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Mental Health

Is It Self-Care, Or Are You Just Depressed?

It’s Friday night. You’re jaded from a week of classes and typical college stress: completing assignments, writing essays, studying for exams, and so on. On top of it all, you’re expected to live like a fully-functioning, independent adult who actually knows what they’re doing. Four hours of sleep and approximately 2.5 cups of lukewarm dining hall coffee are the only things fueling you right now. You’ve had a stress headache since Tuesday. Your weekend plans consist of catching up on all the work you’ve been procrastinating, as well as feeling vaguely guilty whenever you find the time to relax.

Your phone lights up with a message from your friend, asking if you’re free tonight. You respond apologetically, making up an excuse. Sorry, something came up! :(

An hour later, you’re bundled up in bed, wearing a face mask that will probably result in no noticeable improvements in your skin. If a search party was sent for you, they would have trouble locating you amidst the countless blankets and pillows that swaddle you like a cacoon. You’re already five episodes too deep in a new Netflix series to turn back now and you’re still eating leftover Halloween candy, even though all the good stuff is gone. Your phone is on silent, but you watch the notifications as they appear and decide to respond later. This is your Friday night of self-care. You are living your best life.

My favorite aspect of the recent movement to promote self-care is that it reminds us that we are at our most benevolent when we take care of ourselves in addition to others. Selflessness is a wonderful virtue that can create much-needed change in the world, but the very definition of it requires a forgetting of the self. This repeated forgetting of the self can have some ill effects, leaving you feeling burnt out and unseen or unheard. Continually setting yourself aside in order to focus on the needs and desires of other people can zap your energy and lead you into a never-ending cycle of exhaustion and inefficiency. Taking care of yourself is so important.

However, there is a very fine line between self-care and self-sabotage. It’s easy to cancel your Friday night plans, apply a face mask, and spend the evening swaddled in blankets and the comfort of Halloween candy. Sometimes, this is exactly what you need. Other times, it’s doing more harm than good.

To offer a personal example, I have often caught myself declining invitations to fun events with my friends under the guise of self-care. I deserve a night off, I frequently tell myself, planning to sleep away the stress, spend three hours curating the perfect Spotify playlist to match my ambiguously defined mood, or otherwise waste time restlessly scrolling through the same three social media apps on my phone. Sometimes, this is actually an act of self-sabotage. It results in distance and isolation from the people I love.

In this case, self-care would actually be to accept those invitations, rather than turning them down. We often think of self-care as beauty routines and alone time, but it encompasses so much more than just face masks and bubble baths. Self-care has many facets, including emotional, social, spiritual, personal, professional, physical, and psychological. Sometimes, caring for yourself entails fostering interpersonal connections and creating a system of social support. Sometimes, caring for yourself means thinking ahead and making an effort to position your future self for success and achievement.

Another example is sleep. It’s easy to tell yourself, whenever you settle down for a random nap or a sixteen-hour session of hardcore slumber, that it’s an act of self-care. But sometimes, it isn’t always in your best interest. Perhaps your attention should be shifted to some of the other forms of self-care that often get overlooked. For example, professional self-care, which might entail spending fifteen minutes updating your resume. Or financial self-care, which might entail not spending $50 on an impulse purchase of fuzzy socks, essential oils, and a Himalayan salt lamp.

It’s important to consider your own ideas of self-care and question if they actually benefit you, or if they’re just a sneaky manifestation of your mental health struggles. Oversleeping is a symptom of depression, as is isolating yourself from the people you love. Both of these detrimental behaviors are easily concealed under the guise of our typical understanding of “self-care.”

However, at its core, self-care is all about doing what is best for you. Sometimes, that means sleeping for sixteen hours, buying a Himalayan salt lamp, or spending your night taking countless Buzzfeed “choose some potato foods and we’ll reveal if you’re an introvert or extrovert” quizzes. Other times, it means waking up at a decent hour, going out with friends, or doing the laundry instead of binge-watching true crime documentaries.

It’s always a good idea to ask yourself, is this actually self-care? Or is it just a sneaky way of casually making your life harder? All in all, what it comes down to is what is best for both the present and future versions of yourself.


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Adrienne is in her third year at Kenyon College. She's a psychology major with a Spanish minor.
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