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"Why we need to change how we talk about self care"

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Emily Reynolds
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“Self care” has been in the headlines more and more over the last 12 months. But is the label all it seems? Freelance journalist Emily Reynolds isn’t so sure…

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 12 months, chances are that you’ve seen the phrase ‘self care’ being bandied around. The concept, on the surface, is pretty easy to understand, broadly encompassing anything that helps you look after yourself.  

But conflicts around the phrase have emerged over the last few months, with many mental health experts arguing that use of the expression has started to trivialise mental illness – and even, in some cases, normalise damaging and unhealthy behaviours. 

Last January, I created a Twitter bot, @everydaycarebot, to help me with my own mental health. I have bipolar disorder, meaning I frequently experience both mania and depression – two states that aren’t particularly conducive to me looking after myself. When I’m depressed, I find even the simplest tasks difficult to manage: the washing up gets left, showering falls by the wayside and there’s no way in hell you’re going to catch me opening my mail. When I’m manic, on the other hand, I barely sleep, and forget to eat for days at a time. And I’m still not opening my mail. Though I’m stable and well now, I’ve not always been the picture of productivity and health. Sorry, internal organs!

So, armed with a list of techniques I knew improved either my mood or my ability to function, I created the bot. It tweets every four hours: simple things like ‘change your sheets’ or ‘wash your face’. None of the tricks are going to make someone not ill, not depressed, not non- or low-functioning. But they can provide a tiny respite from the guilt and shame of illness – and their low-key simplicity makes that possible. 

It was also important to me that some of the suggestions were not only practical, but difficult. This might sound counter-intuitive – why would you need something to be even harder to achieve, when you’re not feeling your best? But, to me, self care didn’t just mean easy, soothing things – it also meant the important, difficult and necessary things that keep a life in order. Opening your mail might feel like a crap self care technique compared to “having a bath” or “lighting a candle”, but it’s arguably far more important. You still need to exist in the world; you still need to confront the things that make you anxious, nervous or worried.

Over the last year, though, self care has moved away from this harder, uncompromising approach and towards something significantly fluffier. Self care has become about bubble baths, candles, body creams - things you can buy, basically. Things like opening mail, paying bills and washing up aren’t easy to package into a glossy magazine article, so their role in the self care arsenal has been reduced accordingly. 

Bubble baths are the cornerstone of a new understanding of ‘self care’

Self care is now such a ubiquitous (and, arguably, meaningless) phrase that it’s even become its own meme. Parody women’s website Reductress illustrates this exceptionally well in a series of ironic articles. My Self-Care Is Just Me Sorting Myself Into Ravenclaw Over and Over Again one headline reads; Woman’s ‘Self-Care Day’ Mostly Consists Of Retweeting Herself says another. They’re obviously glib – it’s a parody site, after all. But they do encapsulate what has become an often vacuous conversation. 

And this has had an impact on many people who initially felt drawn to the idea.

“As someone with a chronic illness, I’m now in two minds about the phrase ‘self care’,” Jenny, 28, tells stylist.co.uk. Jenny has mild mental health conditions and endometriosis, and says that she “finds it really hard to fit acts of self care” into her day. 

“So when I first heard the phrase, I thought it was brilliant,” she adds. “I felt like it was a good reminder to actually look after myself. It sounds ridiculous, but when I’m not feeling great I find it difficult to keep myself together.”

Now, however, Jenny doesn’t feel like the phrase applies to her life “at all”. 

“I’m chronically ill,” she says. “And the self care that is repeatedly marketed to me is nowhere near what actual ‘self care’ means to me. In fact, I really envy it.

“When it comes to self care for me, it means making sure I eat and take tablets throughout the day. It means limiting socialising because otherwise, I’ll become very ill. It means going to bed early to make sure my body gets as much rest as it can do. I really wish it meant bath bombs.”

Taking medication might be boring – but it’s necessary

That’s not to say that relaxing things don’t count as self care – even mental health organisation Mind acknowledges that they’re an important way of staying calm and together. Crucially, however, Mind notes that simple things – getting enough sleep, eating regularly, having a shower and getting dressed – are also important acts of self care. It’s this element that I fear we’re at risk of forgetting.

Sometimes, self care can look like having a bath, avoiding phone calls and completely failing to confront your responsibilities. But that’s not sustainable, and nor should it be: part of being an adult (especially a mentally healthy one) is dealing with those responsibilities, for your sake and for everyone else’s. 

Remembering to take your meds isn’t fun; doing a long-neglected task may not be Instagrammable. It may not even feel that great as you do it. But it might be the greatest act of self care you ever perform. 

Images: iStock