Self-care is a concept some may consider straightforward in both its meaning and its execution. With prescriptive lists online that detail how to eat, sleep, and exercise for as body maintenance, it’s easy to miss self-care’s inherent gravity, and its power to shape our experiences. This sentiment was captured in Audre Lorde’s statement: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Acts of self-care could be reactionary. The need to practice self-care can come from day-to-day stresses and challenges, which are compounded by institutional barriers. They can also but they are linked to broader oppressions and violences. On the other hand, practicing self-care can occur in anticipation of these challenges, from a place of healing and restoration. Intentionally or not, the ways in which we choose to practice self-care, and even the reasons why we care for ourselves, are closely linked with our privilege and our identity.
“Self-care” is a topic that I’ve heard more and more of, mainly in the context of community work, but increasingly from mental health awareness campaigns. I’ve struggled to put my finger on exactly how to consistently practice self-care in my own life, so I began to ask myself, why is it so important to so many people? Why has it become almost intuitive to do the objectively counter-intuitive – to work to the point of burnout, rather than being satisfied with the moment?
I decided to start by finding out where the idea of self-care originated. The term during the 1970s to describe a person filling their own basic needs like bathing and eating. Then in the 1980s, the term emerged in a new context as Lorde drew parallels between self-care, self-preservation, identity, and politics.
Widely used across campuses as a tool to increase student engagement around mental health (sometimes using material incentives), self-care has become quite trendy in recent years. For example, in February, Healthy McGill launched its 14-day #SelfCareChallenge to “raise awareness and to get you thinking about self-care and potentially doing it.” The #SelfCareChallenge offered prizes for participants who completed the challenge and posted their acts of self-care on social media. This campaign is one of many examples of how self-care has been co-opted from the medical and activist silos into a context of institutional learning, and ultimately capitalist rhetoric.
#100HappyDays has also become a pervasive trend across social media platforms, with the tagline “You don’t have time for this, right?” The campaign’s about page asserts that “the ability to appreciate the moment, the environment and yourself in it, is the base for the bridge toward long-term happiness of any human being.” In this sense, the authenticity of being present and mindful is cast aside in favour garnering online reception.
So, what does self-care mean today, given these repeated appropriations? The scope of the word “self-care” as it is used today has become broader and much more nuanced than it was initially, involving physical, mental, and interpersonal dimensions.
What is self-care?
Ashley Tritt, a science student at McGill and a Project HEAL Canada Chapter co-leader, defines self-care as “anything that makes a person feel they are taking care of themselves [and also] anything that improves your stress level or makes you feel better.” So, self-care could be anything, so long as the person doing the self-care considers it so. Some consider sleep and eating ice-cream as self-care, while others go running, have sex, or see their friends.
So what makes self-care different from these everyday activities that many people do anyway? One key difference lies in mindfulness. Parneet Chohan, founder of the Radical Mental Health Workers Collective, elaborates. “[The role mindfulness plays] is huge. I feel like when we think about self-care, we think about these very elaborate, crafty exercises we have to do, whereas mindfulness just allows the moment, even it’s two minutes, to be reclaimed by the person experiencing that. Self-care can be just when you’re in the shower doing nothing, but being grateful and appreciative that you’re having a shower, appreciating your body, being in the moment, and receiving that care. If you’re drinking a coffee, just being mindful and aware that that’s what you’re doing.”
Niamh Leonard, chair of this fall’s Students in Mind conference at McGill, says, “I think that for me [self-care] comes down to awareness; awareness of your boundaries, like where your limits are, what you feel comfortable with [and] what you don’t, and being able to respect those. It comes from being aware of your own emotions – or at least trying to be – and recognizing when you’re overwhelmed or recognizing when you feel alone or sad or impatient or annoyed. [Self-care is] trying to be aware of those things so that you can react.”
“I think that’s the first step. It’s really hard to take care of yourself when you’re not aware of those things,” said Leonard. The link between self-care and mindfulness is one often overlooked, though it is an underlying principle of many self-care practices.
Entwined with mindfulness is intention. Taking care and remaining mindful of one’s capacities is more important than fitting into ideals. “I think if you pay attention to how other people define self-care, you can start doing things that aren’t suited just for you. In that sense you can be self-cared-out, not that you’re trying too hard, but that you’re not trying in a way that’s a fit or appropriate for yourself,” describes Phil Leger, Chair of the Peer Support Network at McGill.
