Breaking Down the Dimensions of Self-Care
It’s time to dive deeper into your self-care practices.
When we traditionally think of self-care, based on what we see represented in pop culture, we don’t often categorize each action into a separate category. Rather, we see it all as one conglomerate of actions that we do for ourselves in the name of wellness. In reality, there are varying levels and dimensions of self-care that can be practiced intentionally, diving much deeper beneath the surface-level representations we often see on social media.
The Inner Workings of Self-care
Self-care might send your minds to moments of pampering, weekend getaways, or simply an hour set aside for an activity you love. In millennial and Gen Z culture, it’s almost become a meme, jokingly declaring random acts as self-care with tongue-in-cheek. But this representation of self-care doesn’t take into account the deep, intentional process that it truly is and the internal stress-reduction mechanism it engages. “I am grateful that everyone is talking about self-care, but I would like to see more individualization,” says Dr. Dawn Rene Johnson, DO at Parsley Health. “Yoga does not work for everyone. Nor does everyone love receiving a massage from a stranger,” she points out. She advocates for a self-care rē-frame that encompasses things like asking for help, finding the right people to surround yourself with, or taking part in short activities that will add up cumulatively.
Dr. Shaquinta Richardson, Ph.D., LMFT, is the founder of the life-coaching practice Beyond Achieving and the owner of a private therapy practice specializing in helping women balance their priorities in life. The self-help tools and practices she frequently calls on include radical self-care, confidence-building, and boundary-setting. When it comes to the complex, layered nature of multi-dimensional self-care, Dr. Richardson also emphasizes balancing individual attunement and community connection. “[Self-care] is being aware of what our personal needs are and caring for those needs. It’s developing a regular practice of taking time for self, setting boundaries around time and energy on a daily basis, and making ourselves a priority alongside all the other priorities in our lives,” she tells rē•spin. She emphasizes this rē-frame versus continuing down the path of surface-level coping through what she calls “band-aid activities.” While they can be helpful, she believes that the deeper forms of a self-care practice are “where the magic happens.”
The Eight Dimensions of Self-Care
There are various conceptualizations of the dimensions of self-care, all aligning with the essential domains of our lives. Dr. Richardson follows the eight-dimension model derived from the work of the prominent experiential family therapist, Virginia Satir.
The dimensions she works with include:
- Intellectual: This domain focuses on stimulating the brain and engaging the mind, including reading or learning a new task.
- Spiritual: These activities speak to the soul, as well as connecting with nature or a spiritual deity of choice. Activities of this type include meditating, praying, or spending time in nature.
- Interactional/Social: Here the emphasis is interpersonal, with activities that seek to ensure that you socialize with others — including finding time to spend with family and friends, joining communities (in person or virtually), or attending social events.
- Sensual: The sensual dimension alludes to the senses and sexuality. Often mistaken as focusing specifically on sex, it actually engages multiple sensorial experiences such as lighting candles, curating a space with soft objects, or in the more literal interpretation, having an orgasm.
- Physical: Caring for the body through movement, including the exercise of your choice, makes up the physical dimension of self-care. Depending on your style and energy level, this could be taking a walk, stretching, or jumping on your Peloton for a class.
- Nutritional: The emphasis on nutrition to fuel our bodies comprises the nutritional dimension. This includes adequate hydration, incorporating vegetables into our diets, and being intentional about the food we consume, down to the ingredients.
- Contextual: This dimension focuses on the outward environment, which might mean dedicating an area in your room or home to creating a space that feels good to you. Perhaps you will add plants, meaningful artwork, crystals, and changing your decor or environment when necessary.
- Emotional: The emotional dimension focuses on enhancing and exploring your inner-world and emotional body. These practices might include journaling, using your hands to create a meaningful object or outcome, or even just watching an uplifting movie to intentionally influence your emotional state through laughter or happiness.
Where to Start?
“The foundation of self-care starts with self [so] everyone’s practices and processes will be different,” Dr. Richardson says. “We each have to figure out what works for us and fiercely make it happen each day.” It is therefore crucial that we know ourselves intimately in order to recognize and implement the practices that best align. To get started on this self-discovery process, Dr. Richardson recommends sitting down and exploring your innermost thoughts and emotions through journaling. There’s no one specific way to journal — you might record your stream of consciousness or be inspired by a prompt, but you can also participate in art journaling, audio or video journaling, and the list goes on.
“When we slow down and turn inward, we can discover things that we didn’t realize were there, simply because we’re constantly going and doing,” she says. If journaling just isn’t your thing, Dr. Richardson recommends quiet reflection or meditation as other ways to explore within. To start, focus on two simple questions: “What am I feeling right now?” and “What do I need right now?” The answers will help you begin to understand which areas and dimensions of our lives might need more attention. Then, the world of self-care is your oyster.
“Sleep, diet, exercise, mental health, and your social life are all very important,” Dr. Johnson notes, adding that sustainable baby steps matter more than big gestures done every once in a while. If food is what speaks to your soul, it might come naturally to begin thinking of food as your medicine. “Viewing food as medicine helps us to form a deeper and more honorable relationship with the food we consume and it can change the manner in which we take in and absorb nutrients — simply by shifting our mindset as we digest them. It gives you a sense of empowerment over your overall well-being knowing that what you eat truly is the cornerstone of your health. To us, that is power,” says Lisa Odenweller, the founder of Kroma.
If you have the resources, you can also look into a program like Kroma that goes beyond simple meal planning. “Kroma’s brand mission is simple: provide effortless, nutrient-dense meals with best-in-class ingredients that help you look and feel your best,” Odenweller begins. But they also take it further, noting, “[We also seek] to empower you with the toolkit and best practices to create healthy, long-term habits.” Using nutrition as the starting point, they collaborated with nutritionists, herbalists, chefs, and wellness experts to ensure that what you’re putting in it is working for you and not against you. They also make it easier to set aside time for the other areas of your life when healthy meal-planning is a challenge. “We designed the Kroma menu to easily fit into your daily life by removing the guesswork and creating solutions for you to achieve your best health so you can focus on what matters and reap the benefits of better living,” Odenweller adds. This is just one way you can nourish your body and start the new habit of making far-reaching self-care practices a priority in your life, beginning with one dimension of self-care: nutrition.
Learning new, pro-health habits isn’t always easy, which is why it’s important to remember that perfection is not the emphasis here. It’s normal to “fall off the wagon,” so to speak; the important thing is simply remembering to get back on. In moments like these, it is also a form of self-care to practice self-compassion, being gentle with yourself for your mistakes. In life, there are opportunities for growth absolutely everywhere, and finding the unique self-care journey that best fits your life is what the wellness path is all about.
“Self-care is really about self-love,” says Dr. Johnson. “For my patients, I often say that the best actions for health and wellbeing are actions that resonate with you and bring you joy.” She points out that when you enter the joyful state, you naturally lower your stress hormones, improve your sleep, and find more movement in your days. In one final takeaway of wisdom, she reminds you not to compare yourself with others. “Don’t judge yourself based on others’ goals or perception of self or self-care. You are your own unique person, and you have your own unique needs. Self-care is about honoring that,” she says.
This journey is uniquely your own — claim it!