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When Self-Care Becomes Problematic

There is a fine line between self-care and selfishness.

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Our culture's growing willingness to discuss mental wellness with such openness has inspired the popular concept of self-care, which basically means "treat yourself". But consciously caring for oneself isn't just spa-days and long naps. It's also cutting "negative energies" out of your life. It's turning off your phone and going M.I.A. for days. It's ghosting without having to deal with confrontation. It's a lot of things that are considered selfish if anyone were to do it to you.

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear I'm not critiquing what self-care actually is, which literally means taking care of your emotional and mental wellbeing. Nor am I making light of those real moments when self-preservation is truly the only remedy for mental distress. I'm challenging pop culture's version of the practice.

The internet be like...

When I flake on people: It's OK to cancel last minute. It's OK to not explain why. It's self-care. :-)

When others flake on me: How toxic! How selfish! I DON'T NEED THAT KIND OF NEGATIVE ENERGY!

If you let social media tell it, self-care is all about the "You". Concern and regard for anyone else be damned.

Now, when I say "you", I'm not actually talking about you. "You" in this sense is an entity, a singular unique being whose importance ranks higher than anyone else's. Yet, somehow we are all this "You" and we expect everyone to recognize that we are the one and only "You" who matters.

Hop onto Instagram and you'll find countless memes that encourage people to drop friends who don't support them but hardly any messages that encourage people to support their friends. Your energy is ~sacred~ and anyone who disturbs Your energy (or just isn't fun to be around, tbh) is toxic. By this logic, we're all pure and toxic at the same time, we are all right and wrong, and we all undoubtedly deserve the love and support we believe others should earn from us.

We demand the very things we don't think we need to give back.

There's this message that suggests we're all living in a world where only Your existence is valid and everyone else is some sort of simulation whose sole purpose is to affect Your life. If we're all operating from such a self-serving point of view, how can we expect anyone to serve us or our needs? Social media's version of self-care is me-centered in all the wrong ways.

If I'm starting to sound all preachy, allow me to step off the soapbox and give a full disclaimer:

Self-care is one of my favorite excuses for whenever I don't want to deal with shit.

Adult responsibilities too hard and confusing to accomplish right now? I'll take a bunch of BuzzFeed quizzes instead, in the name of self-care.

Weird vibes in my sorta hopeful situationship? Cut all ties and move on without a word, in the name of self-care.

My fitness and health goals staring me in the face, begging me to just learn some discipline? Order some greasy Chinese takeout, in the name of self-care.

Need to address a pressing issue with a friend that could possibly lead to an uncomfortable conversation? Ignore the phone call, in the name of self-care. I can go on, but I think I've dragged myself enough.

As a person who struggles with anxiety and depression, checking-out is my way of checking-in. I can disappear for days, cutting off all communication with the world, if I'm really going through it. This coping mechanism is a result of me being a people pleaser and constantly spreading myself too thin. It feels good to take a break. It even feels good to ignore everyone else and focus on my issues. As I learn to be kinder to myself and set aside some me-time every now and then, I'm realizing the purpose of self-care should not be self-indulgent.

The whole reason behind taking care of yourself is to make sure you're the best version of yourself to help and serve others in the world.

There is a fine line between self-care and selfishness, and that line is defined by perspective.

I've straddled this line, sometimes falling on either side. I usually figure out which side I am on by how my self-care affects people in my life. Of course, we all know not everyone will appreciate our self-care. Not everyone will understand why you can't be available for them whenever they want you to be. But the way to gauge whether or not your self-care is selfish is to ask yourself if your actions are actually hurting anyone, or rather (if you want to keep it really real) if your actions are just rooted in resentment.

I think the whole "me-first, me-only" kind of self-care is steeped in bitterness. It's usually done in spite or to provoke a reaction from someone; and it definitely doesn't serve our best selves. I've experienced this on both sides — one side being the one doing selfish shit, and the other being on the receiving end of selfishness.

I've had someone I was really close with walk out of my life without explanation. Things had gotten weird between us — chemistry was off, unspoken tension. I addressed the awkwardness, which led to more awkwardness and just like that, I was cut off. No texts or calls. Not even a "Happy Birthday" for when the time came around.

A year later, I heard from the person who finally chalked up the friendship exile as misplaced anger disguised as self-care. Whatever they were going through, they felt as if I was a reason or reminder of their issues — those issues still existed without me by the way. (As they say, it's never really about you and it's never really about them. Our issues are our issues alone.) According to their words, they felt like hurting me would heal them — it didn't.

I'd be remiss if I didn't admit that I've also done something similar to others. Sometimes when we are under a lot of stress, we find blame in spaces it does not exist. Example: I'm unhappy because my loved one's life is going great and mine isn't. It's not fair. I suddenly don't like them.

Cutting your folks off or being rude to them will never fix your issues — at least, it can't be the only fix.

Self-care requires self-evaluation and self-work.

On the flip side, we also can't take the distance personally. Even if it's rooted in resentment, it could possibly be best for the person as they navigate their own healing. What if every time we felt someone was being a unsupportive or absent from our lives, it was really just them practicing self-care? What if the reason your mate was being distant and weird wasn't because of toxic energy but because they're dealing with heavy stuff they are unable to share? Imagine if every time your friend flaked on you or didn't call to check-in, they were busy caring for themselves (and maybe even hoping you'd check in on them). Why is it only self-care when You do it?

This world can feel very lonely and it's very easy to focus on our own problems in a way that makes it seem like they're the only ones that exist. But the truth is, everyone has stuff going on, everyone feels pain.

We're always going to be the protagonist in our story and we can only view life through our own perspective. Most of us probably believe we're on the right side of all situations. Most of us probably even believe we're the only ones who put the needs of others before our own.

But generally speaking, we are all givers and takers in some way or another, and I think it's worth evaluating what exactly are we giving too much of and then set boundaries from there.

Of course, no one needs permission to practice self-care; this isn't what this article is about. However, there should be a way of managing our relationship with the people in our lives and with our self without compromising either. For me, it comes down to communication, consideration, and checking my intentions. Am I ghosting this person because they truly are toxic to my mental health or am I trying to prove a point? Does my friend actually know why I'm pissed? Am I communicating my issues or am I unfairly assuming they already know? Is this self-care practice making me a better person? Are my actions burdening someone else?

I believe that recognizing that everyone has their own perspective elevates emotional intelligence and helps us better understand our relationships. No matter what you do, even if it's something as wonderful as catering to your own needs, there will be a consequence. For example, deciding to turn off your phone and skip an important meeting can be a great day for you but an awful and stressful day for your team. Being good to yourself doesn't have to mean being shitty to others. It would be ironic otherwise.

Why not grant each other the same peace we desire? Your boundaries, your "no's", your "me-times" are meant to make you a better, happier, healthier human being who can then have the capacity to deal with other human beings.

Your self-care shouldn't have to come at the expense of another's.

xoNecole is always looking for new voices and empowering stories to add to our platform. If you have an interesting story or personal essay that you'd love to share, we'd love to hear from you. Contact us at submissions@xonecole.com.

Originally published May 27, 2018

Featured image by Shutterstock

Before she was Amira Unplugged, rapper, singer, and a Becoming a Popstar contestant on MTV, she was Amira Daughtery, a twenty-five year-old Georgian, with aspirations of becoming a lawyer. “I thought my career path was going to lead me to law because that’s the way I thought I would help people,” Amira tells xoNecole. “[But] I always came back to music.”

A music lover since childhood, Amira grew up in an artistic household where passion for music was emphasized. “My dad has always been my huge inspiration for music because he’s a musician himself and is so passionate about the history of music.” Amira’s also dealt with deafness in one ear since she was a toddler, a condition which she says only makes her more “intentional” about the music she makes, to ensure that what she hears inside her head can translate the way she wants it to for audiences.

“The loss of hearing means a person can’t experience music in the conventional way,” she says. “I’ve always responded to bigger, bolder anthemic songs because I can feel them [the vibrations] in my body, and I want to be sure my music does this for deaf/HOH people and everyone.”

A Black woman wearing a black hijab and black and gold dress stands in between two men who are both wearing black pants and colorful jackets and necklaces

Amira Unplugged and other contestants on Becoming a Popstar

Amira Unplugged / MTV

In order to lift people’s spirits at the beginning of the pandemic, Amira began posting videos on TikTok of herself singing and using sign language so her music could reach her deaf fans as well. She was surprised by how quickly she was able to amass a large audience. It was through her videos that she caught the attention of a talent scout for MTV’s new music competition show for rising TikTok singers, Becoming a Popstar. After a three-month process, Amira was one of those picked to be a contestant on the show.

Becoming a Popstar, as Amira describes, is different from other music competition shows we’ve all come to know over the years. “Well, first of all, it’s all original music. There’s not a single cover,” she says. “We have to write these songs in like a day or two and then meet with our producers, meet with our directors. Every week, we are producing a full project for people to vote on and decide if they’d listen to it on the radio.”

To make sure her deaf/HOH audiences can feel her songs, she makes sure to “add more bass, guitar, and violin in unique patterns.” She also incorporates “higher pitch sounds with like chimes, bells, and piccolo,” because, she says, they’re easier to feel. “But it’s less about the kind of instrument and more about how I arrange the pattern of the song. Everything I do is to create an atmosphere, a sensation, to make my music a multi-sensory experience.”

She says that working alongside the judges–pop stars Joe Jonas and Becky G, and choreographer Sean Bankhead – has helped expand her artistry. “Joe was really more about the vocal quality and the timber and Becky was really about the passion of [the song] and being convinced this was something you believed in,” she says. “And what was really great about [our choreographer] Sean is that obviously he’s a choreographer to the stars – Lil Nas X, Normani – but he didn’t only focus on choreo, he focused on stage presence, he focused on the overall message of the song. And I think all those critiques week to week helped us hone in on what we wanted to be saying with our next song.”

As her star rises, it’s been both her Muslim faith and her friends, whom she calls “The Glasses Gang” (“because none of us can see!”), that continue to ground her. “The Muslim and the Muslima community have really gone hard [supporting me] and all these people have come together and I truly appreciate them,” Amira says. “I have just been flooded with DMs and emails and texts from [young muslim kids] people who have just been so inspired,” she says. “People who have said they have never seen anything like this, that I embody a lot of the style that they wanted to see and that the message hit them, which is really the most important thing to me.”

A Black woman wears a long, salmon pink hijab, black outfit and pink boots, smiling down at the camera with her arm outstretched to it.

Amira Unplugged

Amira Unplugged / MTV

Throughout the show’s production, she was able to continue to uphold her faith practices with the help of the crew, such as making sure her food was halal, having time to pray, dressing modestly, and working with female choreographers. “If people can accept this, can learn, and can grow, and bring more people into the fold of this industry, then I’m making a real difference,” she says.

Though she didn’t win the competition, this is only the beginning for Amira. Whether it’s on Becoming a Popstar or her videos online, Amira has made it clear she has no plans on going anywhere but up. “I’m so excited that I’ve gotten this opportunity because this is really, truly what I think I’m meant to do.”

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