I am all about self-care. I love the idea of people taking time out of their day to show themselves some love, because I believe our culture encourages us to ignore our needs and keep working. Self-care became a huge talking point at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as many people began baking bread from scratch, reading in the bathtub, and lighting candles all around their house in an attempt to feel better about the “new normal”.
So yes, I think self-care is incredibly important, and I believe it should be a priority for everyone. Many of us spend the bulk of our time attending to other people’s needs while neglecting our own, and emphasizing self-care can help us feel more balanced and whole. At the same time, I have seen a few major problems when it comes to how we view self-care for ourselves and others.
I believe many of those problems stem from not having a clear idea of what constitutes self-care as opposed to what types of activities end up being more destructive in the long run. Plus, some believe self-care and working on mental health are only reserved for those who can “responsibly” afford to treat themselves once in a while. Let’s first get on the same page about what self-care means.
What is Self-Care?
In my mind, self-care is the intentional action of taking time out of one’s day to do something nice for oneself. Often, most of us are so wrapped up in work, family, chores, and more that we spread ourselves thin and don’t take care of ourselves as well as we should. I find this especially true among women in nuclear families, who are so often expected to maintain a household, family schedule, and a career all at once.
Have you noticed a collective shift toward more anxiety and depression in the general population? I know I have. Many people have begun feeling alarmed at rising rates of mental health issues, and it’s clear that these issues won’t go away on their own. Although I do not believe a little self-care can completely prevent mental health issues, or cure them once they arise, I do believe that many mental health problems come from trying to do too many things and not stopping to rest or smell the roses once in a while.
The emerging idea of self-care seeks to change that, by giving ourselves permission to take a few moments, minutes, or hours to ourselves and get away from the rat race that is everyday life. COVID-19 has reduced that feeling of a constant rat race for many, as some companies emphasized working from home and focused on their employees’ well-being. Other companies simply shifted the form of a stressful work environment, expecting more and more from their employees while they try to navigate an entirely new work-life and life-life.
I personally hadn’t intentionally engaged much in self-care until the start of the pandemic. Throughout school and my working years, I always felt there was something else I should be doing whenever I had a few minutes to relax. I rarely made time to relax, or do something nice for myself. Consequently, my mind eventually felt like a Buckle store, but instead of friendly and helpful associates popping up to ask if I needed help every two seconds, it was to-do lists, obligations, and worries that arose in quick succession.
Once I started prioritizing a little self-care, and went through a long winding road of convincing myself that it was okay to take a break once in awhile, I noticed a major shift in the restlessness of my mind. Finding self-care strategies can take tons of trial and error, but here are some of the self-care practices I use often:
- Taking a warm bath
- Lighting a candle
- Cooking a nutritious and delicious meal
- Using a meditation app in the morning
- Taking an afternoon nap
- Getting takeout when I can’t muster the energy to cook
- Reading a book
- Calling or texting a friend or family member
- Not opening my work email during non-work hours
Maybe you and I have a few similar self-care activities, but maybe some of these acts would feel more like a chore to you instead of a way to relax and show yourself some love. Take a few moments now to think about the things you might do for yourself as an act of self-care.
Writing them down can provide a great opportunity for some self-reflection, especially if you can’t think of any self-care activities you do regularly. If you find yourself in this category, realize that there is no time like the present to start making a bit more space for self-care activities. For many of us, we won’t actually do anything nice for ourselves unless we put it into our work calendar or set a reminder on our phone. Do whatever works for you, but make sure you do at least something self-care related every once in a while.
My self-care strategies of choice can easily be found on lists of self-care ideas online, or suggestions from friends and family members about how to relax. I suppose this means that my self-care mechanisms are basic, but they work well for me. My favorite stress-relieving activities align with the typical way many of us think of self-care- they make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside and will alleviate our stress instantly. Sometimes, though, self-care is getting ourselves to do something that may not sound great in the moment, but will make us feel better later.
For example, in deep depressive states, it can feel impossible to get ourselves to brush our teeth, take a shower, or even feed ourselves something substantial. Those activities will likely sound too difficult or unappealing in the moment, but they can truly pay off in the long run in terms of mental wellbeing. As a personal anecdote, sometimes an act of self-care for me is getting myself to vacuum the carpet. There is something uplifting about seeing all of the dark dog hair and croissant crumbs disappear to leave a lighter shade of carpet behind.
