Self-care is seriously powerful. Knowing and making space for our own needs is a matter of life and death for some, and a matter of quality of life for others. The virtues of self-care are extolled for allowing us to better take responsibility for ourselves and our lives. And much of this is fantastic. But what about when it isn’t?
Self-care, much like the word trigger, can become a cultural catch-all for letting ourselves off the hook and not doing the hard work to show up for each other through difficult times. Is it hard to do the prep work to make a space safe for a friend with severe allergies? Stay home and take a bath instead… it’s self-care! You don’t want to stand up to a co-worker who is making oppressive jokes about others? Go to a coffee shop during lunch and avoid them… it’s self-care. It doesn’t have to be this way! Chronic illness and my yoga practice have put me in the position to do much pondering as to self-care as healthy engagement versus what results in just leaving each other out in the cold.
When we think of how we want to build communities or create social change, when you think of how you want to live your own life–do you grapple with where the lines are between self-care and selfishness? There are a some key questions I like to hold to when finding where these edges need to be for myself.
1. Does it just mean comfort?
It can feel like being compassionate to let ourselves not make an effort to break a pattern. On the odd day that comfort show on Netflix and a bowl of ice-cream might be excellent self-care, but its usefulness has a short shelf-life. Sometimes breaking a pattern is uncomfortable but an important part of caring for your life and for those in your community. Are there things that are hard for you to do but may serve a strong long-range vision? What are they? These may be important ingredients in your self-care.
2. Does it help you show up in a way that is healthy?
I had a friend who was dealing with some serious stuff that that had just been disclosed about their childhood. Though I was having intense fatigue and was in pain, I went to their house and I stayed later than I usually would which is not easy for me. It’s not what I could do everyday, but what this friend was going through was important and I wanted to show up for it. But I didn’t just give care, I also received care. I got home and ate a nutrient-rich meal thanks to my wife who helped to take care of me so that I could take care of my friend. I meditated in a dark, quiet room after, which can help my pain levels. It was hard, but it was healthy.
3. Do you use it to shut people down or shut people out?
You might need to retreat in order to care for yourself. You may have recently developed a chronic illness and have to radically revision your capacity to be out in the world. This is not the same as avoiding accountability. I’ve seen folks say, “it’s for my self-care” to duck out of resolving an everyday conflict with a spouse. Self-care does not give us a free pass to vacate difficult conversations and leave our loved ones hanging longer than is necessary. I have seen communities pull away from a person who is grieving the loss of a loved one and rationalize to each other that they need to focus on self-care as a way to not grapple with the overwhelm that another’s grief can evoke. Self-care does not require that we discourage each other from facing our fears. I’d love to see this change and instead, to support one another in finding ways to show up for each other.
4. Does it take disability and illness into account?
The idea that we can all take care of ourselves is not only a myth, it excludes people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. There have been many times that I could not take care of myself. I don’t just mean this in the “we all need each other” way. I mean that I needed help to get to the bathroom, help lifting a glass of water, help to get out of bed. If my wife and some friends had only thought of their optimal self-care, I would not be here. Let’s not build expectations of self-care that assume everyone has the same capacities and while we’re at it, let’s find ways to increase the capacities to support people within our communities. No one should be left out in the cold!
I do not want to care for others in a way that harms me, I do not want to care for myself in a way that diminishes my capacity to be in relationship with others.