Are you actually practicing self-care or is it just another way of performing? For many of us overachievers, we missed the memo that self-care is not meant to be another opportunity for us to continue optimising, achieving and improving ourselves. This can look like being fixated on beating your personal best in a workout, multi-tasking to make the most of your time, punishing yourself for not being relaxed ‘enough’. It further perpetuates our perfectionism and we introduces ‘shoulds’: that we should be doing more, we should be utilizing our time better, we should be improving, we should be relaxed. This ‘self-care’ then creates more stress than what we originally started with and we can feel irritable or frustrated at ourselves. If it’s stressing you out, it’s not really self-care.
Another side of this is that we're also fed this message that self-care is all bubble baths and skincare. Even as I look up stock photos of self-care, all that comes up is women and femmes doing face masks and lathering their bodies in oils. Not only is it highly gendered, it's bound up in capitalism and the idea that you can buy mental health and get it delivered to your door in 3-5 business days - like this face mask and the temporary dopamine boost will make you forget about the ills of the world. It sells you the idea that your individual mental health is the problem and the solution is a few clicks away.
I offer a reframe on self-care: Self-care is actually meant to be about listening to our needs. Yes, it can absolutely look like improving on a workout or multi-tasking as mentioned earlier, but it’s a significantly different flavor when we approach it from a space of acceptance and care rather than self-punishment and urgency. It’s a useful question to ask yourself about what you consider and prioritise as self-care, and making sure we have a range of tools in the toolbox that we can choose between depending on our energy, time and desire.
More on the point of gender, the most common responses when I ask my male clients about this topic is that their self-care is one of two things: gaming or sleeping. I'm seeing a trend in younger clients where it is shifting, but more often than not it's one of the two being used as a distraction or as a reaction to being exhausted. Gaming and/or sleeping are wonderful, I'm not dismissing that but all this show of bubble baths and skincare does leave the conversation of self-care inaccessible for other genders. It leaves everyone worse off because we're disconnected from our needs and our bodies and that can have ripple effects on our lives and our relationships. It's a multi-edged sword.
Self-care isn't a tick-a-box one time thing or another measure of your productivity. It's a practice of identifying, prioritising and listening to your needs. Self-care can absolutely be juice cleanses, bubble baths, video-games and distractions, but it shouldn't be the entirety of it. It sure as hell isn't always glossy, shiny things to buy or to post about. It's how we look after ourselves which is often quiet and unassuming like feeling your feelings, learning to say no to others and yes to yourself, discipline about your routine or not texting your ex.
Most importantly, we're not endless self-improvement machines or projects to be fixed. We shouldn't have to feel bad for just existing and then trying to use self-care as a way to placate that void inside us. In a world that is centred in quick fixes and self-abandonment, self-care is a practice we hone over a lifetime.