Self-care has become one of the hot, new phrases I see in the social media and blog world, and I am touched by the degree of interest in this particular topic. Yet, I’m also saddened, as so much of what pops up on my feed or in magazines emphasizes the idea that self-care requires action that “betters” or “improves” who you are.
I have been in therapy since I was 13. As an adolescent, I went to multiple outpatient programs for recovery from an eating disorder. I checked myself into an inpatient eating disorder center the year I graduated from college. I have recovered from an eating disorder, and I have survived a rape. I have a yoga practice and meditation practice, and I am a student of the dharma. I am also a licensed mental health professional.
Here is what I have learned: Self-care is what happens when you meet yourself as you are, and where you are.
Simple. But not easy. We live in a culture where comparison and competition is deeply stitched into our societal conditioning.
My concern with the current popularization of self-care is that it feeds into a societal conditioning that we are supposed to feel good all the time, and to strive at all costs. We are a culture of scarcity—aka “not enough.” As a result, while well intended, I am watching perfectionism and improvement make their way into the concept of “self-care.” Self-care then becomes a fluffy term to assign to the unsustainable diet, exercise plan, meditation, resolution, or general schedule overhaul that feels “urgent” in any given moment. Many of us actually engage in self-harming behaviors while believing we are engaging in “self-care.” Often, our efforts at “self-care” become the inner critic’s latest whip when we fall short of whatever unsustainable promise we made to ourselves.
My concern with the current popularization of self-care is that it feeds into a societal conditioning that we are supposed to feel good all the time, and to strive at all costs.
This belief structure has led to an epidemic of panic when we experience various forms of suffering—including (but not limited to) loneliness, inadequacy, fear, sadness, grief, anger, insecurity, guilt, and shame.
When we experience these emotions, self-compassion in the form of self-care is absolutely called for. However, how you define self-care at those moments can also lead to further suffering by reinforcing the initial hardship you experienced, rather than by encouraging you to learn to care for yourself in this space, increasing healing and resiliency.
There is nothing wrong with engaging in things you enjoy if you are having a hard time and want to feel better. That can be a wonderful coping skill.
But when inadequacy arises and we resolve to engage in extreme behavior in efforts to make ourselves “adequate,” it is helpful to recognize the self-rejection at work. The belief that “I am not adequate as I am, and I have to be different than I am right now in order to be good enough” can take many forms. Faster, stronger, prettier, thinner, bigger, richer, straighter, more powerful, more successful, kinder, smarter, more educated, whiter, cooler, more accepting, more spiritual, more godly, the list goes on and on. When you engage in an activity in the name of “self-care” or “self-love” in an effort to quiet a feeling of scarcity, it is something quite opposite to self-care and self-love. It is self-aggression.
Tara Mohr speaks to this beautifully: “Where we think we need more self-discipline, we usually need more self-love.” I find Mohr’s quote like a thick, healing balm for my inner striver.
Culturally, we are led to believe that if we care for ourselves where we are we will fail to “succeed.” Or become stagnant and lazy. Here is a staggering truth: Various new studies show that self-compassion and acceptance of failures actually leads to increased motivation and productivity! While this may pacify the part of us that likes to strive and succeed, it is very much NOT the point, as the goal is not product here.
Here is the good news: True self-care can happen in any moment. Particularly when you are being hard on yourself for not doing the “self-care” thing. (Like maybe right now. Seriously. Pause. Check in. Do you have the courage to be with what you are feeling in your body right now? And if not, can you stay with the intolerance? It does count.)
True self-care is deeply felt because it is free of the aggression of self-improvement. It feels more authentic than an affirmation (that can feel like a lie you are trying to convince yourself of by repeating it again and again). True self-care is not driven by an effort to become more or better. It meets you right where you are, just as you are.
Let’s start now. Take a moment to pause. Remind yourself that you are not alone in having a comparing, striving mind. You are not alone if your mind is lethargic and unmotivated. These are opposite ends of the continuum of our cultural conditioning.
Feel yourself routed to whatever you are standing or sitting on. Right now. Even if you can’t feel it yet, someone inside you deeply cares for you. After all, you did just read this post.
Go here to learn about the Yoga and Body Image Coalition's Self-Care as Self-Love campaign with Carly Strong.