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Using Self-Care to Motivate You

Prioritizing self-care stops us from following “shoulds” to stay healthy.

Key points

  • We can become confused about what it means to take care of ourselves and often think of it as what we “should” do.
  • Research has shown that when something is a “should,” it can take on negative connotations, cause rebellion, and are not sustainable.
  • We must prioritize self-care, which leads to internalizing a value that drives the decisions and actions we take.
Primipil | iStock
Source: Primipil | iStock

If you took a poll of a thousand people who lived in developed countries and asked them what they do to take care of themselves, you would probably get myriad answers. Things like “hot bath,” “massage,” “floss daily,” or “take a walk” come to mind. You might also get “relax by watching TV,” “distract myself with social media,” or “spend quality time with my spouse (or friend, or a beloved pet).”

If you asked the same group their goals regarding self-care, you might again get many different answers, but perhaps not as varied. Some might say “relax after a hard day,” “de-stress,” “keep myself feeling good,” or “be more present for my family.”

What Is Self-Care?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines self-care as:

The ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health-care provider.

Promoting health can mean focusing on various areas, including emotional, intellectual, occupational, spiritual, social, and physical. That’s a lot to consider.

But, for the moment, let’s just look at the physical. You know the old saying, “If you have your health, you have everything.” There is a lot of truth to that. When physically healthy, we are more energized, focused, and optimistic. Physical health gives us more options and helps us step away from depression, anxiety, and helplessness.

Easier said than done. How many people may prioritize the occasional hot bath, massage, will floss daily, and take some walks after dinner but go no further?

We can even get confused. Is it self-care or rewarding ourselves after a stressful or long day? Examples of rewards would be watching TV to relax, eating comfort foods, reaching for a glass of wine or cocktail, or developing a mindset of “I deserve this.” We are often not motivated to go beyond these actions.

But, to keep on top of our health, it is recommended that we do more than keep up with a few healthy habits or de-stress by treating ourselves to a period of relaxation. We are supposed to get 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, eat whole foods with various fruits and vegetables daily, and stay away from processed foods. This can be too much of a leap for many individuals.

What Can Get in Our Way?

Michelle Segar, who has studied the science of motivation for decades, has identified several things that can work against us:

  • When we think of exercise and eating well, we automatically use an untenable motivation to incorporate these things into our lives. The exercise and eating guidelines are often placed into the category of “shoulds.” Research has shown that when something is a “should,” it can take on negative connotations, cause rebellion, seem overwhelming, and not be sustainable.
  • In our day-to-day lives, many of us do what we think is expected of us rather than figuring out what we want to experience and get out of life.
  • We do not often ask ourselves what the consequences are if we do not prioritize taking care of our health.
  • We have been socialized to have certain beliefs. Often we don’t think about where they come from. Without that awareness, we will not be able to change them. Even if we are aware, it may seem overwhelming to try to change.

The Crux of the Problem

When you think about it, how is it possible to make positive changes by trying to stay motivated enough to keep following a “should?”

Segar’s main answer to this question can be found in her book, No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. It is this: It is impossible to sustain the motivation to create a healthy life unless you prioritize self-care. In that case, self-care becomes your main focus, your true motivation. To put it another way, it is your “why.” It becomes an internalized value that drives the decisions and actions we take.

When that happens, you value exercise and eating nutritional, whole foods because it makes all of the rest of what you do better. You become more resilient, optimistic, and become selective in how you spend your time. You slot in time for regular exercise and eating nutritious, non-processed foods first, and then build your day around them.

This can be a huge mindset shift to make, but one that will make the difference between reluctantly or obediently trying to follow a healthy lifestyle (which often ends up being only temporary) and embracing it because it improves your life in many areas.

Can We Make the Switch?

Deci and colleagues (1994) identified three ways to promote the internalization that Segar has found to be an effective motivator for self-care:

  • Provide a rationale. Or, more importantly, find ways to help the individual discover their own. Getting each person to consider what is really important to them and then consider building life choices around accomplishing that. Self-care becomes an essential way to prioritize well-being so that each person is able to accomplish what matters most to them.
  • Provision of choice. Here is where there is a big paradigm shift. Each person is encouraged to consider what changes could happen in their daily lives that they are willing and able to do. This approach is in direct contrast to following a program. Emphasis is placed on making a few small changes that feel sustainable. This idea is not to pick something big that requires a major shift. Another key is to be prepared to continue to make small changes over time.
  • Acknowledge conflict. This can be in anticipating the internal conflict that comes from changing habits. At the same time, it is important to practice self-compassion and forgiveness when things don’t go so well. It may also mean preparing to set boundaries, have difficult conversations, or stick with it when others are surprised by or even antagonistic towards our efforts.

Yes, it’s complicated. It’s easy to see why many of us would rather follow a program than figure out what we want to be experiencing and how we can potentially make some changes. It’s also very easy to fall back on what we have always done or what we think is expected.

Let’s get back to the first point made by Segar about what gets in the way of being able to meet the recommended guidelines for physical health. The guidelines for exercise and eating well have been disconnected from lifestyle endeavors and put out there as “what we should be doing.”

We need to reframe exercise programs and healthy eating as a way to take care of our health and well-being, not something for the “to-do" list.


Deci, EL, Eghrari, H, Patrick, BC, Leone, DR. (1994). Facilitating Internalization: The Self-Determination Theory Perspective. Journal of Personality. 62 (1), p.119-42.

Segar, M. No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. (2015) American Management Association, New York, NY.

World Health Organization (2021). Programmes: Sexual and Reproductive Health. “What Do We Mean by Self-Care?”

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