Initiatives like #SelfCareChallenge demonstrate this dilemma by providing predetermined challenges and even more demonstrates the idea of pre-determining someone else’s self-care by encouraging posting on social media. Even though a variety of self-care options were laid out by the challenge, tasks were still ultimately tailored to to particular identities, and particular privileges.
The intersection of identities who may have time commitments and disposable income, limit the accessibility of the entire Challenge – this problem is inherent to any form of self-care suggestion. Furthermore, the sense of surveillance that comes with publicizing on social media adds to the challenge of authentically caring for the self and by the self. It must be noted, however, that the #SelfCareChallenge was unprecedented in its reach, its popularity, and its power in opening a dialogue on self-care.
Self-care can be a proactive choice, as in to stave off an impending burnout, or it can be reactive, in response to feelings of overwhelm and intense, prolonged stress or triggers.
“I would see self-care as maintenance,” says Leonard. “Life is very cyclical, things go well and things don’t go well, and if you have a good routine and habits that are “self-care,” then I think it’s easier to push through difficult times.”
In this sense, practicing self-care is also about survival. We are encouraged to practice self-care as students to get through midterms and exams without burning out; we practice self-care as employees to stay motivated; we practice self-care as activists so that we can keep pouring our energy into the causes we want to survive. Practice self-care becomes necessary when we push the boundaries of being more, doing more, and having more.
Self-care and interdependence
We’ve seen that people practice self-care for different reasons like maintenance and survival. Mindfulness and intention are important contributors to the depth and effectiveness of a self-care practice. But what happens when we move away from defining “self-care” and just think about the “self?” Self-care obviously places emphasis on care of the self as an individual, but how to go about this may not be so obvious in practice. Chohan explains, “I’d say that self-care is prioritizing yourself, prioritizing your personal wellness, and really creating a very integrated daily series of practices that can help sustain you whether it’s emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually, whatever that looks like.”
Prioritizing oneself can be seen in several ways: as an inherently selfish act of gratification, as an act of martyrdom, or as an issue of survival. Prioritizing ourselves for the purpose of maintenance, however, so that we can continue to contribute to a cause, or continue in our roles as productive members of society, can be seen as the opposite: an act of martyrdom. At the very least, continuing to participate in the cycle of work and consumption is seen as successful.
Furthermore, it’s interesting to look at which parts of our selves we are prioritizing. For instance, SCAR, a self-care blog, outlines the “BACE method” of self-care, in which a person checks in with themselves in the following areas: body care, achievement, connecting with others, and enjoyment. While self-care in the first two areas of body care and achievement are in many ways reinforced by societal norms surrounding hygiene, physique, and occupation (among others), far less emphasis is placed on the latter two.
Notably placed last in the acronym is enjoyment, which may have little space after body care, achievement, and connecting with others. To requote #100HappyDays: “You don’t have time for this, right?”
Self-care is an individualized process. While we’re recognized as individuals, we still function and communities. So when we talk about self-care, the self we refer to can encompass our families and our communities, in addition to our “selves”.
Another conception of self-care sheds light on practicing self-care at a level that’s greater than the individual. Kai Cheng Thom, a columnist at The Daily and co-founder of Monster Academy, a free mental health workshop series, describes self-care as “learning to care about oneself, to really love oneself in ways that are not necessarily always pleasurable, but also challenging and transformative.”
They continue, “Self-care is the willingness to extend one’s understanding of how to be healing, how to be restorative, how to be just, to oneself and to others. That means shifting one’s perspective from a capitalist and consumerist [one] of mental health and labour and the body toward an understanding of humans and bodies and minds as connected, as breakable, as fragile and in need of care; [one of] all bodies in need of care.”
This definition of self-care highlights compassion that starts within and reaches out to embrace others. In this we acknowledge our vulnerability and our interdependence and can come to the essence of “care.”
This is interpersonal self-care, which can mean finding support and meaning in relationships, but also setting boundaries and learning when to say no. “People coming in for support, that’s a form of self-care. Maybe what they need is just to talk to somebody about something and in that way they’re caring for themselves,” says Leger.
