I once had a friend ask me a piece of advice often administered that I believed was actually bad advice; I quickly responded, “self care.” Although I had reason for this belief, I had a hard time articulating and understanding why I thought this, despite my conviction. Why would taking care of yourself be bad advice? I mentioned to this friend that many studies have found that people often actually feel better by doing things for others, such as volunteering, than by doing something for themselves, like buying themselves a new sweater. However, my explanation still didn’t seem to quell the curiosity I now had surrounding my ideas of self care. Upon greater reflection, I’ve found that the image of “self care” that I had encountered as a teenager and young adult was flawed, informed by ignorant, yet well meaning individuals on the internet. I believe I’ve come to a realization that more explicitly outlines why I was (and still am) so averse to the idea of “self care.”
In my opinion, the idea of “self care” has been so misused and overused, that it has lost its true meaning (like many other words and phrases in our culture). As a teenager growing up with social media, I encountered countless posts on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr regarding self care and absorbed these ideas perpetuated by uninformed users and self-righteous individuals (some of whom garnered large platforms due to their celebrity). More specifically, these self care tips were aimed at people who were dealing with some sort of emotional or psychological distress–issues that often require lots of dedication and attention to detail to solve. Many times, these self care posts came in the form of kitchy infographics of lazy platitudes. Ideas for self care activities floating around the interwebs tend to include the ancient wisdom of ~drinking water~ or ~eating~ or ~doing a facemask~, as if these basic modes of self sustainment are what fully constitute “self care.” Ultimately, these ideas collectively suggest that hard work (what I believe self care should actually represent) is not a form of loving oneself, but rather, simply relaxing, going easy on oneself, and participating in simple survival activities are the primary modalities of caring for oneself. Of course, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs demonstrates that without the basic forms of subsistence, one cannot progress to things like inner reflection or emotional stability; however, it may be important to consider that the audience these posts are reaching likely have most of their basic needs covered–they have a phone or computer, internet connection, and presumably enough free time to browse the internet for self care tips. I’m not implying or suggesting that everyone reading or consuming online self-care content has every one of their needs met–as I suggested, most of those consuming self-care content may experience some sort of mental or psychological challenges. Rather, I am implying that suggesting to a relatively well-off population (all things considered) that simply eating and drinking more water would solve their inner turmoil is pretty lazy.
Many of these vapid posts focus on making oneself comfortable, often preaching to rest! And that it’s okay if you fail or don’t push yourself! Everything’s fine! Everything’s okay! But it’s not okay to just pretend like everything is fine and dandy–self care isn’t about resting all the time and is often far more complicated than engaging in basic self sustaining activities or throwing on some comfy pants, drinking some tea, and watching something funny on Netflix. Those activities in moderation are perfectly fine, but using them as a cure-all to your mental hardships is misguided. I reject all of those silly posts written by 16 year-olds or the likes of Kristen Bell claiming that any social transgression is perfectly fine, that we need to “normalize” just about everything (without actually considering what that might look like), or that self care is buying yourself a new dress “just because” (it’s not).
When it comes to satisfying your need for emotional stability, self care must be inherently challenging–in order to help yourself grow as a person, allow yourself to be truly happy in the long-term, and to achieve your goals, you will have to do things that are uncomfortable. That may include foregoing your desire for a new dress, to sit on the couch and munch on some Oreos, or to go easy on yourself even though you know you have things you need to get done. For example, if you care about yourself, yet have huge insecurities, putting on a face mask and drinking some tea may make you feel good in the moment, but that tranquility is fleeting. Getting to the root of your insecurities requires concentrated inner reflection, often with the help of a professional; it requires you to reestablish negative thinking patterns and edit your automatic, harmful behaviors. If you want true and long lasting peace, you must go through a period of relative suffering, including critical self examination, deep questioning of one’s limiting beliefs, and moving far outside one’s comfort zone. As Dr. Jordan B. Peterson would likely put it, you must defeat the dragon (your inner demons) to secure the prize of gold (inner peace) that awaits you. As noted in Peterson’s intellectual work, ancient wisdom has demonstrated the need for relative suffering–Buddhism, Christianity, even the mythological Hero’s Journey all illustrate how suffering allows one to grow to Enlightenment and to get to where one needs to be. The Buddha famously mused that “life is suffering,” while Christian figures like Job, Jonah, and Jesus Christ himself underwent immense suffering, which contributed to their enlightenment and betterment. The very center of Christiantiy rests upon the suffering of Jesus (the ultimate ideal, in Peterson’s estimation), suggesting that selfless suffering will bring one closer to divinity, closer to peace. Heroes from mythological figures like Odysseus to Luke Skywalker experienced suffering that strengthened them, making them more wise. Philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Epictitus, and Marcus Aurelius preach about the importance of struggles and how one reacts to them, while modern figures like David Goggins also emphasize the importance of the struggle.
As I mentioned in a prior essay, life will present you with challenges–be they internal or external circumstances–and the only way to properly cope with such inevitable challenges is to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. There’s a reason that phrase is a cliche. There’s a reason why so many cultures and mythologies and philosophers demonstrate that suffering is a key component to reaching enlightenment. It’s because it’s true. When you’re in the depths of despair (for whatever reason), you must force yourself to get up, dust yourself off, and work to climb out of that pit you’ve fallen into. Following the advice purported by online self care enthusiasts acts simply as putting a band-aid over the problem, without actually identifying the problem. That’s why over-emphasizing rest and relaxation will not benefit you as much as you might think; rather, truly caring for yourself involves hard work, including physical challenges (such as a challenging workout or running a marathon), taking a long hard look at your thinking patterns and beliefs, and holding yourself accountable for your thoughts and actions. None of these things are necessarily fun…but that’s the entire point. When you put yourself through challenging situations, you not only prepare yourself for future life issues, but you will be more self assured, as being able to conquer those challenges breeds confidence. It’s far more impactful and concrete than simply covering up deep-rooted issues and being overly gentle with yourself. Of course, it is sometimes necessary to take it slow and relax, but it’s important to be honest with yourself in order to determine when a rest is truly necessary and when you should actually keep pushing. It’s a balancing act: being too harsh with yourself won’t get you anywhere either. But that’s part of the game.
My exploration of my innate frustration with the discourse surrounding “self care” has revealed more about my values and my outlook on life in general. I’ve learned more concretely that we will all face challenging times thanks to variables we cannot control. However, if we prepare for those challenging times by purposefully making ourselves uncomfortable and working hard even when we do not want to, we become more confident in our abilities to withstand the storms we will face, and can successfully navigate uncharted waters once we reach them. As such, these experiences, which require challenge rather than rest and giving in to one’s fleeting desires for comfort, will make you more at peace in the long run.