Why does self-care seem to suck so much…
You know that sinking feeling you get in your stomach when you hear the words “self-care”? The one that makes you want to both cry and laugh at the same time. This is because we are taught from a very young age that our feelings, needs and wants don’t matter and that we are supposed to do what we are told without complaint to be good members of society, good team mates, good workers, etc. Self-care is in conflict with what our system demands of us. It shouldn’t have to be a revolutionary act to take care of ourselves, yet for so many it is. Natalie Chen gets it!
Written By Natalie Chen, LMFT, CCTP (she/her), and specialist in trauma, attachment, adoption, LGBTQ+, and fat liberation, as well as how systems of oppression impact mental health.
I guess it’s good that self-care is back in the conversation. I might be biased since I am a mental health professional, but I hear about self-care now more than I ever have before. Awesome, right? I mean, yeah but….I need to be honest when I tell you even now when I think about self-care it USUALLY comes from someone in power (think boss, teacher, parent, whatever) and sometimes has an undertone of “I need you to not let your personal issues get in the way of your productivity.” Ugh, capitalism am I right? And usually the self-care they offer is trite or inaccessible: take a bath! do yoga! pet a dog! (I mean, if you can pet a dog do that) eat pizza on the couch! spend your money on a mani! go shopping! drink a $9 green smoothie! #selfcare #blessed.
It makes my eyes roll so hard. I cannot. There are two main issues I take when I hear this call to self-care: 1) IS taking a bath really going to help me navigate day to day systemic barriers I face? Maybe oppression and harm I face from the person telling me to just do “self-care”? 2) It takes some resources to engage in the social-media cute forms of self-care. It takes time. it takes money. It takes having a safe, perhaps private space. Not everyone has these resources—do they just not deserve self-care?
I want to spend some time in the practical. I do not believe the solution is to just toss out the idea of caring for ourselves, but I do believe we need to look at it from a non-capitalism perspective. Usually, at least as I have seen it, caring for ourselves is delivered as a targeted ad or from someone like an employer. The purpose of self-care is to make a purchase/sell a product or to increase productivity. I want to talk about self-care that is way more boring, way more meaningful, and actually doesn’t suck. It’s actually radical to care for ourselves in a world that wants to suck us dry, particularly BIPOC, LGBTQ+, fat-identified, and disabled folks. You deserve awesome care in a world that tries to shrink you. I do also want to call out my own privilege of being a generally neurotypical, white, cisgender woman and I cannot fully understand (but am committed to the process of forever learning) about the intricacies of self-care for more identities.
Honestly, I think the Sims does a weirdly good job of demonstrating self-care. Hear me out. If you are well-rested, if you’re nourished, if you’ve had social interactions, stuff like that—your mood goes up. We’re sort of just Sims like that, at least how I like to start looking at self-care. If I am not sleeping well, using a bath bomb isn’t going to really make much of a difference. If I am super mean to myself all day and have poor social interactions (or maybe no meaningful interactions), I don’t think buying a fancy coffee is going to be a game-changer. It’s also REALLY important to note the impact of the ever-changing news cycle that throws really horrific news in our faces constantly, especially for the groups the news is about. It can undermine a sense of safety, it can create unending tension, it can raise cortisol—a green smoothie isn’t going to take care of that.
I do also want to note that it feels gross that “self-care” is honestly just basic human needs. Sleeping, eating, moving, having access to safe spaces SHOULD NOT BE SELF-CARE, it should be a guarantee. Unfortunately, that is aspirational as of now (thanks, capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, etc) and for our purposes I will be considering it as a form of self-care where as my true belief is the below should all be basic, “do not need to be earned” non-negotiables.
Let’s break it down to what I think self-care, self-preservation, and maintenance includes:
Sleep: Do I have an environment where I can sleep peacefully? Does my schedule allow me to sleep enough? Does my anxiety keep me up all night?
Nourishment: We ALL need to eat stuff we enjoy that makes us feel good. I 1000% am not talking just veggies and green smoothies all day. I am talking about things that feed our bodies and souls, from all food groups, without worry. This is very complex for many folx. We can talk about that together. I get it. I think it can also be really incredible to spend some time eating foods from our ancestral roots, honoring the people from which we came, especially for BIPOC folx who may have experienced nutritional whitewashing.
Maintaining our mental health and physical conditions: If we take medications that help us get through the day and help us feel better, taking these as recommended can be a non-negotiable element of self-care. For some people, going to therapy is an incredible form of self-care—a space to feel heard, accepted, AND to heal generational trauma and pursue new ways of existing that feel better? Incredible. I understand that access to this care is a true privilege for many. If you need support finding resources accessible to you, check out my Resources page.
Movement: Another complex one for a lot of folx. The diet and “wellness” industry tells us we need to move to lose weight/be thin, and that’s quite frankly absolute bullshit. Moving joyfully is great for our brains and our self-esteem, worrying about calories burned is not. I have linked a current fave of mine here: a dance meditation to relieve anxiety for all bodies and abilities. Connecting with our bodies as they are is a radical act of love and grounding.
Social Interactions: If we spend our time with people who enrich our lives, accept us and celebrate us as we are, and provide joyful, meaningful interactions, we will feel better. Being seen and accepted is an absolutely critical piece of mental health and healing. If you find that you often feel drained or hurt after your interactions, or if you struggle with loneliness, there’s an opportunity to pursue meaningful community through boundary setting and exploring areas where you do feel seen, loved, and accepted.
Self-talk: The way we speak to ourselves matters! The good news is that even if we beat ourselves up a lot now, we can work to be kinder to ourselves. How would you speak to someone you love? Do you speak to yourself the same way? You’re probably doing better than you think you are, and seeing yourself in a kinder light is an excellent form of self-love. This can also include forgiving ourselves, which can be easier said than done, but well worth the pursuit.
Play: Play does not end when our childhood ends! That’s such a lie! Allowing play, silliness, fun, and joy is super good for our brains and helps us connect with different parts of ourselves that need some attention. If you’re able, have a dance party with yourself (maybe even create a hype playlist), be silly, and allow yourself to connect with those pieces of yourself.
Slowing down and de-capitalizing self-care can be in our reach. It’s not glamorous. It won’t make a hit TikTok or super cute Insta post, but it also may be more accessible and sustainable than getting a massage. Stay tuned for a discussion on how to engage in self-care (and what that even MEANS) when the systems in which we engage crush our souls. For now, I hope you feel some empowerment to figure out what recharging your battery could include for you.