COVID-19: Self-Care vs Self-Indulgence

Whether you’re a front-line worker encroaching on burnout; a parent trying to juggle working from home and educating your kids; or you’ve been temporarily unemployed, we are all experiencing stressors from our current situation and could use a little self-care. But, there is still some misunderstandings around what is self-care versus self-indulgence.

In our typical North American fashion, the term self-care has in some instances become a marketing tool associated with products and activities that will enhance our well-being.  This example of self-care often leads to feelings of guilt if we don’t have the perfect gym clothing, organic essential bubble bath oils, or aren’t promoting ourselves on Instagram as being the most enlightened person with their whole life in perfect harmony.  Just check out the #selfcare on Instagram and you’ll see what I mean. Sometimes it is nice buying that expensive face cream that rejuvenates our skin, or enjoying a relaxing bubble bath with essential oils, or relaxing to a nice glass of scotch after a long day?  While all of these can be delightful ways to treat ourselves, they are not actually self-care practices.  These are examples self-indulgences, and in moderation, can also be beneficial to our mental health.  The key difference between the two is time of gratification. 

Self-care is about taking care of ourselves now to strengthen our long-term health and well being.  Self-care is not always welcomed in the immediate as it often comes with some physical or psychological discomfort.  For example, self-care is exercising when we are exhausted and really don’t want to.  Self-care is turning off that Netflix show just when it’s starting to get good because it’s getting late and our sleep is important to us.  Self-care is taking time out of our weekend to do yard work and gardening because you know it will make you feel more relaxed later sitting in a calming environment.  It is waking up early in the morning to meditate and have a shower because you know it will set a positive refreshed tone for the rest of your day.  As you can see, self-care takes effort, can be uncomfortable, and doesn’t always come with immediate gratification, but generally leaves us feeling more content.  Have you ever exercised and thought afterwards “I feel terrible, that was an awful idea”?

Self-indulgences, on the other hand, are immediate gratifications, which unfortunately can be accompanied with feelings of guilt afterwards.  In the moment, having beers, pizza, and chocolate cake sounds amazing, doesn’t it? However, if you indulge in this treat and then afterwards experience thoughts of regret and guilt, that self-indulgence left us no lasting benefit.   However, I do want to point out that self-indulgences can also be a form of self-care.  If you enjoyed that beer, pizza and chocolate cake and afterwards thought “that was so awesome and I needed that” then that is also a form of self-care because it made us feel good in the long term.  The difference here is likely that this self-indulgence is not a regular behaviour, therefor making it an actual indulgence.  We recognize that having pizza, beer, and chocolate cake with people we love are some of our life’s greatest pleasures, and this activity therein strengthened our relationship with not just our loved ones, but also our relationship with food. 

So how do we balance between them? We know we need a strong balance of both short-term indulgences and long-term well-being, because too much of either is not healthy.  Think of it like balancing your bank account, where self-care acts are your deposits and self-indulgences are your withdrawals.  You never want to have an empty account, but at the same time what’s the point of having a large savings account if you never plan on using any of it?  If you deposit more self-care acts, you will have lots of savings to enjoy spending on some indulgences, especially on a rainy day.  If you indulge too much, you won’t feel good about indulging knowing your account is empty.  This weekend, ask yourself how your account is doing during this very long rainy pandemic day.  If you do have a lot of self-care deposits banked up throughout your life, you are free to forgive yourself of any guilt withdrawing some of your savings right now for some self-indulgences.  And if you’re feeling empty, take some small self-care steps to rebuild your account.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Christine Fuda is the Mental Health First Aid Coordinator at Ontario Shores. During the pandemic, she will be blogging regularly around the impact of COVID-19 from a mental health perspective. Send your suggestions for topics to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.