Being extremely honest with one’s self is a good exercise.
“Self care” has become ubiquitous. If you search the term, you find millions of articles and posts giving you five ways to give yourself what you deserve, seventy inspiring quotes, and why it’s important to take care of yourself first. If you don’t search the term, you’ll still find dozens of references on your friends’ Instagram or in almost any conversation with people who practice yoga or blog about whole foods. These people and articles tell us that we have to take time for ourselves and it’s okay to spend time and money on ourselves. “Love yourself!” “You deserve it!”
In one sense, this movement is great. In an age of rushing and cramming and stressing, it’s important not to run ourselves raw or try give more than we have. If you don’t ever take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of anyone else. Never tending to your own needs and wants isn’t a healthy way to live. In the past, topics like mental health weren’t discussed in a positive light, and it’s wonderful that we’ve moved forward to promoting positive mental health instead of just telling people to “suck it up” or “deal with it.”
All of this is fine and good. But too often, I see this concept go way too far, to the point that it is frankly appalling.
Chelsea Fagan defined “internet self-care” this way:
The act of doing (or not doing) literally anything, regardless of long-term consequences or impact on others, as long as it makes you feel good in the moment. … justifies essentially any activity, behavior, spending, or opting out as not just productive but morally right, if done under the guise of self-care.
Under this definition, you are the center of the universe, and only your desires and comfort matter to you. The theory is that you are totally justified in doing what you want– taking a day off of work, not answering the phone, spending money on expensive luxuries, not getting your homework done, eating a quart of ice cream–and anyone who gets mad at your for it is victimizing and unfeeling. You have to take care of you.
This mindset has taken off, most notably on the internet, and to test the idea I ran a quick experiment with google autofill. When I typed in “self care is” the top results included, “not selfish,” “so important,” “how to take your power back,” and “a divine responsibility.” When I typed in “self love is” the top results included “the best kind of love,” “important,” and “the greatest medicine.” I tried every variation I could think of to try to find a negative result, but I couldn’t do it. “Self care is bad” returned the suggestion “self care badges” and “self care after bad day.” “Self care is wrong” returned no suggestions at all, as if the internet was shocked that I would even suggest this. I managed to find a few articles that called self care into question, but they were a minority bordering on nonexistence.
It’s not hard to understand why “self care” has taken off. This way of thinking is extremely satisfying in the short term. No one wants to hear that they need to grow up and do the responsible thing. When we indulge our impractical desires, “self care” lets us justify ourselves and think we were actually doing something wholesome. It lets us feel good about doing what already feels good in the moment. It lets us celebrate our laziness, appetites, whims, pettiness, and general childishness. It lets us temporarily let go of our responsibilities.
But therein lies the problem. This only works and only feels good in the short term. When we open our eyes, it is very obvious that our immediate cravings are not the center of the universe. We are surrounded with people who all have their own agendas, plans, needs, and immediate cravings, and we have to consider them. We have our future self to think about too. This model of self care only emphasizes what feels good right now, and not what is better for us in the long run.
The aforementioned writer also pointed this out:
“Self-care” doesn’t, and shouldn’t, mean “what feels good in the moment,” because that is literally the emotional compass of a toddler. … Our personal definitions of happiness should have a horizon that extends way, way past “the end of the day,” because being an adult means being able to imagine our future, and being a mature one means taking a little discomfort now in order to shape it.
No matter how unpleasant, “sucking it up” and “dealing with it” are often the right thing to do. We’re not toddlers; we’re adults. If we really want to take care of ourselves, we need to think about our long term goals, what we will need in the future, and what others need from us. We can’t just sing ourselves a lullaby of “you deserve it” and “love yourself,” curl up in a bubble, rock ourselves to sleep, and forget about real life. Allow me to be frank; that is pure selfishness. If that’s all we did, we’d never publish a book, never sell a painting, never move forward in any career.
Another angle is to consider what proponents of self care claim its basis is: “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” From this perspective, one of the main purposes of self care is so that you are able to better care for those around you. I fully support this purpose, but it regularly slips through the cracks and disappears. In the words of Nitika Chopra:
[People will] do all this stuff to feel really good, but then they aren’t taking any time to go put that energy out into the world. What are you doing with all this good energy and good vibes that you are making sure you have all the time?
Too often we spend time solely on our cravings justified by cute quotes–an empty lantern gives no light, you can’t serve from an empty vessel–and then do nothing to fulfill their meaning. It’s understandable–we’re tired, we’re stressed, we just want to watch Netflix until our eyes glaze over and our problems fade away, and then we can resume life the next day as though nothing changed. But this notion of instant self-gratification does very little to make our lives better, and does nothing for all those proverbial empty cups.
There’s nothing wrong with indulging, once in a while. If you’ve had a long hard week, go ahead and take a bubble bath. If you worked your tail off and earned your degree or got a big promotion, go celebrate. Have some cake. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. If you’re having a really hard mental health day or you’ve truly run yourself ragged, take a moment to listen to your favorite music, go on a walk, or take a nap. That’s okay. But let those moments be the exception, not the rule.
Instead of always doing what is easy and pleasant, challenge yourself. When you take a moment for yourself, use that positive energy to make the world around you better. Work a little harder, wake up a little earlier, run a little faster–you have your whole life ahead of you, and it will be what you make it.
After all, the path of least emotional resistance doesn’t really lead us anywhere.
You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.
What do you think?
How much “self care” is too much, and how do we balance it with responsibility?