Vacuuming my entire apartment takes under five minutes, yet my living space feels instantly hundreds of times cleaner and more organized. As a result, my head does too. On most days, I don’t feel like vacuuming the carpet. It’s not an activity that I necessarily look forward to in the same way I might anticipate a relaxing bath or afternoon nap. But the act of taking a few minutes out of my day to improve the feel of my home is an easy and simple form of self-care that provides noticeable results for me.
Grasping the concept of what constitutes self-care may seem easy enough, but people can take the wholesome approach of trying to take time out for oneself and turn it into a more destructive force.
What is Not Self-Care?
Many people view self-care as an unnecessary or frivolous practice, similar to self-indulgence, gluttony, or selfishness. This seems especially true among older generations, as people my age and younger more commonly grew up with the term “self-care” in our vernacular. Either way, I want to clear up a few common misconceptions about self-care.
For starters, self-care isn’t narcissistic, greedy, or self-centered. We must get past the idea and norm that taking a few moments for oneself should be frowned upon or is hoggish in some way. It can be incredibly difficult for people to eventually feel okay, or even good, about spending a little time or money taking care of themselves over others for a bit.
Self-care also isn’t about doing the minimal amount of work and then taking lengthy breaks because you don’t feel like doing anything difficult. There have been a few instances where I told myself that I had worked hard enough to earn a super long break, but I wasn’t being honest with myself. I had half-assed studied for a couple of hours, but mostly spent that time scrolling on social media.
This isn’t to say that you have to earn self-care, per se, but self-care isn’t an excuse to ignore your responsibilities because you “can’t even”. On the flip side, self-care may involve taking a break, having a snack, going for a walk, or taking a nap when stress and anxiety provide overwhelming feelings while dealing with work projects or personal issues. You absolutely should take breaks during the work or school day, but don’t mistake intense procrastination for self-care. Genuine self-care typically doesn’t make your life harder or more anxiety-inducing down the line, it just provides you with an opportunity to gather yourself and clear your mind.
On those same lines, destructive behaviors can be disguised as self-care. A few examples of things that are not genuine self-care, but may be labeled as such include:
- Binging on foods or drinks
- Abusing drugs or alcohol
- Overexercising and telling yourself that it actually makes you feel better
- Adopting a highly restrictive diet
- Withdrawing from society for long periods of time
- Ignoring work, relationship, and hygiene obligations
- Going on shopping sprees while accumulating thousands of dollars of credit card debt
The interesting thing about this list is that most of these could be considered “treating oneself” in small amounts or in the right context. How many of us have eaten a dessert in an act of self-care, only to go back for seconds, thirds, fourths, etc. because we typically don’t allow ourselves to eat foods of that nature on a daily basis?
Others may have a beer as a way to unwind after a stressful day, and that can be an excellent strategy for some to destress and enjoy a part of their day. Especially on a summer night as you listen to the birds or a baseball game on the radio. Wow, that sounds really nice, doesn’t it? But it sounds less nice when a person takes it way too far and has case after case of beer, or drinks tons of hard liquor every night, as their way to “unwind”. These two types of “self-care” or “relaxing” are clearly not the same.
I included things like overexercising, binging on foods, withdrawing from society, and adopting a highly restrictive diet on the list because some of these are things that I personally used to do in the name of “taking good care of myself”. Yet in the end, they made me feel more like garbage.
For example, I am a definite introvert who would rather stay home nine times out of ten. As a result, I thought staying home when I didn’t feel like going out was an act of self-care every single time. Often, it truly is, and I have learned to be much better about being honest and cancelling plans when I feel overwhelmed.
At the same time, employing this strategy at every social invitation made me fall deeper and deeper into a hermit hole. I could feel myself withdrawing from society, and wanting nothing to do with the people I truly love spending time with. Again, sometimes self-care genuinely does mean staying home on a Saturday night to clean my kitchen instead of going out with friends. But, self-care may also mean spending time with people who care for and understand you when you’d rather be by yourself in a dark, depressive state.
There are so many times where I dread an upcoming social interaction, but I just know that once I’m there with the person I love, I will have exactly zero regrets about making time and pushing myself to go. It’s hard to keep in mind, but I almost always feel uplifted and refreshed. After staying home and declining too many invitations in a row, I begin to feel lonely and then I hate myself because the solution to not feeling lonely is just saying yes. But sometimes that feels darn near impossible.
An excellent rule of thumb here when determining whether something is self-care or not is whether it genuinely makes you feel more at peace. On the surface, a choice may seem like it’s in the name of self-care, but in the long run, it leaves you feeling worse than before. Figuring out what form of self-care you need in the moment will require some deep reflection on what would actually constitute taking care of yourself in the moment.
