I talk about self-care daily—with my depressed clients, with my traumatized clients, with my burned-out clients, with my compassion fatigued clients, with my clients who are parents and caregivers, with my clients who are feeling crushed under the relentless wheels of late-stage capitalism. When I bring up self-care, I generally get one of two responses.
The first response looks like a sheepish half-smile, a shrug, or a slight eyeroll, and something like, “I know, I know, I should do more self-care.” With this response, people are belittling themselves without knowing it, diminishing both their worth and their responsibility to themselves. They are also exhibiting a fundamental misunderstanding of self-care, equating it with bubble baths, pedicures, and lattes, or maybe yoga and a healthier diet. And that’s never what I’m talking about when I discuss self-care.
The second response I get when I mention self-care is silence and barely withheld tears.
What’s going on in this response? I don’t always know. It’s different from person to person. But I think these folks understand the true nature of self-care a little better than the first group. If their tears had a voice, I think they might be saying something like, “I want to take care of myself. I really do. If I loved myself, I’d practice self-care. And I want to love myself. But I don’t. I can’t. And it hurts.”
If the thought of self-care can stir up deep longing and the pain of lovelessness, it’s clearly something more profound than bubble baths, pedicures, and lattes. So let’s get real about self-care. What is self-care—and why is it so hard to define, let alone to do?
I have this hunch that self-care has been co-opted by our task-driven, materialistic, consumerist culture and turned into something it was never supposed to be.
I have this hunch that we have lost touch with our spiritual selves, that we have sacrificed our souls to a toxic culture that is slowly killing us, and that part of the systemic oppression under which we all suffer is a horrible lie about self-care. We have been handed a version of self-care that is weak and watered down, useful only as an opiate to numb the excruciating pain that would otherwise tell us something is drastically, desperately wrong—with our lives, with the system, with the world. We are told that if we just do enough self-care, we’ll be okay. We’ll somehow magically be able to manage our jobs, our children, our relationships, our endless “life admin” tasks (as one client calls them), our emotional labor, our mental health, and our duties as citizens, and all with smiles on our faces and spoons* left over at the end of the day. The insidious nature of this lie is that it lays the weight of our suffering on our own shoulders. You’re tired? You must not be doing enough self-care. You’re burned out? It’s your own fault; you’re just not good enough at self-care. Let me sell you this product—this organizational app, this massage subscription, this life coaching program, this essential oils kit—to fix your issues with self-care. If you just do it right, self-care can fix all your problems!
The marketing in the “self-care” industry taps into our pain just enough to convince us to spend our hard-earned money. We buy the product, and sometimes, it works for a while. The pain eases just enough, and we toddle back to our impossible lives to grind away more pieces of our soul trying to survive in a society that one author (whose name I have forgotten) chillingly described as “anti-human.” And sometimes, the product doesn’t work, and we trudge back to our impossible lives not only still aching, but also feeling defective and hopeless.
Okay, I hear you. So far this is not a very uplifting blog post. Stick with me.
What if self-care isn’t about what we do for ourselves? What if self-care is about who we are to ourselves?
Self-care isn’t an item on your to-do list; self-care is an attitude of self-compassion, of kind and unconditional acceptance of your flaws, your struggles, and your suffering. Self-care means validating, Yes, this is so, so hard right now. But this is what it means to be human, and you are so beautifully, perfectly human in this moment. Self-care means getting in touch with your wise, kind Self—the deepest and most sacred part of you, yourself when you are at your best, who you truly are under the trauma and burnout and pain—and allowing that wise, kind Self to care for the weary, hurting, protective, and hypervigilant parts of you with the same tenderness you would give to a scared child, a lost puppy, or your own son or daughter.
Self-care is radical resistance in an oppressive system that regularly reduces us to our productivity, earning capacity, or conformity to toxic norms. In America today, we are votes and taxpayers, we are consumers and commodities, we are cogs in the machine—but we are so rarely human. To live out self-care, to choose self-compassion, is to rebelliously claim our humanity. Self-care says, I am human and I have a right to my full humanity—to love and liberty, to health and wholeness—and I will fight for those rights.
A spirit of self-care might mean turning down overtime, or putting in long hours to start your own business. It might mean staying in to play with the kids, or getting a babysitter and going out. It might mean skipping a social engagement, or initiating with a friend you haven’t seen in a while. It might mean ending a long-term relationship, or finally asking for what you need sexually. It might mean splurging on a vacation, or careful budgeting to reduce financial stress. It might mean crying when you feel like it, or cooking even when you really don’t feel like it. While it can look like any of these examples and more, a spirit of self-care means attuning to your own needs and embodying kindness to yourself regardless of social pressure, societal expectations, or internalized shame.
