Self-care. It matters to me and my life, and it’s what I’m building this entire online space around. But raising the battle cry for self-care is not without issue. There are problems with self-care as we view it in our culture today.
Self-care is important, and when we can honestly assess the possible pitfalls of the self-care conversation, then we can begin to make it truly helpful to ourselves and accessible to all.
Self-Care Can Become Self-Centered
By its very definition, self-care is focused on the self. The common refrain with self-care is to “put your own oxygen mask on first,” and that analogy has its merits. However, in an individualistic society like the United States, we don’t always benefit from an added emphasis on the individual.
In a recent Medium article, Kristin Wong wrote, “We’re stretched so thin that we’re forced to say no to plans and forget birthdays and neglect our friends. So much of what we call self-care is just a way of not caring about others.”
Not Everyone Has the Resources to Engage in Self-Care…
…at least, not in the way it has been presented to us in the U.S.
I’ve had a bone to pick with the way self-care has been presented in popular culture for a while now. The popular self-care trends – pedicures, massages, Caribbean getaways, and shopping sprees – aren’t easily affordable for a vast number of people in our country (not to mention the rest of the world). If that is the standard of self-care, most of us are woefully out of luck.
We need a total reframing of self-care. Self-care isn’t a high-end product or experience that a marketing department wants to sell us. Real self-care can’t be co-opted and commercialized. Most of the things sold to us as self-care don’t solve our long-term problems; rather, they make us feel better for a little while. My definition of self-care, rather, is any activity that strengthens my body, soul, or spirit and equips me to live my actual life.
Real self-care is the way we learn to live in and engage with our actual lives. Truly caring for ourselves involves building sustainable practices that help us to thrive, and most of them are absolutely free. (Practices like silence, breath work, asking for help, and living within your means.)
Self-Care Can’t Fix Everything
Self-care has become our society’s go-to for making repairs of what is, in some cases, actually a broken system. Writer Rainesford Stauffer recently pointed out that “The list of people who fundamentally do not have time or resources to care for themselves, people who need structural solutions, not impossible reminders to ‘put their mental health first!,’ is endless.”
Undoubtedly the cries of “take care of yourself!” don’t address one of the problems of self-care. For some people, even some of the most basic acts of self-care are difficult to access. Single parents will struggle to find the margin for even some of the most basic practices of self-care. Those with chronic health conditions and their caregivers likely fall into this category as well.
In that same Medium article, Stauffer quoted Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, who said, “I feel like self-care has become sort of the stand-in that everything, kind of all the pressures and responsibilities for your mental and emotional well-being, have been sort of conveniently placed on the shoulders of individuals, as opposed to having a social safety net that you can lean on.”
Parents who are at risk of losing their job if they call off one more time don’t have that safety net that Dr. Lakshmin refers to when one of their children becomes ill. Additionally, there are deeper societal ills – ones that, to be perfectly honest, I’m still learning about – that make caring for oneself extremely difficult.
Self-Care Can Become Another Burden
So much of commercialized self-care has become a quest for self-improvement, calling us to an unrealistic idealized life. Real self-care is a salve for us when we’re in the trenches, not something to make us feel bad that we’re already struggling.
When self-care starts to feel like another thing on our to-do list, it has become a burden, rather than a tool to help us relieve our burdens.
I’m especially mindful of this potential problem with self-care. Every week, I bring my readers one self-care practice that I believe will help them. I want to provide resources that are valuable. However, I’m aware that my collection of self-care practices could easily begin to feel like one more thing to check off a list. The last thing I want is for the resources I offer to become a heavy yoke for my community.
I hope that everyone who reads the blog or newsletter, or sees a social media post, feels the freedom to pass it by if it isn’t helpful or applicable for you right now. You should pass on practices that feel burdensome. Maybe meal planning feels like too much right now; that’s okay! Perhaps in another season of life it might be a helpful practice.
Another, related, problem with self-care is what journalist and author Will Storr argued – “that our obsession with productivity and self-improvement has created a culture of perfectionism that’s often [at] odds with empathy and compassion – toward both others and ourselves.” (Source.)
Any time we’re aiming for perfection, we’re headed down a path toward disappointment.
Self-Care Doesn’t Account for Community
It’s impossible for me to overstate the value that being in close, connected community has brought to my life. In fact, I recently wrote about how to build community after a transition.
Being a part of community – at my church, in my neighborhood, at the local YMCA, through my kids’ schools – has been so integral to my overall health and happiness. I don’t want to imagine my life without my girlfriends – the ones I text when I’m struggling, who have walked through the mountains and valleys of life and relationships with me over the last 15+ years.
In an article for The Christian Century, Heidi Haverkamp explained why she and her husband moved to live closer to friends. She wrote, “…We focus on bettering the self, not our relationships. …But what if relationships are at the very heart of the good life? What if our happiness depends primarily on the quality of our relationships?”
So What Do We Do about It?
I don’t know of anything more effective at addressing our society’s staunch individualistic spirit than immersing oneself in community. When you are connected to a healthy community, you see others’ needs and have an opportunity to help address them. A healthy community speaks truth to its members and extends grace. Healthy communities share one another’s burdens and care for each other. I’ve found that community in my local church.
My relationship with Jesus also grounds me and shows me that perfectionism is a burden I’m not supposed to bear. Jesus counters our guilt for not measuring up with his grace and freedom.
Self-care is important, but it doesn’t cure all that ails us, and for some, it is difficult to access. When we can honestly face the problems with self-care, we can better identify and engage in true self-care.