Who is Allowed to Participate in Self-Care?
This may sound like a stupid question, especially for those of us who have grown up emphasizing self-care. But it’s a question that needs to be asked, because many of us who have the means to easily build a life we feel content in rarely stop to consider the lives of those who struggle to make ends meet.
Everyone deserves to have at least some time in the day to do something nice for themselves, but so many people in our country and around the world don’t have this luxury. I so wish that self-care did not have to be considered a luxury, that it was somehow considered a right. But until self-care transforms into a right for all, I will remain disappointed.
Unfortunately, major disparities exist when it comes to our culture’s view of who has permission to participate in self-care. People in the upper echelons of society often receive encouragement to “treat themselves” to expensive spa days or material objects on a regular basis because they “deserve it”. Meanwhile, people in lower socioeconomic status earn dirty for looks getting their nails or hair done once in a while, strapped with the label of “irresponsible”.
I get it. Truly. I hate to admit it, but I used to silently judge individuals who appeared to have financial struggles for having well-manicured nails or expensive-looking hairstyles. Shamefully, I had thoughts like, “How could you spend money on this ‘unnecessary’ stuff when you just told me you aren’t sure how you’ll pay rent next month?”
It’s not much different than saying, “How could you eat a piece of cake when clearly you are in a larger, ‘unhealthy’ body?” Or maybe, “How could you be in a happy, healthy relationship with a person who is so good-looking when clearly you are not good-looking enough?” All of these questions allude to how deserving a person is of something favorable based on different “merits”.
So yes, I always thought getting one’s nails done was a frivolous concept. I deemed it an unnecessary expense that I did not want to waste my own hard-earned money on. So, I often mentally scoffed at people who had their nails done professionally on a regular basis, yet didn’t seem to be financially well off. Did I scoff at rich people with manicured nails? No. I didn’t think twice about people in designer clothing donning the latest nail trends. I thought, “Hell yeah, you treat yourself!”
Recently, though, I got a manicure for the first time in preparation for a special event, and it was so relaxing, refreshing, and rejuvenating. I felt a foreign sense of pride when I looked down at my carefully-sculped fingernails in the following weeks. It felt amazing to take an hour or so out of my day and relax in a cozy chair while someone attended to my gruff hands and unruly, chipped fingernails. The feeling of relaxation lasted the entire day and beyond.
Now, I can totally see how setting aside a couple of hours and a small sum of money for a manicure or pedicure could greatly benefit a person who deals with unimaginable stress all day, every day. Living paycheck-to-paycheck, struggling to make ends meet, and working multiple jobs is utterly exhausting and beyond grueling. So what if a person just needs a gosh darn break and enjoys going to the salon?
So many parents that I work with truly never do anything nice for themselves, as they are entirely focused on making sure their kids will have a better life than they did. I can see the exhaustion on their faces and in their eyes. These are people who work way harder than I do, yet I’m the one that can take a day to myself and justify “treating myself”. Who am I to deserve self-care, when these people supposedly do not?
Am I saying that the government should send everyone a monthly stipend so that we can all get our nails and hair done professionally every month? No. But I mean, I personally wouldn’t mind getting a monthly self-care stipend. What I am saying is that the people who need self-care the most are often the ones who are most harshly judged and ridiculed for trying to do something nice for themselves once in awhile. They’re the ones that do not have the social approval of “luxury” of relaxing or unwinding.
Plus, how a person chooses to spend their money, rich or poor, isn’t really anyone else’s business unless it somehow directly hurts another person.
Sure, self-care doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, I’d argue that some of the most effective forms of self-care in my life are relatively cheap. Taking an afternoon nap is free, and drawing a warm bath doesn’t cost that much. But for people who live paycheck-to-paycheck, having time to take an afternoon nap is beyond a fantasy. Having a bathtub, access to hot water, and willingly adding to your gas bill to fill the tub with hot water may also not be feasible.
In her 2016 post entitled What Happens When You Can’t Afford Self-Care, Stephanie Land outlines what it’s like to feel utterly exhausted, burned out, and spread thin, only to receive “helpful” suggestions that she should just take a day off. Maybe get a massage. Those simply aren’t feasible for a person in Land’s situation- any time “off” would be spent trying to make more money to provide a better life for her daughter.
