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We're getting Self-Care All Wrong

‘You need to practice self-care.’

I suspect you’re hearing similar sentences too these days. I know I am. Couched in the indulgence of 21st Century U.S. materialism, the term ‘self-care’ is tossed about all over our social media and streaming channels as the excuse to do something extravagant. As if the ‘Treat Yo’ Self’ duo from Parks and Rec have come to life, it feels to me like we’re suddenly enmeshed in this notion that the anecdote to our struggles, our lack of fulfillment, the emptiness we feel, will be found inside a jar of lavish face cream, some new swimwear, or behind the wheel of a luxury SUV.

Has anyone else noticed the parallel between what’s promoted as ‘self-care’ and the American ideal of white, female perfection? Painted, primped, smoothed: it seems that we’re being told quite often that self-care is an act that will make us be more appealing to others, and that is what will make us feel better.

I call bullshit.

The twisting of this term has made it so difficult for me not hate the very mention of it. If I could have left the room the moment my own therapist, whom I respect a great deal, uttered those words to me as an important early step in my healing, I would have. In fact, a part of me wanted to throw a toddler-level temper tantrum reflecting how much I’d come to view self-care as an out-of-reach, bougie excuse for spending money I don’t really have. But in psychological circles, self-care is a critical step. It’s part of post-traumatic growth, a key element to developing resilience, and is well-researched as a tool for preventing and healing from burnout. In short, we do need self-care in our lives.

We need actual self-care; what Bioethicists Thomas Beauchamp and James Childress defined as providing enough attention to one’s own physical and psychological being, and that won’t likely be found in much of what is advertised as self-care.

You probably don’t need a $200 jar of face cream for that.

Now, if you have the means, and it works for you, of course go ahead and get your jar: American capitalism thanks you and I say carry on to your place of wellbeing. However, if the idea of dropping 3, 4, or even 5 figures on your self-care is causing you to experience either an existential or an actual (or both!) crisis, I submit to you that this item - be it a service, a thing, or a program - will likely have a net neutral at best and a negative at worst, impact on your self-care.

So what do you do when the world is telling you, you have to take care of you, but all the ways introduced don’t actually allow you to provide attention to your own physical and psychological being? How do we practice self-care in meaningful ways instead of getting sucked into the notion that the value we place in ourselves is somehow inextricably tied to the value others place on us, and too often, our appearance and goods?

First, we have to do an authentic inventory of what makes US feel most like ourselves. Your self-care might be free, or it might have a cost, and the anti-capitalism of this message is much less important than the authenticity of your choices. Without thinking deeply, without pondering, think of just one thing that makes you feel truly content. What did you come up with? This is the beginning of your inventory. Keep creating it by tuning into those moments of true comfort, ease, and happiness. Spend the next week or so mindfully asking yourself, ‘What am I doing right now that is working for me?’ Jot it down, make a voice memo, whatever you need to do to remember, and then collect them.

This is your list of authentic self-care.

I discovered a few things for myself in this exercise. If I had been asked to think about it, I probably would have included that I watch TV late at night as an act of self-care. In my head, this is my ‘unwind time’ when I get to choose what to watch without my son in the room. But gut-checking that answer, that’s not self-care for me, that’s a coping mechanism. Those are very, very different from self-care so I encourage you to take note of the difference (perhaps that will be another post). What IS self-care for me, is sitting on my porch in the rain. It’s the smell of fresh rain, ozone if it storms, the sounds of water and wind that sooth my entire body and calm my mind. I also discovered some surprising self-care routines that aren’t so ‘zen’. I get a benefit from running and also from hot yoga. The challenge of these activities helps me focus on myself, which really works to keep me grounded when I could easily be swept away by chores, child-rearing, and work. And, very surprisingly, the process of getting tattoos has become an act of self-care for me. The thought and research I can put into the meaning of them, the work involved with the art and design, and even the act of getting it done is something I find cathartic. I’m at peace in the process and the result is something that feels deeply authentic.

Self-care might feel uncomfortable at first. It did for me. Sometimes it still does. Many of us have been so conditioned to believe that down time is some type of apathy and that not producing ‘something’ equates to wasting your time, that at first deliberate self-care may make you a little squirmy. But if what is causing that feeling is the idea that you ‘shouldn’t’ be caring for yourself, I’m simply telling you now that’s a garbage message we’ve gotten from our surroundings and it’s exactly why we need to do this.

So, put your feet up on the porch, grab the face cream, go for a run, or get up close and personal with a tattoo needle, but go after your own brand of self-care knowing it matters – you matter. I'd love to hear what you come up with. Wherever you’re headed, keep going.

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