If you have spent any time on the internet in recent years, you’ll have heard of self-care. It’s everywhere. At its core, self-care is “care of the self without medical or other professional consultation.”
What was once confined to the self management of chronic illnesses has become part of everyday language and interactions. The difficulty is that it means different things to different people.
At the end of most sessions my therapist tells me to be kind to myself. I always say I will, but it’s only in the last six months that I’ve fully examined what this means for me.
Scrolling through Instagram it strikes me that I rarely see men talk about treating themselves. They photograph things they’ve purchased and the food they eat, but they rarely frame these things as treats.
Does this mean that men focus on themselves less? Or is the way we talk about self-care gendered? More and more it’s something I see packaged as a women’s issue. Women are told that looking after themselves involves this face mask, that nail polish or having a girl’s night at the latest ‘must be seen in’ restaurant. The commodification of women’s lived experiences in order to sell them ‘must have’ products that are anything but helps no-one, not least because those items aren’t accessible to everyone.
That’s not to say relaxing baths, fancy candles and focusing on skincare aren’t important to people who enjoy those things. They are. After months of trying every mindfulness technique I could find to no avail, except frustration, I realise that the 10 or 15 minutes I spend on skincare twice a day is the time I spend being mindful. Acknowledging this practice helps.
Here’s where it gets complicated, at least for me. Sometimes the things I tell myself are self-care is actually avoidance. I’ll just read a few more chapters becomes a way of not taking the dog for a walk, which means not having to get dressed. Buying things purely because they catch my eye becomes a way of not having to deal with my feelings. This doesn’t end well.
Self-care is as complex and varied as there are people who practice it. There is no one size fits all. Yet society tells women to buy the thing because we’ve earned it and tells people with mental health difficulties that exercise will solve their problems.
I think self-care is vital; I wouldn’t be here without it. But it can only do so much; it isn’t a substitute for outside help. This is particularly important to remember when it comes to mental health. Placing the entire onus to ‘get well’ on someone with a mental illness can be dangerous. Sometimes the last thing you are capable of doing when you’re in the thick of it are the very things at the top of every self-care list; going for a walk, mindfulness etc.
How do we find a balance? And where do we draw the line? Properly funded mental health services are essential. It’s all well and good being told to speak to someone. There actually needs to be therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists available when people look for help. There are times when self-care can only do so much. It’s important that we not lose sight of that.
Sometimes curling up in bed with a book is the best form of self-care, but sometimes you have to get up and put the washing on. Sometimes that’s the best thing you can do for yourself. Sometimes it’s hard to know which one you need to do. And that’s OK.