Instead, Land discusses in this post that she eventually is taught breathing exercises and mindfulness. Both of these can be immensely helpful, and they are free to do. You can do them almost anywhere, and nobody has to know you are doing them. Everyone, rich or poor, could benefit from taking a few moments out to breathe deeply or implement more mindfulness. But can these brief exercises work as effectively as a 60 minute massage or spa day to melt away the stresses of everyday life? I sincerely doubt it.
I have used breathing exercises and mindfulness for over five years now, and they definitely help with anxiety and stress a good deal. But, I have never had the experience of being stressed about where my next meal will come from, if I can make rent, or how I will provide for a loved one. My stressors were very real and valid, but they were more along the lines of getting perfect grades, taking on special projects at work, or maintaining my body size.
Again, one can reasonably compare a lack of access to self-care among those with low incomes to viewing those in larger bodies who enjoy “bad” foods as “immoral”. Many will praise a thin person who decides to “treat themselves” to a cookie at the end of the meal, but those same people may scoff at a person in a larger body for having the same dessert.
They’ll view the thin person as enjoying a cookie responsibly, while thinking, “Of course the fat person would overindulge after dinner and have dessert”. The logic is the same when we say that rich people should be allowed to relax and enjoy, but those of lower incomes are irresponsible when they spend a little time or money on themselves.
I get it, I get it, life isn’t fair. But these thought processes signal a major lack of empathy and regard for another person’s choices and needs when a person does not fit a societal ideal regarding their body size or financial situation.
In the end, I still value self-care and believe that it is not only a fabulous part of life but a necessary one. Unfortunately, too many of us display pettiness or judgement when people we don’t deem “worthy” adopt a little bit of self-care. I want everyone to be able to do nice things for themselves, and put themselves first every once in awhile.
Clearly, doing breathing exercises or treating yourself to a donut every now and again won’t make our problems magically disappear. Self-care won’t cure mental health issues, free us from depressing jobs, bring loved ones back after they pass away, or solve any of our other problems. Of course we all know this. But I will say that I have seen people attempt to fix their complex life issues with oatmeal scrubs, face masks, and candles (myself included).
Self-care is also no replacement for the crumbling infrastructure many countries have in place, providing astronomically expensive or low-quality physical and mental healthcare. Shayla Love of Vice compares the #selfcare movement to a canary in the coalmine when it comes to the mental health issues, and lack of access to care, for many in the US and around the world. I believe this metaphor is completely accurate.
Many people have recently jumped on the #selfcare bandwagon because that is their only option when they don’t have access to legitimate mental health care or have a genuine support system.
When it comes down to it, we need to emphasize and prioritize both self-care and affordable mental health care at the same time. Everyone deserves access to both, and I truly believe that this world would be a much better place if we could achieve that. I know this sounds incredibly pie-in-the-sky, but rolling over and accepting defeat just isn’t in my nature. I don’t have the answers for how to overhaul the world’s infrastructures and solve these problems. All I ask is that we all suspend our judgements about self-care for other people, as may think we know everything about a person’s situation by looking at them, but we actually have no clue.
I remain hopeful that future generations will grow up understanding the importance of self-care and have more access to help when they need it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time for one of those afternoon naps I’m so fond of.
As Always, a Book Recommendation
Many of us probably read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school. For those of you that have not, it’s a fantastic book full of childhood shenanigans and timeless wisdom. One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from one of the book’s main protagonists, Atticus Finch: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”
Finch, a father of two young children, was attempting to instill empathy into his kids, especially after the main character, Scout, had an abysmal start to her school year. This quote has stuck with me since I first read the book in ninth grade English class, and I think about it every time I read a different book that allows me to have an inside look at a life different from my own.
Although I will always recommend To Kill a Mockingbird for people to read, my official book recommendation this week is Maid by Stephanie Land. Land was the author of the post I talked about earlier, What Happens When You Can’t Afford Self-Care. This memoir allows the reader to consider things from the author’s point of view, a single mother cleaning houses for a living and struggling to make ends meet. She lacks familial support, and her daughter’s father is abusive in more ways than one.
Before reading this book, I had never really considered what it must be like to be a maid, a single mother, or both at the same time because that life felt so far from my own. Reading this book gives the reader a chance to experience through Land what it’s like to live a life where the cards are stacked so against you, and you face accusations of laziness, apathy, and imprudence everywhere you turn, despite working your fingers to the bone day-after-day.
I believe that if everyone were to read Maid, many would alter how they treat those in the working class. Some, of course, will always feel superior to others, but this book gave me a new perspective that has stuck with me for years now. It’s heart-breaking and humbling all at once.
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