Self-Care Isn’t Always Self-Indulgence

Self-care as a concept has become a common saying in our daily lives. Especially with the rise of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns dragging on longer than any of us were mentally prepared for, self-care has become a habit preached by all. In fact, Google has stated that search for the term ‘self-care’ has been at an all-time high during this period.  So, what is this self-care, how do we practise it and are we doing it right?

What is Self-Care?

The concept of self-care has been around for centuries. Ancient Greek philosophers, such as Socrates and Plato deemed caring for one’s self as a way to better one’s self, and in turn to care for others and better the community. In the late 20th century, Audrey Lorde – African-American feminist activist – claimed self-care to be political, with the famous quote “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.’’

In the mental health community, self-care is a term used by psychologists and counsellors as a way for people with mental health issues to take care of themselves. Basic self-care entails purely physical self-care – proper nutrition, sleeping adequately, drinking enough water and exercising. For people with conditions that make taking care of one’s basic needs hard, sticking to routine self-care such as this is not just important, but also extremely necessary.

The other facet of self-care – the one which is most often talked about – include engaging in activities where one can relax or attend to their emotional well-being. Common activities include meditating, journaling and doing yoga. It can even be something simple like reading a book, taking a walk or even listening to music.

However, it is important to note that acts of self-care can vary from person to person and can entail different things for different people – depending on their circumstances. For a busy mom, self-care might be taking 30 minutes every evening to meditate or even take an uninterrupted shower. For an over-scheduled student, this might be taking 5 minutes every night to journal and gather your thoughts. In every single scenario, self-care involves doing what you need to live a fulfilling life to the best of your ability.

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The Commercialisation of Self-Care

With the rise in self-care trends, self-care itself has become an ongoing multibillion-dollar industry. It is also a popular advertising and marketing ploy used by various fashion and beauty brands.

A Google search done on ‘self-care advertisements’ brought up several articles under the heading of ‘How brands can tap into the self-care trend,’ or ‘Rewarding Self-Care’ and various other articles on how brands and companies can utilise the concept of self-care into a marketing technique. It is not uncommon to see advertising campaigns centred around self-care as the main topic; brands would like to convince us that we NEED a particular face mask or a bubble bath to be relaxed and feel like we are taking care of ourselves.

For instance, I came across an article on Byrdie, which (supposedly) talks about the way self-care is practised around the world. The article features quotes from people of different nationalities, describing various activities they do to ‘practise self-care.’ What is interesting is how the article is dotted with ads for products related to these activities, which you yourself can buy to emulate what other people are doing; effectively establishing the idea that you need these products to practise this exact type of self-care.

Another common trend is the #selfcaresunday hashtag on Instagram, usually accompanied with a picture of skincare products or a yoga pose. There are numerous sponsored ad campaigns on the platform – usually for beauty products and luxury items, targeted for women – which are showcased as important components of self-care.

In today’s world, self-care is always equal to the concept of self-indulgence, which in turn is tied to capitalism and our current consumer culture.

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The Problem with Today’s Self-Care Culture

The problem with today’s so-called ‘self-care culture’ is that we have missed its point; why we actually do it, why it’s important and what we are supposed to gain from it. Contrary to what today’s capitalist society will tell you, self-care isn’t just buying something nice for yourself or taking a bubble bath with luscious bath salts.

People can be quick to use self-care as an excuse to skip a workout or indulge in a sweet treat – not to say that these things can’t be self-care in certain circumstances. But self-care is also about stopping yourself from eating the cookie because it goes against your diet plan and because you know it could lead to further mental havoc later on. It’s about stopping yourself from working to the bone because you understand and recognise that you deserve time off for your physical and mental well-being. It’s about taking a break from certain things – and people – because you recognise that they aren’t good for you.

This is the type of self-care that people don’t talk about; the type that isn’t mainstream. Because this self-care isn’t glamorous. It’s not easy. Real self-care – the kind that is necessary and truly enriches your life – is hard. It requires discipline, endurance and self-compassion.  

True self-care is about taking the necessary steps needed to live a better, more well-rounded life. As much as it is about cutting yourself some slack, it is also about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and showing up. It’s about doing things that may seem hard, but you know are good for you. It’s holding yourself accountable and dealing with your problems, sometimes head-on. It’s about remembering your goals and your values, why you set them in the first place, and respecting yourself enough to work towards achieving them.

Written by Iyath Adam Shareef

Disclaimer: The content in this article is not intended to be substituted for proper mental health care practices and/or the professional medical advice of clinical psychologists or psychiatrists. If you are experiencing any mental health issues, please seek help from a specialised professional.