done a fair bit of work in deconstructing the gender role bullshit they’ve been assigned. When we create systems of self-care for ourselves, we are dismantling the facets of patriarchy that dictate that emotions are weak and tenderness is inferior.

But these systems aren’t built solely on the popular media’s portrayal of self-care: manicures, pedicures, and massage. In order to be sustainable, self-care systems need to be more than just a quick-release valve. They require scaffolding our lives so that when things get truly awful, we have the fortification to weather the shitstorm.

So how can we practice sustainable self-care? Here’s what I’ve learned that works for me.


1. I feel my feelings without judging them.

When I got better at giving myself space and permission to feel my feelings without judging them, everything in my life improved. This isn’t an exaggeration. I was expending so much energy judging myself for feeling the “wrong” thing or worrying about having the “wrong” reaction to something, that I’d end up getting emotionally stuck. It was exhausting and counterproductive.

When I got better at just feeling my emotions without the judgmental meta-feelings, I learned to move through my more challenging feelings much more efficientlyI also have a lot more joy now.

This kind of not-judging-your-feels thing is a kind of mindfulness practice. I’ve never found traditional meditation to be something I could really get into, but this practice works for me.

Several times a week, I lay down over a foam roller along my spine so I open my chest. Since I’m on the computer a lot, this chest-opening thing is great for relieving my tension (I think of it like self-care multi-tasking). Then I just think about what I’m feeling. If I notice judgment, I don’t judge that either – I just notice it and let it float past. It’s taken years of practice, but it’s become a mainstay of my overall wellness.


2. I have reflective self-care practices in addition to kind self-care practices.

Researcher, therapist, and all-around badass Meg-John Barker talks about the difference between “kind” self-care and “reflective” self-care in their work. Kind self-care practices are things like massages, hot baths, and sleeping in. Reflective self-care activities are things that allow you to reflect on your emotional landscape, like journaling or meditation.

One of my go-to reflective self-care practices is to use my Tea & Empathy feelings cards. I developed these cards for the empathy workshops I teach, and I also use them by myself to process my own feelings on a regular basis. I think about how I’m feeling about a particular issue in my life, and then I go through the cards and lay out each feeling that’s present for me. It’s been incredibly helpful for lightening my cognitive load and helping me better articulate the nuances of my feelings to my loved ones.


3. I make space for playfulness. 

My friend Ben has taught me a lot about the human need for play. He designs escape rooms, video games, and all sorts of other games for adults. We have great conversations over coffee about how adults need to play.

Even though I think play is a need, play can be hard. In order to play, we often have to let go of a bit of dignity and embrace a certain amount of vulnerability. Those things aren’t easy for adults who expect themselves to have it all together all the time. But it’s necessary for our brains to engage with moments of silliness and imagination, especially in times like these where it can feel like everything is on fire.

Nurturing playfulness is still an area of growth for me. It does not come naturally. But I find moments of it, like singing in the shower to cheesy pop music or allowing myself to get lose-my-shit excited about a cute cat in the street. I try to remind myself that play is about pleasure. And as my friend Andrea continually reminds me, pleasure can be a radical political act.


4. I actively discourage unsolicited advice. 

There’s an epidemic of fixing in many interpersonal relationships. When one person seeks support from another, often the first thing they’re offered is unsolicited advice about what strategy they should use in their career, how they should handle that asshole on the internet, or what they should be doing differently in their activism. It’s all about fixing rather than holding space.

There’s a lot of “should” in many people’s relationships. And it totally sucks the connection right out of them.

We’re taught that our value to others is in giving good advice – we’re not taught empathy. Advice can be valuable, but in my experience, what people most want from their interpersonal relationships is to be seen, to be heard, and to feel connected. Unsolicited advice does not accomplish any of those things and can work toward the contrary.

In my close relationships, we’ve gotten in the habit of asking the question, “Are you looking for empathy or advice?” This question is gold. It gives the person seeking support choice. It lets them feel power when they might otherwise feel disempowered by whatever shit situation is bringing up challenging feels for them.

I’d say about one out of every fifteen times this question is asked, someone wants advice. And it’s usually because they’ve already gotten all the empathy from another source.

5. I respect my time. I require others to do the same. 

Self-care requires time. This is one of the many reasons why it’s so hard for many people to actually implement it. And finding personal time often requires saying “no” to people who ask us for favors, meetings, or tasks.

Saying “no” can be one of the best strategies in your self-care toolbox.

One of my favorite time-creating self-care tools is a bit outside the box. It’s Gmail’s “Canned Responses” feature. I get TONS of emails from people asking for hours of unpaid labor from me. Often, it’s people who’ve found me on the Internet and want me to answer their personal relationship questions. It’s reasonable they want answers to these questions, but if I responded to all their requests, I would have no time to actually live my life.

So I have a Gmail Canned Response that says, no, I don’t answer individual relationships questions via email. When I get sexuality specific questions, my Gmail Canned Response directs people to helpful sources, such as San Francisco Sex Information and to Scarleteen. Both of those are great nonprofits that have volunteers whose job it is to answer sex questions. I also encourage them to make a donation to those organizations if they have the means. It’s my way of saying “No, I can’t help you, but here’s where you can get the help you’re seeking.”

I get to say “no” and I still get to be helpful. It’s also OK to just say “no” without being helpful, but in this instance, it’s in alignment with my goals as an educator to help people get the information they need.

Do you find yourself writing some of the same emails over and over? Consider creating some canned responses for yourself. It’s saved me so many hours so I can have nurturing chats with friends over tea, play with my feelings cards, or just sleep.


While I don’t actually think there’s anything at all wrong with getting a mani-pedi or a massage, sustainable self-care is about more than spa indulgences. Sustainable self-care is about setting boundaries on your time. It’s about nurturing healthy relationships. And it’s about holding the balance that we are both strong and fragile at the same time. We can be badass and make sure we’re fed, rested, and nurtured to function optimally. That’s how we scaffold a revolution.

This article was originally published on The Continuum Collective.

Kate Kenfield