selfishness in the age of self-care
Are we cancelling plans, retreating from friends and avoiding real problems under the guise of ‘self-care’?
Even in the midst of our culture’s current obsession with wellness, it is sometimes hard to understand what self-care really is. How much money is it reasonable to spend on pretty candles? Should you really cancel tonight’s dinner with your friends? Do you even want to take that bubble bath? I mean, the sacrosanct concept that we deserve to prioritise our sanity and wellbeing has been around forever for a reason -- because it is only right -- but is there such a thing as going too far with ‘me time’?
Firstly, there needs to be some perspective: “It’s about reaching a point of balance and thinking: ‘Whose needs are the most urgent, right now? Am I feeling tired? Am I getting stressed? Do I need to take a time out? Or does this person need my presence more?,” says psychologist Emma Short, who’s worked with many patients who’ve experienced stress and trauma to find sustainable strategies to self-care.
We all exist within a network of other people who are important to us, she explains: “It’s important that you are responsive, but you can only be responsive and attend to other people’s needs if you’ve met your own.” If you’ve spread yourself too thin, if you’re stressed or ill, you’re going to be less intuitive and less likely to help, because you’re struggling.
“Part of self-care is about learning to trust your own judgement about your wellbeing and responsibilities to others, and that takes learning,” Short continues. And it’s okay to plan around your health and happiness, she reassures: if you have an invitation for an event you don’t want to miss on Wednesday, you might want to make sure you get enough sleep on Monday and Tuesday, and focus on getting through your to-do list by Wednesday. And that may require some negotiations and saying no to other things. “There is very much a culture out there that you burn the candle at both ends,” she says. You work hard, play hard, and keep on going under a lot of pressure, but you need to include activities and actions to protect yourself -- and that is self-care.
“In modern society, we’re addicted to busyness. To admit that you’re not feeling well and you need to just rest, is going against the grain in a way."
“Everyone’s taken a sick day at some point or another. That’s a perfect example of necessary self-care that can feel really shameful for some, myself included,” says Kat Horrocks, the 24 year-old host of podcast Put Yourself First. “In modern society, we’re addicted to busyness. To admit that you’re not feeling well and you need to just rest, is going against the grain in a way,” she adds. Kat has made self-care tips and inspirations an integral part of her life, as she coaches women to make more time for themselves. “I've been doing this for 18 months. I started because the women in my community kept coming to me with this same issue of being at the bottom of their own to do list,” she explains.
Kat thinks it’s okay to be a little bit selfish sometimes, because basically you can’t pour from an empty cup, as they say. “I think you know deep down when you truly need to rest or take a step back. I’m a big believer in listening to your gut. If your gut doesn’t feel right about a decision you’ve made, that’s how I can tell the difference.”
But don’t be scared: if you’re new to all this or feeling like you need to reassess your deeper needs, remember that it takes practice to recognise whether you’ve been neglecting yourself. “You might just be asking: ‘What have I done for myself this week?’, and a lot of things could come out [or not],” Dr. Short suggests. As she points out: “[Self-care] changes as you go through life, there will always be fluctuations. So, you should always consider whether you’re taking good care of yourself right now, at this point in your life.”
For Linda Lao, a 26 year-old former dancer and cheerleading coach from London, it’s about looking at what the motivations behind doing something truly are. “[I sometimes] find myself question why I’m doing something which I then label as self-care. Is it really for my health and happiness or am I doing it to distract myself or run away from a problem?” If you’ve ever ghosted a friend or overbooked yourself to simply not deal with something, then you might know what kind of tricky cop-outs Linda is referring to.
"There are only so many nights in watching Netflix you can take before realising that self-care is not a one-size-fits-all list of dos and don’ts."
Unfortunately, it’s not always that obvious to gauge whether it’s really time to check out for a bit -- and, yes, put on a face mask while at it -- or if we’ve warped the idea of taking care of ourselves into a perfectly sensible alibi. “Perhaps in the past, I may have swerved going to meet a friend as I thought I wasn’t in the right frame of mind and that was best for my own ‘self-care’,” Linda says. When, actually, she was just scared of having to confront some of her worries, as she now admits: “It would have been far healthier to go and meet my friend, as talking to someone always helps sort a problem quicker than doing it on your own.”
You live, you learn, of course. And, honestly, knowing how to really put yourself first while also juggling other people’s expectations can be extremely challenging. There are only so many nights in watching Netflix you can take before realising that self-care is not a one-size-fits-all list of dos and don’ts. It’s about being constantly tuned to your needs and values, and that’s just as hard as it sounds, but pretty much worth it.
“I’ve always been quite self-aware [and able] to recognise my patterns of behaviour, so I feel as if I’ve always known about self-care even if I didn’t call it that,” Linda explains. These days that means keeping active with long walks or Hatha yoga, but also spending time with people that make her feel cared for, like her sisters: “They can offer different views from whatever’s going on inside your own head. They keep you grounded and help solve practical problems,” she says. Linda is also teaching herself photography -- because being creative stretches her imagination and makes her feel positive. Ultimately, Linda’s self-care is about looking after herself to be able to look after others, and when it comes to relationships, she has a rule: “I do my best to take care of my own feelings so I don’t project them onto [someone], act out, or cause issues.”
Let’s get this straight: tending to yourself to be able to show up for others too is pretty much the opposite of being selfish; and if that means cancelling on someone, then so be it -- it is not really about what you do, specifically, but more about what you’re getting at with it. “I think that selfishness can come from not taking accountability for your own actions,” Linda says. “However, just as you are accountable to other people, you can be accountable to yourself. Sometimes you need to cancel commitments to focus on yourself, and that’s not selfish.”
Click here to find out more about self-care from the Mental Health Foundation.