The Language Of Self-Care

What do all those wellness buzzwords really mean?
woman sitting in therapist's office

Right now, we’re in that liminal time of year that’s at once about summarizing the year that just transpired and projecting our hopes and predictions onto the year that’s ahead. And one thing you’ll see a lot of are “various attempts to sum up the last year in just a word.” Last year’s words of the year were many, and they were vast. But one of the buzzwords that’s really crescendoed lately — and even come to encompass a whole sub-genre of related (yet hard to unanimously define) terms — is “self-care”.

Self-care is a lot of things, and the debate over its true meaning and utility has spurred a lot of hot takes in recent years. Sometimes it’s taking bubble baths and doing face masks. Sometimes it’s drinking enough water and getting sufficient sleep. Sometimes it’s doing things that are kind of unpleasant in the moment that you know will lead to improved conditions down the line. In almost every case, self-care is simply whatever’s going to support your physical and mental health and prevent longer-term burnout.

Though the total commodification of self-care is pretty recent, self-care as a concept isn’t all that new. Socrates may have been one of the first major thinkers to lay the groundwork for the notion that we have to fill our own cups first before tending to others. It eventually took on political overtones in the 1970s and 80s within queer and POC communities. Activist Audre Lorde famously said that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

The contemporary self-care movement is also somewhat political. It might be trendy, but it became trendy in the weeks following the November 2016 election. In the years since, we’ve also become familiar with a number of other wellness words that often have psychological or mental health implications. Because these concepts can often be kind of obtuse and prone to being overused to the point of meaninglessness, here are some working definitions to help you understand the universe of self-care in 2020 and beyond.

Self-Care Buzzwords, Defined


Culturally, we are recognizing the need to have healthy boundaries with others. Often, you have to recognize (and then name) your limits first to do this, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, which is why it’s not always simple to define “boundaries.” For one person, it may look like not giving in to pressure to respond to texts or emails immediately. For another person, it may look like saying “no” to friends or family members who ask for financial favors, or perhaps ending a conversation when it becomes hurtful or abusive.

Boundaries are an important component of self-care because looking out for yourself is not always about what you do, but also what you don’t agree to do (or take responsibility for).


“Your feelings are valid.” “Thanks for validating me.” “I feel like you’re invalidating my lived experience.” You may have heard these phrases, or variations thereof, populating the discourse of years past. For something to be valid, it has to be relevant, meaningful and grounded in some semblance of truth. In the past, “valid” was often used to describe things with legal or logical validity, but its common application to the murkier emotional realms is a little more recent. And to understand this usage, it’s probably necessary to talk about why we would need to affirm the legitimacy of feelings or subjective truths.

A lot of times, insisting that “feelings are valid” is meant to counteract the tendency to elevate rational thinking above emotional thinking (to the point that our heads override our hearts completely). And sometimes, it’s in response to gaslighting — another popular buzzword — which is a manipulation tactic people use to make others feel like they can’t count on their own perceptions. Sometimes, “valid” is used to make a statement — one that legitimizes identities or perspectives that are marginalized in society.

“Feelings are valid” often comes with a disclaimer, however. Emotions are real and worth paying attention to, but they’re not always an appropriate response to the situation at hand. To say emotions are “valid” is not to give carte blanche to throw gratuitous temper tantrums. It’s more about reminding people not to ignore or discredit their feelings.


Typically, you see “cleanse” used interchangeably with “detox,” often in the context of a temporary diet meant to purge your body of toxins and impurities. Of course, you could take issue with the purported science behind some of these cleanses, as well as the meaning of the word “detox” in this context. Livers do our detoxing automatically, and the boost in energy you might receive from doing a cleanse is not necessarily the same as the physical process of clearing toxins from your system.

However, “cleanse” can also apply to lots of things beyond nutrition. You can do a social media cleanse by unfollowing accounts that provoke your anxiety or simply taking time away from the internet. You can perform a cleanse of your living space by giving it the Marie Kondo treatment or getting rid of things you associate with negative memories. Any area of your life that’s prone to accumulating literal or metaphorical dust is fair game for a cleanse.


In line with the concept of an internet cleanse, our tech-saturated society has created a world that we occasionally need to “unplug” from. To unplug for a bit can mean literally shutting off your electronic devices to get a mental health break from the barrage of constant updates, internet junk and pressure of being “watched” all the time.

However, people often unplug in less drastic ways. This can look like simply turning off notifications for your busiest apps, putting a ban on checking work emails after you’ve left the office, or avoiding a specific social media platform for a set amount of time.


Our work culture puts a lot of pressure on people to maximize their productivity at all times, which is often more than what the average person’s physical and mental health comfortably allows for. The onus to stay late at the office, sometimes work multiple jobs, and still excel in every other area of life can all lead to a state of total exhaustion we’ve dubbed “burnout.”

You can be in a state of constant stress for a long time leading up to the point of burnout, but usually, by the time you’re there, it’s because you’ve been in prolonged “fight or flight” mode for long enough that you simply don’t have it in you to keep going like that. Part of the purported goal of self-care is to prevent this sort of burnout.

BuzzFeed writer Anne Helen Petersen sparked a specific conversation around the way young people specifically experience burnout — a.k.a. “Millennial Burnout.” The combination of poor economic prospects, crushing debt, the constant demand for our attention online, and being raised to optimize every aspect of our lives have all led to a state of “errand paralysis” that can make seemingly simple tasks, like mailing a package, feel so daunting that Millennials avoid going to the post office altogether.

Hold Space

What does it mean to “hold space” for someone? And what does it mean to “hold space” for the possibility of things to come?

To “hold space” is to provide a receptive container for another person to vent their feelings, or for new possibilities you haven’t fully entertained or anticipated. This implies that in order for someone to have a proper catharsis with someone else, they need to feel witnessed. And that in order to accept a possibility you weren’t expecting, you need to turn off your constant drive to “know things” and “make things happen” and allow some elbow room for everything that’s beyond the narrow scope of your own will.

In a way, this is sort of just a new age way of describing the concept of “listening.” Too often, we’re inclined to talk over others or make the conversation about ourselves. Instead, when you hold space for someone, you give them your quiet presence and attention.

Learn a new language today.
Steph Koyfman

Steph is a senior content producer who has spent over five years writing about language and culture for Babbel. She grew up bilingually and had an early love affair with books, and, later, studied English literature and journalism in college. She also speaks Russian and Spanish, but she’s a little rusty on those fronts.

Steph is a senior content producer who has spent over five years writing about language and culture for Babbel. She grew up bilingually and had an early love affair with books, and, later, studied English literature and journalism in college. She also speaks Russian and Spanish, but she’s a little rusty on those fronts.

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