The term ‘self-care’ brings to mind glasses of wine in the bathtub, saying no to plans in favour of sleeping in, eating ice cream and pizza… in a nutshell, “treat yo self”.
The truth is, however, more often than not, self-care is about what it says on the tin, which is Taking Care of Yourself. A great deal of the time, self-care looks like eating your greens, going to sleep and waking up early, avoiding alcohol, cleaning your surroundings and perhaps socialising when all you want to do is isolate.
Clearly the Venn diagram that is ‘self care x discipline’ has much more overlap than a lot of us would like to accept. This isn’t to say that indulgence can’t or shouldn’t be a part of self-care - it absolutely should! But it’s important to identify the difference between those behaviours that are genuinely conducive to good mental health and those that feel good but don’t actually serve or feed us long-term.
Deliberate and mindful consumption
I like to think of self-care as bipartite: being careful about your output or what you do and being careful about what you consume. Most people have a sound understanding of the kinds of actions that will benefit their mental health (even if we don’t always act in accordance with this knowledge), so in the interest of brevity, I’ll focus on consumption.
This goes for food and substances like alcohol of course, but we tend to overlook the way in which we consume media. As someone who grew up bigger, taller, and curvier than the majority of my female friends, I knew that I needed to change my social media habits when I found myself feeling increasingly insecure about not being “thick” enough. I thought to myself, ‘You’re joking. Being curvy has been a point of acute insecurity of yours throughout your formative years and now you feel worried that you aren’t curvy enough? This would be comical if it wasn’t so disturbing.’
So I carried out a social media purge of all of the content that made me feel physically inadequate as opposed to inspired to work on myself. I unfollowed accounts, I muted words on twitter, I deliberately changed my clicking habits so as to nudge the algorithms to show me people who look more like me and so on. I was astounded by how dramatically my self-image improved and how quickly I felt the results (over a week or two). Of course this is one small example of mindful consumption. The problem of self image usually needs to be worked on consistently. This wasn’t a cure-all, but it was a monumental step in the right direction and it showed me that what we accept as the norm can often be improved upon.
What has worked best for me is having a flexible relationship with media (social and otherwise). Sometimes going on a prolonged social media break or purging all potentially sensitising content is unsustainable. Most people can relate to the feeling of wanting to take a break from the news, but fearing being out of the loop or feeling ashamed about disengaging politically/socially, so they resign themselves to feeling constantly harrowed. Afford yourself the space to do what you need to in the moment and keep checking in with yourself to establish your emotional and psychological needs. The beauty of the internet is that you can always catch up.
When self care leaves you feeling worse
We’ve touched on the idea that sometimes self-care is about discipline more than anything else. Let’s talk about those times when you actually feel worse in the short-term following self-care and have to push through for the sake of delayed gratification and long-term recovery/ improvement. I was talking recently with a friend about how sometimes, therapy leaves you feeling raw, unsettled and initially, more delicate. This doesn’t *necessarily* mean that you should abandon your efforts and find a new therapist/ stop altogether. By the same token, reintroducing consistent exercise into your life can be painful and leave you feeling dejected at your rate of progress, but it doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is harmful or a waste of time.
Around the middle of third year, I was very depressed and seriously considering interrupting the year and re-doing my third year. There is nothing wrong with deferral and if it’s what you need to do then by all means you should take that action. However, it became evident that this was not the best course of action for me and my specific circumstances. I remember sitting down for dinner and plucking up the courage to bring up to my parents the possibility of me interrupting my studies because the alternative might be me failing my degree. Instead of being met with bewilderment or dismissal, I was met with concern and the desire to understand my reasoning. It was actually my parents who suggested to me that, bearing in mind their knowledge of me, interrupting and restarting the year would in all likelihood impact my self-esteem negatively, compounding the mental health challenges I was facing and ultimately making it more difficult to finish my degree. I decided to push on and become more strict with myself, adopting a more structured regimen, forgoing certain social indulgences and trying to keep my eyes on the prize, so to speak. Of course, this speaks to an immense privilege of mine and realistically, there are many people for whom ‘just carrying on’ is not a viable option at all.
What I’m trying to suggest, broadly, is that if your circumstances permit, try to use your support system (in whatever form it takes), your knowledge of how you feel, and your ability to observe your own situation as a third party to figure out whether you are experiencing ‘growing pains’ that are likely to be overcome in due course (with support) or whether you are experiencing harmful conditions that you need to put an altogether stop to. Try to remember as much as possible that neither outcome is shameful and neither outcome should be moralised.
Learning about what works for you
One size does not fit all where self-care is concerned. Not only is it vital to figure out what methods and behaviours work for you, it is also important to be aware of ‘problem displacement’, as I call it i.e. substituting one problem or coping mechanism with another.
Some common examples:
Replacing substance abuse with exercise - superficially healthy but can lead to disordered and obsessive eating/ exercise.
Seeking transactionary pleasure from things like impulse buying and sexual exploration - may be fun and liberating, but may also take the shape of hyper-sexuality as a symptom of underlying problems.
Mantras and cathartic coping rituals snowballing into compulsive behaviours i.e. thinking that if you stop doing or reciting something, your life will inexplicably fall apart.
As a community, we need to get better at recognising the difference between sound, well-researched mental illness management and commercially motivated attempts to get us to buy stuff and engage with content online. Your clicks and likes are a form of currency and not everything out there to do with self-care is propagated with your best interests in mind. Navigate the world of commercialised self-care with critical analysis and an intimate knowledge of yourself always borne in mind.
Image: therosequartzgoddess (Pinterest)