• Self-care topics have never been more popular on social media platforms, but many influencers share tips and advice that they aren’t qualified to give. This misleads their followers, acting as an ineffective replacement for real self-care practices.
  • Toxic self-care tips may tell us we need to cancel plans or take the day off when faced with doing something we don’t enjoy, but following through on our commitments may actually help us reduce the anxiety we feel.
  • While self-care influencers and their pages often promote physical health as a primary part of self-care, content may focus simply on the benefits of looking better, without actually helping to improve our body image or mental health.
  • Physical activities shouldn’t harm our mental health, and our fitness goals should be attainable, not unrealistic.
  • Self-care tips from influencers and their pages aren’t a replacement for talking with a mental health professional, which is the most effective way to ensure that your self-care goals and habits stay locked into place.
  • Self-care-related social media content isn’t all toxic. Influencers can still offer us helpful tips, but remembering to check in with our own goals, mental health status, and priorities before following their advice is key.

Self-care is a topic that’s been riding a perpetual tidal wave of popularity across social media. Self-care accounts on TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter grew swollen with followers, as many people sought refuge in anything seeming remotely wholesome during the dark ages of 2020. This has given rise to toxic self-care—where self-help influencers give out mental health advice or inaccurate information about mental health conditions without actually being qualified to do so. 

Some self-care influencers avoid making claims that only a licensed mental health professional should make. But others don’t, and they represent over-the-top attempts to keep social media users—some of whom are genuinely interested in feeling better—locked into a cycle of self-loathing and dependence. Spotting the difference between toxic self-care tips and content that is genuinely helpful is essential. 

Procrastinating and Canceling Our Plans Isn’t Self-Care 

It’s tempting to rationalize putting something off until another day, especially when it’s a task that you’re dreading. It’s common to come across a self-care tip telling you to take a day to “unwind” when you really should actually be motivating yourself. Consider where your personal life is at before following general advice from self-care sources; taking a personal day to recuperate is different from skipping work just because you feel like it. And if you’re struggling with procrastination consistently, talking to a therapist is proven to be an effective measure

Canceling plans: We’ve all done it, and made convenient excuses saying we couldn’t make it to something we’d previously agreed to. But just as with procrastinating, we probably shouldn’t encourage ourselves to cancel our plans too often, unless we truly need to recharge our batteries. For introverts and the generally anxious, it’s so much harder to follow through with what we say we’ll do, but actually doing the thing (especially when it involves going out) can help gradually reduce the burdening anxiety we’re faced with. 

Don’t be afraid to get real when it comes to procrastination-related self-care tips: 

  1. Ask yourself if putting the task off will cause you more anxiety: No matter what an Instagram post or TikTok is telling you, only you know the difference between what counts as procrastinating and what is legitimate self-care. You have to be honest about your priorities to stop overthinking exactly what you should be doing with your time. 
  2. Consider the larger impact of your procrastination: Self-care tips often warn us of the evils of the modern workplace and the dangers of overbooking our social lives. Sometimes we have an off day, or we don’t feel like going out for a drink, even though we said we would. Though it can be tough, the people in our lives will often depend on us to follow through with the commitments we’ve made. Take time to consider the ripple effect of procrastination.
  3. Examine why you feel like canceling your plans: If you feel like dipping out on the plans you’ve made with others, be honest with yourself about the real reason you don’t want to go. Spot the difference between facing your anxieties and giving in to them—if a post or video is telling you what to do, see if their advice applies first. Self-care is ultimately about doing what’s truly best for yourself.

Chasing Perfection Isn’t Part of Self-Care

Perfection is something that many self-care influencers attempt to portray as being attainable, if only we’re able to keep up with each new post or video. Some years ago, I went through a phase where I was unhappy with the way I looked and started following several Youtube stars who focused on self-care and weight lifting. 

After several months of following their workout routines and tips, I looked great but internally, I was a wreck. On days where I needed to skip the gym, I spent my time stressing out about “losing my gains”—according to the accounts I followed, the gym was the most important part of my life. Over the course of two years, I realized that I wasn’t weight lifting to stay healthy—it was all about looking good. In reality, I was becoming narcissistic and was still incredibly insecure about my body. 

