On when I realised my self-care practices were self-damaging
Why do millennials feel like they need to stop and do a self-care all the time when everyone else has been getting on with life for years? Particularly growing up in this digital age where the majority of our lives are spent online or broadcast in some way or another, there has been a revelation in recent years that, hang on, maybe it’s not healthy to refresh the same Instagram post 1736 times to watch the number of likes go up. Of course I know that social media is not the sole cause of a lack of general self-care being brought to our attention; high-powered lifestyles that involve intensive studying or work and rarely stopping for positive me-time, and the fact that discussions of mental health and wellbeing are still a taboo subject are all additional triggers, I think, to this rebellion against how we are taught to live our lives and think about ourselves.
It seemed like almost suddenly we were all upping our water intake, finding time in our schedule for meditation or shelling out absurd amounts of money for skincare products that promised to make us feel like a better version of ourselves by unblocking every pore for the mere price of £35.99. Brands everywhere are adopting this mindset, telling us to “love yourself” or schedule “me-time” — but only if you are able to afford these products with the words emblazoned on them, or look like this thin ‘influencer’ girl with an alarmingly clear complexion who has rolled out of bed, slipped on an oversized silk shirt and thrown together a green smoothie, the ingredients for which she just happened to have in her fridge ???!!! Also her underwear matches and just afterwards she went on a run and enjoyed the way it made her feel. Sounds fake but okay.
But as with most topics that I find myself arguing against I have ended up a faux-follower of this trend (just think band boys on Tinder, plant-based diets, wearing trainers with fancy dresses), as have most of us in one way or another. Claiming that the impulsive shopping spree I went on after a tough day was self-care, posting a selfie on my Instagram story every day is #selfcare, spending days in bed for literally no reason because I just don’t want to DO L I F E is me-time that should be engaged in frequently because, I deserve it! I’m looking after myself, as is my Deliveroo driver that I’m pretty sure has visited my flat several times in the past three days to cautiously hand me a paper bag from LEON (which I am of course also convinced is #selfcare because yes I just spent £12 on a wrap and a bottle of juice but, health.)
So, before this turns into what could be confused with a sad diary entry or a longwinded complaint to a food delivery service requesting that they block my card details, I realised something when sat in my therapist’s room last week and we were discussing what mental health professionals apparently call self-soothing activities (which is probably their way of avoiding you bringing selfies and yoga into it). It became clear that my own self-soothing activities were being used to avoid life: things I was scared of, things that required more effort than I wanted to exert that day, or just things I didn’t really fancy doing. This, in turn, makes me feel worse — I know, I was just as shocked as you are to find out that isolating myself in my bed-cave and online shopping wasn’t the cure for depression or my anxiety disorder.
The money that some of us spend on activities or products with the excuse of self-care could actually be more self-damaging than healing. The days we waste or tasks we put off could actually just cause our stress and anxiety to build up even more. I found that I was taking these activities to extremes, binge-eating comfort food and refusing to make an effort to regulate my eating, lying in bed until the afternoon and consequently becoming angry at myself. A couple of the self-soothing activities therapists love to suggest are “listen to music”, “meet a friend for coffee” or “have a long bubble bath”. I cringed at the thought of trying to do these things to prevent mental collapse, but before I knew it there I was, zoning out and listening to music until 3am, too drained to get into bed, spending £20 a week on coffees because I was #treatingmyself, or shrivelling up in the bath all evening to avoid talking to my housemates or having to pick up the phone. I’ve gone through phases where I’ve got so sucked into looking after myself with food that I’ve ended up underweight and ill from attempting to live solely off tiny quantities of fruit and vegetables and vast amounts of water, or I’ve used every inconvenience in my life as an excuse to buy a takeaway, eat five donuts in one sitting or eat pasta every day for dinner because it’s ready in ten minutes and has satisfied me more than any relationship.
So what really is it to look after yourself mentally? And how do you ensure your physical health doesn’t suffer too? Or your finances? What even is self-care and why is it now such a big deal?
Don’t get me wrong, personal days are important as hell. I’ve had several occasions where I have needed a day or two off work to pull myself together in the head, and that might’ve involved being looked after by my mum, just having a friend sit with me, or going to that doctor’s appointment I kept putting off, or tidying my room and replying to emails. We all get burned out sometimes, but it’s important to recognise the difference between what is really going to improve how we feel and what is just simply easier for us, perhaps ignoring the issue entirely.
Therefore, I’m trying something new (courtesy of my therapist tbh). The list of activities to go to when things get rough — which yes, can involve going out with a trusted friend or listening to music and staring at the ceiling, or putting on a face mask and pretending I’m the kind of girl who actually has a good skin routine for 10 minutes — must make room for several self-care options which are something that you have to do, that you might usually put off. Maybe it’s tidying your room, rearranging your clothes (or if you’re a complete saddo like me, clearing out your email inbox or cleaning the hob). Something that gives you a satisfying result afterwards. Today I woke up in a stressed, simply fed-up state, already worrying that I would waste the day or spend money on something unnecessary, but one of my self-care promises I made to myself was to change this, and write, or read instead. Distracting myself, finishing something at the end of it and thus feeling more relaxed and accomplished.
Yes, looking after ourselves when things are bleak might involve buying yourself something new, catching up on sleep or letting yourself simply be lazy for once. It could also be an exercise class, trying to actually eat a vegetable that isn’t a potato, or planning your schedule. But it is when these activities damage your health, happiness, finances, or development as a great young human that we have to rethink whether our self-care is reallyself-care.