Self-Care, But Unironically
It’s Saturday today. It’s the day off I force myself to take; I slept in, did an hour of yoga, sipped on my fancy tea. I call it self-care, even though it’s somehow more stressful to think about taking care of myself than it is to think about work.
Since I started taking my mental health somewhat seriously, I’ve been trying to make an actual effort to treat myself with some compassion. I cannot expect myself to be happy when I’m constantly in this slightly manic state of overwork, undereating, and working out an hour a day while I progressively get up earlier and earlier to fit more in.
Self-care is a phrase that makes me balk. We do not measure success in how mentally healthy we are, and we’re more tangibly success-orientated than we ever have been; it’s much easier for me to point at the amount I’ve written this week or the money I’ve made or the number of hours I’ve worked out and feel successful because of it, than it is to admit that I skipped out on a few days of all of that to care for myself. You can’t post a picture of your improved mental wellbeing on social media, you know?
I know a lot of people feel the same way: a part of that is because the term self-care has long-since been separated from Audre Lorde definition of self-care as a political act, and now, more than anything, it feels like a flagrant and often hollow display of indulgence. It’s expensive bath bombs and pictures of neatly-arranged coffee cups next to slices of artisan cake; it’s something soft, gentle, feminine, inoffensive, attractive. It’s often sponsored content, a display by a cynical system that wants to turn their products to fit the latest trend and has found some way to fit self-care into that. hashtag self-care, I think to myself, as I binge on cookies after a stressful day at work. What I am doing is not caring, but it’s been carefully packaged as the kind of indulgence that passes as some catch-all act of self-love. I’ll probably run five miles to “make up” for it later. I won’t enjoy it.
If you’re anywhere near any kind of social media – and let’s be honest, most of us are – it’s this version of self-care that is passionately pushed as the standard. To the point that when I started looking into the term in a serious way, I found it all kind of alien. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the things that I saw in this curated care campaign, but they didn’t do much to improve my mental wellbeing. It all felt vaguely and pointlessly indulgent, a show of self-love rather than the feeling of it. It was easy to detach from that sort of self-care, because it never really felt like it had any grounding in true helpfulness for me.
Because, as Laurie Penny writes, “The harder, duller work of self-care is about the everyday, impossible effort of getting up and getting through your life.” It took me a long time to wrap my head around this notion, in a visceral sense – that self-care was not about what looked pretty, or what felt dully soothing in the moment but hurt long-term, but the difficult, irritating work of consistently trying to do better by myself.
That meant, for me, making choices that allowed me to live my life as close to my moral values as possible, even if it didn’t give me the immediate satisfaction in the moment. That meant eating nutritious food when I wanted nothing more than to binge on junk. That meant taking evasive action when I could feel a self-harming compulsion on the way, even if it was awkward and uncomfortable in the moment. Sometimes, it meant cancelling plans and staying in bed, and more often than not, it meant accepting that my depressive brain was telling me that that was a better option and getting up and seeing people because it was more effort but it made me feel better. That meant, basically, taking time to step back and try to focus on the sensible choice, the one that I knew was going to make my life (and, to some extent, the lives of the people around me) better in the long-term.
Self-care is difficult. If it was really just a matter of eating some nice food and getting a facial once a month – and don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and place for that stuff in a wider practice of self-care – then none of us would have any problem with it. But it’s self-care in the times of hardship – at the times when those things might not come easiest to us – that matters the most. And it might not be picturesque, and it might not be easy, and it might not be instantly tangible. Approaching self-care as an actual necessity in my life has been hard for my sarcastic rear end to take seriously, but here I am: trying to do self-care, unironically.
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