Self-Care Is Not Self-Indulgence


Photo: Adobe Stock


As graduate students, we often feel like we can't possibly take a morning, an afternoon, a night, or a full day off from work. "I can't waste any time" or "I just have too much to do" you might say to yourself. And if you are able to convince yourself to break away, you might find yourself spending the time "off" thinking about all the work you should be doing instead.


I've often found myself overwhelmed by guilt at moments when I was supposed to be resting or relaxing. I felt like self-care was a luxury I couldn't afford. 


The truth is that there is a pervasive culture of overwork in graduate school. That culture of overwork normalizes the idea that self-care is self-indulgent. We work long hours and late nights. We throw pity parties in grad lounges competing over who is the busiest and who has gotten the least amount of sleep in any given week. 


The implication is that overwork is part and parcel of graduate school. If you're not working yourself to the bone, you must not be doing it right. We buy into the narrative that incorporating self-care into your routine is incompatible with success in graduate school. 


But overwork, not surprisingly, leaves you feeling physically and emotionally depleted. When I hit my breaking point, I felt utterly exhausted.


What's more, I found that when I stopped caring for myself I started resenting my work. I felt like graduate school had taken everything out of me and I hated the feeling and in turn I hated the thing that made me feel like crap. If this is what it meant to be a scholar--to be exhausted, stressed, anxious, and overworked--I didn't think I was cut out for the job. It just wasn't a sustainable way of life for me. 


I've learned that it didn't, and doesn't, have to be that way. There's a reason people say "you can't fill from an empty cup." And my experience in grad school changed when I started taking the need to "fill my cup" seriously. 


Self-care isn't just part of your physical and emotional well-being, it's a crucial part of professionalization as well. If you aren't taking care of yourself, the fact is that your productivity decreases and the quality of the work you do manage to produce suffers too. 


Side note: Do I wish we lived in a world where self-care didn't have to be framed as a method for increasing productivity because our well-being should be reason enough? Absolutely!! But the reality is that it doesn't work that way, and while we strive to change the culture we work with what we got to meet our needs in the now. 


Self-care for me is about striving for more balance in my life. So yes, self-care can mean putting on a face-mask while catching an episode of my favorite show. But it also means not responding to email after 7PM and not working on weekends and getting to bed at a reasonable hour. 


Self-care helps me build boundaries in the day-to-day so that my work does not take over my life. Self-care is about saying, yes, the work is important, but my wholeness as a person is more important. 


As a black Latina, first-generation graduate student at a predominately white institution, I can't understate the power that comes from saying my well-being matters


Audre Lorde said it best: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”



Ana Rosado is a Ph.D. student in History at Northwestern University. She is the Content Manager of Just Tryna' Graduate. She loves talking self-care, mental health, and work/life integration. You can reach her via email.