“Self-care” has taken on a whole new connotation in today’s culture of excess and mass marketing. Feeds are littered with workout flexes, avocado toast, chocolate cake, elaborate spa trips, and trendy hashtags like #metime, #treatyourself, and #motivation.

We are peppered with message suggesting that unless we are master boundary setters and time management ninjas, ingesting obsessive amounts of turmeric with precise black pepper ratios in between our intermittent fasting, we will not be OK.

Wellness hype can have unintended consequences, leaving us thinking that our only remedies include superficial means, even though we are facing deep issues within today’s global mental health crisis.

It’s not that the term “self-care” is entirely problematic and needs to be cancelled or banned. Still, it can mislead us into overspending or distract us from being able to turn our attention to methods that are more likely to sustain us. Too “me-focused” methods of self-care do not offer more contextualized approaches to understanding what helps people thrive. Heres what to keep in mind:

The term “self-care” can trivialize deeper systemic issues

It can imply the onus is entirely up to an individual to change versus focusing on the context that ramps up stress and the need for coping strategies. Think BIPOC and LGBTQ communities, pervasive poverty, social determinants of health, and the stressors experienced by marginalized populations. Access to knowledge and resources vacillates dramatically based on privilege. Self-care without deeper change isn’t enough; creating access and equity is essential.

The term “self-care” is being associated with lavish experiences and indulgent products

Self-care has become a big business, baiting us to spend an entire paycheck on organic fermented sprouts, $25 hot yoga classes, and lavender essential oil, lest we fall into total ruin. For those of us who don’t have Swiss bank accounts, we can trade stress for stress if we get caught in cycles of overwork and overindulging ourselves. It’s not to say that treats are entirely bad, but these quick dopamine rushes are unlikely to bring the kind of relief we are pining for. The lie of upward mobility within our culture of excess can bait us into thinking that what we own defines us and makes for identity. More substantive investments of our time and money can lead to better well-being versus the Instagrammable moments that aren’t as recalibrating as they appear.

The term “self-care” is a bit cringeworthy

Especially for people who worry that it feels a little selfish, self-serving, trite, or cheesy. Or who are more reserved with their emotions and skeptical of all that’s being propagated. Over time, terms can stray from their original meaning, taking on a connotation that doesn’t fit, even though the underlying concept could be beneficial.

For anyone wanting to redefine self-care and invest in staying and doing well for not only individual but also collective well-being, here are some alternative framings:

1. Break Ritualist

Researchers at Harvard coined this term in the interest of emphasizing the value of intermittent rituals that can nourish and stave off burnout.

Suggested Mantra: I take regular breaks to replenish and recharge without exception or apology. I recognize the value of modern brain science’s discoveries on what helps prevent burnout and do not override my bodily systems in the interest of achievement or someone else’s agenda.

2. Strategic Behavior Implementer

BJ Fogg, the author of Tiny Habits and a thought leader in behavior change, emphasizes that small changes are more sustainable.

Suggested mantra: I identify areas of change and work systematically to apply them. I reflect on my values, hopes, and goals and utilize this understanding to deliberately set myself up to follow through with behaviors that align with advancing them. I am willing to go back to the drawing board to re-strategize when things aren’t working. I am willing to ask for help, knowing that this is often the catalyst for sustained change.

3. Lifestyle Medicine Activator

Lisa Feldman Barrett’s groundbreaking work in emotions reveals that well-being often relies on tending to our body budget, making sure that we’re not continually depleted, which makes us more susceptible to emotional dysregulation.

Suggested mantra: I prioritize sleep, nutrition, exercise, and time in nature and away from screens to maximize my body budget and prevent stress-related illness. I recognize that how I spend my time and what I put into my body have a cumulative effect on well-being.

4. Candid Connector

Feminist thought leader Glennon Doyle’s revolutionary work has spurred movements in truth-telling and authentic identity. Fake, contrived connections or going along to get along can leave us in a state of inner turmoil and block us from forging connections that nourish and sustain.

Suggested mantra: I communicate my boundaries and needs in my personal and professional life. I seek people with whom I can be myself, co-inspire, and offer reciprocal support. I embrace my many identities and refuse to hide myself for so-called “acceptance.”

5. Conscious Contributor

Philanthropist Lynne Twist’s work emphasizes that we find deep value in what we give to one another versus hoarding our resources and talents. Similarly, Martin Seligman and colleagues emphasize the importance of living out our values.

Suggested mantra: I strive for health so that I can maximize my impact in the world. I realize that moving from “me” to “we” will allow me to offer my strengths, talents, and resources to the world. I see the perils of our modern context and work to improve the world by the ways I engage and give.

The term “self-care” is laden with a wide range of connotations in a world that desperately needs nourishment and relief. Consider ways you can reframe it and implement strategic behavior change to stay and do well.


Lee, Kristen (2022). Worth the Risk: How to Microdose Bravery to Grow Resilience, Connect More, and Offer Yourself to the World. Boulder: Sounds True.

Barrett, L. F. (2018). How emotions are made. Pan Books.

Fogg, BJ (2020). Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


  • Dr. Kris

    Behavioral Science Expert. Psychotherapist Comedian. Global Citizen.

    Northeastern University

    Dr. Kristen Lee, Ed.D., LICSW, known as “Dr. Kris”, is an internationally recognized, award-winning behavioral science clinician, researcher, educator, speaker, and comedian from Boston, Massachusetts. As the Lead Faculty for Behavioral Science and Faculty-in-Residence at Northeastern University, Dr. Kris’s research and teaching interests include individual and organizational well-being and resilience, particularly for marginalized and underserved populations.  Dr. Kris works with organizations and leaders around the world on how to use the science of behavioral change and human potential to build healthy mental health cultures that help prevent burnout and promote organizational and human sustainability.  She is the author of RESET: Make the Most of Your Stress, winner of the Next Generation Indie Book Awards Motivational Book of 2015, best-selling Mentalligence: A New Psychology of Thinking-Learn What it Takes to be More Agile, Mindful and Connected in Today’s World and Worth the Risk: Learn to Microdose Bravery to Grow Resilience, Connect More, and Offer Yourself to the World, a 2022 The Next Big Idea Book Club nominee. She is the host of Crackin’ Up: Where Therapy Meets Comedy and is a regular contributor to Psychology Today and Thrive Global. Dr. Kris’s work has been featured at Harvard and on NPR, Fast Company, Forbes, and CBS radio. Her TedX talk, The Risk You Must Take is featured on Ted. In her spare time, she can be found out on the running trails, attempting tricky yoga poses, eating peanut butter cups and drinking kale juice—but not all at once. Connect with her at www.kristenlee.com or @TheRealDrKris (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat).