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.
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Originally published May 27, 2018
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