I wanted to be healthy, but I didn’t want to feel constantly demoralized about my body image. So, I stopped following both accounts, and instead of going to the gym, I started practicing yoga at home. As a beginner, I struggled to perform even the simplest yoga poses because I was so mentally tense. But quickly, yoga became a way for me to maintain my physical and mental health without entertaining my insecurities. If fitness-based self-care pages have you feeling trapped, consider taking a break from conventional exercise to try something new.

Exercising shouldn’t hurt our mental health. Here are some takeaways for avoiding toxic self-care workout tips: 

  1. Your workout routine can be challenging, but it shouldn’t demoralize you: There’s nothing wrong with a tough workout, but if you don’t really have time or energy to push yourself every time you exercise, that’s okay. As I learned from yoga, it’s more realistic to just be grateful that you have the motivation and willpower to exercise in the first place. Celebrate what your body can do, don’t beat yourself up over what seems unattainable.
  2. It’s okay to choose a non-conventional form of exercise: Find ways to work out that fit your personality, your interests, and your physical ability. This might look different than running or weight lifting. Many people find satisfaction (and physical benefits) from yoga, biking, rowing, hiking, or swimming. 
  3. Make sure that your overall fitness goal is to be healthy, not to look perfect: There is nothing wrong with wanting to look good, and to feel attractive. But our self-confidence can’t rely solely on our outward appearance. It’s a fragile shell, and when it cracks, we’re in pain. Our fitness goals should be based on improving the physical functioning of our body, first and foremost. If a self-care page is focused solely on transforming the way you look, make sure that following their advice and tips doesn’t harm your mental health in the process.

Self-Care Tips Aren’t a Replacement for Mental Health Services

Remember that motivational video of Shia LeBeouf screaming “JUST DO IT” at the camera? Well, there are times when we actually “just can’t.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, studies show that when we’re suffering from a mental health condition, there really are things that we literally can’t do. But that’s not our fault—whether we’re physically or mentally sick, being unwell means that we aren’t running at full capacity. Yet. 

To avoid any kind of toxic self-care habits, it’s better to logically consider your limitations than to heedlessly follow online instructions. And if you’re really trying to map out your mental strengths and weaknesses, and you want to set yourself up for success in your personal life, there’s no one who’s better qualified to help with that than a therapist

With that in mind, here are some tips for building a true self-care routine with a therapist:

  1. Work with them to identify your individual strengths and weaknesses: A mental health professional can help you to spot potential pitfalls and trouble areas that are causing you emotional distress. They can also help you with personalized coping strategies that play to your strengths, too. 
  2. Set personal goals with their help (it’s okay if you don’t have any yet): Besides helping you learn to manage and cope with mental health challenges and conditions, therapists can assist you in creating personal goals. This can be a highly successful form of self-care, as you achieve your ambitions healthily, with help from a provider.
  3. Don’t hold back in your sessions: Therapists are trained to listen, and the more you share with them, the better able they are to help. The subjects you discuss in therapy will be processed from new perspectives, which can make painful experiences from the past and present, hurt less. Therapy is one of the best self-care habits of all—without good mental health, practicing self-care isn’t even possible. 

Don’t Take Every Piece of Self-Care Advice to Heart

An unsavory phase of adulthood: when your social media connections start trying to sell weight-loss juices and other multi-level marketing products to you. The person pestering you might have good intentions, and maybe they believe that what they’re pushing can actually help you. But it’s up to you to decide whether or not their Kool-aid is worth drinking

The same goes for self-care influencers. If we’re not careful, toxic self-care-related content may aggravate our mental health and cause us to avoid our responsibilities or destroy our self-image. While self-care is necessary, the self-care content served by influencers shouldn’t act as the guiding light in our lives. 

Sorting through whether a self-care influencer’s tip is BS or worthwhile boils down to knowing yourself, your own priorities, and your mental health status. However, when toxic self-care empowers us to support our negative habits, we’re not actually taking care of ourselves. We’re just being self-destructive.