To dispel a pesky myth, self-care does not mean discarding the needs of others, being selfish, or ignoring responsibilities. Is it irresponsible to pause before chopping vegetables to sharpen the knife? Give yourself permission to do whatever your body or your heart needs to feel safe and loved. Self-care doesn’t hurt others; self-care simply means asking yourself, What do I need right now to be okay? What need of my own must I meet, so that I can focus on what matters most to me? And while learning to focus on what matters most sometimes means laying aside relationships, roles, or commitments that are distracting or even harming us, this only leads to an unencumbered life with greater passion and purpose.
If self-care were about what we did—how many minutes we spent in meditation that day, whether we did yoga or not, if we stopped to put our feet up, if we found time to take a nap—it would be easy. But self-care is so hard because true self-care requires a dramatic shift in our relationship with ourselves. We can do all the right things (eat healthy, socialize with our friends, get enough sleep, improve our work-life balance) and still feel depleted if, underneath it all, we are still speaking to ourselves with contempt or shame. We can “do self-care” all day long and still hate our lives if we are not guided by inner kindness and compassion. So let me say it again: Self-care is not about what you do. It is about how you relate to yourself, and whether your inner life is characterized by compassion and acceptance or performance and judgment.
I don’t preach this as a professional; I say it as someone who regularly struggles with human-ing.
Self-care matters to me because my life depends on it. I’m a single mom of a toddler. I am also self-employed; I run two businesses, fulfilling roles in marketing, accounting, education, content creation, team management, strategic planning, and business administration, on top of my full-time job of meeting the emotional needs of others. In addition, I also have a chronic illness that requires daily maintenance and constant decision-making regarding what I do and do not have the energy to undertake; I never know what my capacity will be one day to the next, and I often misjudge it. I have a wonderful social network and supportive friends upon whom I can call whenever I need to—but at the end of the day, there is no one to take care of me but me. My self-care is non-negotiable, crucial to my wellbeing and my daughter’s security. I’ve learned the hard way that I don’t get to half-ass my self-care. The cost is just way too high.
So here is what this chronically ill single mom has to tell you about self-care:
Do not apologize for prioritizing yourself. Prioritizing yourself is at the top of your job description as a Responsible Adult; it is YOUR job, not anybody else’s.
No one is coming to save you. Be your own hero. Show up for yourself. This will take so much courage, so make sure you celebrate yourself when you do it.
Honor the reality of your capacity. Let go of what you wish your capacity was, or what you think your capacity should be. You are enough. The system is asking more of you than any one human is capable of giving. But you are still enough.
When Guilt creeps in, nod to him, let him know that you see him, that he’s allowed to be in the room, but that he doesn’t get to take over the conversation. Then choose to be kind to yourself—radically, boldly, powerfully kind.
Do not forget that you are precious, priceless, and exquisite. Handle yourself with care; if you break, there is no replacement.
Your body is the most valuable resource you will ever possess. Treat her kindly, use her wisely, and make sure she has what she needs to last.
You are human. You are sacred and ordinary, eternal and finite, good to the core and yet deeply wounded, tremendously strong and yet terribly fragile. You are all the things, all at once. You are human, and so is everyone else, and we’re all doing the best we can.
There is always a way: there is always a way to love others, and there is always a way to be kind to yourself. Embrace both/and. Very little in life is really either/or. Black-and-white thinking is not your friend.
As long as we believe there is enough to go around, there will be. As soon as we stop believing that, we run out of enough. Every act of self-care is an act of trust in abundance over scarcity.
You are worthy of love. End of story. Get with the program, and start loving yourself. No one else's love can replace this.
I am still learning and re-learning all of these things. It’s a journey.
But I am kinder to myself now than I was a year ago, and I hope to be kinder still a year from now. And that is the only measure of personal growth that matters to me anymore. Am I wiser? Am I kinder? They go together; if I am wiser, then I will be kinder, and if I am kinder, then I have become wiser.
To circle back around to radical resistance, here is my vision for the work of self-care: If enough of us can become a little wiser and a little kinder, maybe we can start to do something about the oppressive systems that are trying to rob us of our humanity by demanding more than we were ever meant to give.
*Spoons: A term people with chronic illnesses use to describe how they budget units of energy. Google "spoon theory" to learn more.