Peer support is also about validation, explains Chohan. “We need other people that validate our existence at the core. Regardless of whether you identify as belonging to a marginalized community or not, we need other people that validate our existence and that’s what peer support is. That’s what sustainability in terms of community sustainability is – it’s having others to validate your existence.”
“When we do self-care, there is power in developing a stronger relationship with yourself, there is power in being able to do something that is good for you that nobody in the world knows you’re doing, but there’s also something very important to be said about [having] peers that understand, validate and legitimize your struggles.” Examples could be harm reduction support groups and spaces for people of colour. Validation of our experiences through peer support is empowering, healing, and totally an act of care.
Intersection of self-care and capitalism
In so many respects, the areas of physical, emotional, and interpersonal self-care overlap. Self-care is self-defined but often constrained by social norms, by capitalism, and by consumerism. It is definitely about you but not just about you. But we still have to ask, why has this become so important in Western culture?
“Your mind can only do so much, your body can only do so much for so long without needing a rest,” says Tritt. What role do capitalism and productivity have in creating a need for self-care?
“I think what [self-care] would value in place of stress and productivity is a deeper rooted – not endurance, not security – but a deeper sense of ability to handle these things. Productivity is totally coherent with self-care,” says Leger. Indeed, at a certain point self-care becomes necessary for maintaining productivity.
In a capitalist society, immense value is placed on efficiency and achievement, and we have a personal responsibility to maintain our contribution. “I think that self-care is definitely a Western term in terms of you being responsible for your own wellness, checking your energy levels, checking your motivation levels, checking your burnout levels,” says Chohan.
This productive mentality is so ingrained in our society that it can even become a barrier for self-care. Chohan describes, “[In] my self-care practice, in a way I’m almost tricking myself to make sure I do it, because I know that my mind isn’t always going to work for me. It’s going to convince me to do other things like work and basically burn myself out because I think that is a capitalist and a very real social script that we’ve all internalized to varying degrees.” Once we recognize how we care for different needs and different parts of our selves, it is important to also question and remain mindful of what motivates us to care for different aspects of ourselves.
Capitalism affects not only why we practice self-care, but how. “Capitalism has this way of smuggling in this sort of notion of productivity and so then self-care ends up being this thing that we have to sort of make into this elaborate grandiose thing. And it doesn’t have to, a lot of us don’t have time to practice self-care; we’re working three jobs, or taking care of children, or we don’t have the socioeconomic support to spend an evening off,” explains Chohan. Added to this, when self-care is confused with indulgence, an act of self-care often becomes an act of consumption that further perpetuates the cycle of spending and earning. We practice self-care in reaction to the pressure exerted on us by capitalism, and when we do prioritize ourselves we are further pressured to practice self-care in a way that supports the same system. What to do?
The answer lies, again, in mindfulness. “A lot of us don’t have time to practice self-care, and so how do we incorporate self-care into the real-world limitations we have? Mindfulness offers a beautiful answer to that because there are always moments in which we can appreciate life and we can appreciate our existence,” explains Chohan. Mindfulness is what allows us to define self-care on our own terms. It opens the door to a more radical version of self-care, where money and time are less powerful constraints on the power of our self-care.
The discussion of intention should also be applied to self-care. What is our intent when we practice self-care? To reach our financial, academic, or otherwise ambitious goals? Or is it simply about surviving? As Kai Cheng stated, “Self-care is not about any sort of greater goal, except to the person doing the self-care. I don’t think we need to think about it as sort of a new, aside goal but as a sort of process sort of meditation, creating individually on a daily basis for themselves. It can change, it can grow, it can go into a lot of different directions, but that’s the beauty of survival and self-care. If we’re important enough to take care of ourselves and survive, we’re important enough also to decide what we want from our self-care process.”
And so we are back to where we started, with an iteration of the self-care definition that emphasizes its personal nature. Awareness, mindfulness, and authenticity are all important things to consider in our self-care practices. Self-care is a process that requires continuous questioning of our needs and the needs of those around us, and repeated evaluation of how we are addressing those needs. Given this, it is important to also continue questioning self-care itself and why we are doing it if we want harmony between our politics and our actions. A self-care journey is one of a lifetime.