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The problem with self-care

Imagine: lying in bed, 11pm, feeling incredibly sad. And in your sadness you cannot stop thinking about all of the things that would possibly make you feel better. Things that feel so impossible to achieve right now, at 11pm. Except I’m sure, dear reader, that you don't have to imagine this at all. It's a place most of us have been before.

I’ll bet you all of the cryptocurrency I don’t have (or understand) that the things you may have been wishing you’d done did not include having a bubble bath, or putting on an expensive face (skin) mask, or attending another hot yoga class.

I can imagine what we are actually thinking about when we lie there in the dark, and in our sadness, are thoughts like:

I forgot to book a dentist appointment

Do I need therapy?

Do my friends like me?

I hate my job but how do I leave?

Should I go to the doctor about that random pain?

I miss my grandma

I don’t have the energy to see the family

You see, the problem that I find with the self-care movement is that it's often surface-level. Having a bath and washing your face is lovely, and for some I’m sure it provides some much needed stress relief and personal time. But it's not a coping mechanism for life’s struggles, and it won’t help our sad 11pm selves worry any less.

Self-care should instinctively mean setting boundaries with your friends and family; building and sticking to a routine that involves a decent amount of sleep (unless you have a toddler who hates sleep); booking a dentist, doctor, physio, therapy appointment when you need one; finding the time to think about a job that won’t make you miserable; making and breaking plans with your friends when you need to; and finding the best ways to muddle through your feelings.

This sounds so much harder than a bubble bath, I know. It’s why I always complain about being an adult, and why I absolutely love being an adult. Self-care is messaging a friend and saying you are too shattered to move from your couch, and don’t want to stick to the plan you made with them. And that friend saying “I totally get it.”

Self-care is crying for half an hour on your bed for no reason other than you feel rubbish and crying will make you feel marginally less rubbish. I believe we cry when we need to cry; we laugh when we need to laugh; we avoid and retreat and stay silent when we need to also. The hardest part is paying attention to how our bodies and minds feel, and figuring out what we need as a result.

And unfortunately, we live in a world that tells us we’re doing self-care wrong, so we can buy a book or a cream or a fancy journal to help us do it right. Of course, simply buying the book or journal is so much easier than changing a behaviour that harms you in some way.

I say this as someone who drinks on a semi-regular basis, always feel anxious as a result the next day, and instead of deciding not to drink anymore, buys a £20 journal to write about how anxious I feel the day after a few drinks.

I guess my point is, buy whatever self-care something you want to buy, knowing that it won’t fix the problem without any of the tricky self-reflection behaviour-changing stuff that usually makes us roll our eyes and want to lie down. I’m sure a therapist could help too.

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