If someone tells me to have a bubble bath one more time I just may scream.
In recent years, self-care has shifted in mainstream dialogue from having a specific definition to being loosely applied to anything vaguely related to feeling good. We have before, of course, seen pop psychology and social media transform important concepts (for example, emotional labour and mindfulness), misusing and warping these phrases until they’ve lost all real meaning and become almost jibberish.
Self-care shouldn’t be all cosy nights in, avoiding responsibilities.Credit:Stocksy
Ignoring my Facebook message? That’s gaslighting. Forgetting my cat’s birthday? Abuse. Drawing attention to the fact I don’t have a cat? Stop shaming me and get out of my house.
When I trained as a social worker, the importance of self-care was emphasised repeatedly, both throughout my studies and in the workplace. Generally speaking, it referred to the act of looking after yourself; ensuring your needs (physical, emotional, spiritual) were being met so you could adequately attend to others and generally exist in the world as a functioning adult without feeling exhausted or guilty all the time.
Lately, I’ve noticed the definition has been stretched like pizza dough and is now used to mean virtually anything. A quick Google search for "self-care" now encourages people to constantly be booking regular massages, buying themselves gifts and – oh yes – the endless bubble baths.
It goes without saying (and yet here I am saying it), but there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these activities in and of itself. Where we run into trouble is using these activities as a means of avoidance or distraction of real feelings and issue; when we bury our heads in the bubble baths and shout LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU OVER ALL THIS FRANGIPANI-SCENTED SELF-CARE.
I’m absolutely guilty of this because I have done it, and still do. I’ll let social anxiety defeat me and cancel plans with friends, staying in feeling lonely while justifying this act as "self-care".
“I’ve had a long week,” I coo to myself, curling up in bed at 6pm and eating chips for dinner for the third night in a row. “This is necessary.”
Sure, sometimes a night in is required! But it’s important for us to tap into the motivations behind our behaviours.
Sometimes self-care looks less like a pedicure and more like finally having that difficult conversation with an employer.
Self-care doesn’t always feel good, and it shouldn’t. Bettering yourself is hard. Looking after yourself can be difficult. Engaging in unhealthy behaviours and justifying them as "self-care: is an easy way to continue a cycle of self-destruction.
“I deserve this,” we say, adding to credit card debt.
Sometimes self-care looks less like a pedicure and more like finally having that difficult conversation with an employer. Or quitting smoking. Or writing a letter to your MP about a social issue. Forcing yourself out of your comfort zone. Or going to the party despite feeling anxious and awkward and thinking, Hooley dooley doesn’t my bed look cosy right now?
None of the above activities sound especially soothing or fun, and that’s okay. At the risk of sounding like an elderly relative who allegedly hiked ten kilometres to school each day in the snow, sometimes we have to sit with discomfort for long-term benefit.
I’m lucky to have loved ones in my life who gently bring my attention to habits that aren’t helping me. Of course, mental health issues hinder people being able to snap their fingers and always challenge themselves, and there are people who sacrifice their own pleasure in life and probably do need to indulge in some pampering. But that’s the point: there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
We all have our own goals and I feel we should be
encouraging and supporting people around us to achieve these. Rallying around each other and fostering a sense of community instead of suggesting we all hide away by ourselves and paint our toenails.
Dialectical Behaviour Therapy proposes that even the most uncertain individual is capable of developing inner wisdom and making choices that act in their best interest, without harming themselves or others. They call it "Wise Mind".
Yes, for our own sanity we need to engage in fun things. But let’s treat adults as adults and encourage each other to check in, acknowledge when we are lying to ourselves about certain habits without beating ourselves up. Perhaps the Wise Mind exists somewhere between self-compassion and accountability.
And please, I beg of you: stop telling me to have a bubble bath.
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