Self-Care Is Not a Panacea

Self-care has become a bit of a buzz word.

Everywhere you look it’s self-care this and self-care that, often symbolized by the now-ubiquitous cheap face mask. But will buying one more face mask, nail polish, etc. really destress me and allow me to enter into a state of blissfulness? Is self-care just a clever plow to sell stuff? What’s up with the propaganda of self-care, when did it start, will it ever end and how can I really take care of myself?

To find out more, I jumped into the many articles already written on the topic.

The word “self-care” has been around since the 1500s when the word was actually used to mean self-interest. In the mid-1800s and early 1900s the word began to take on a health and wellness related connotation. The term self-care was boosted by the self-help phase of the later 1900s but didn’t really rise to the dominant trend we know it as today until the 2010s—particularly around 2016. Google searches for self-care after the 2016 presidential election reached a five-year high. From there, it became a rapidly evolving hashtag that was all about quick and caring activities to find a bit of control in a crazy world.

For some like journalist Arwa Mahdawi, self-care has become too commercialized and is now just a privileged way to check-out of reality. But as Mahdawi explained, self-care was also advocated for by Audre Lorde who saw it as a radical political and social action. Others still say we need to take a closer look at why we are buying that $12 face mask in the first place, especially if we are living in environments that may not have adequate and affordable mental healthcare options. It may be worth it, they argue, to probe the question of who is excluded from the privilege of self-care practices and products and why regular, healthy tasks like drinking coffee without checking email now count as self-care.

Overwhelmed by all of these perspectives? Yeah, me too. But I think the biggest takeaway is just this: take a minute to reflect on your “self-care” habits.

Self-care doesn’t have to be bought, although there are many products whose advertising would like people to believe otherwise, as therapist Samantha Heuwagen quoted in an article for the Guardian explained. Self-care is also not a magic spell. As Dr. Shainna Ali in an article for Psychology Today points out, beginning to pursue true self-care is not as simple as it may seem. It is important to remember that your self-care needs will change, self-care will not solve everything overnight and just because a self-care method works for someone else doesn’t mean it will be a method that works for you.  

As I read article after article writing this piece, one idea stopped me in my tracks. Self-care is different from self-soothing. Read that sentence again. Self-soothing is just buying products to feel better instead of actually caring for yourself and engaging your emotions and thoughts. Buying a big, fluffy Starbucks Frappuccino instead of taking a study break to journal out those worries could be self-soothing disguised as self-care. Next time Instagram tells you to buy your way to relaxation or someone says that all you need is a little “self-care,” pause for a moment and reflect on what you really need.