I see some of what is happening, in particular online, around ‘self-care’ as a commodification and the development of a kind of ‘self-care’ industry that sells us stuff so that we can meet a need that the ‘do-it-all’ culture around us is creating.
To me this is a capitalistic notion of self-care in which we buy something to fill a gap. In this model looking after ourselves is yet another thing we can only do if we have money. We may well have markedly more time if we are able to afford things like childcare and other forms of help and support and much of what is out there being described as self-care is only available to the privileged. That doesn’t make it wrong. But I want to see a world in which everyone has the space and resources they need to care for themselves and each other.
I also want to invite us to resist this idea that we need to always buy stuff in order to care of ourselves and that we can solve ‘do-it-all’ with ‘buy-it-all’. Self-care doesn’t always need to be an individualistic thing as in, I take myself for a massage or a retreat. Caring for ourselves can be done together too. We can share a meal, spend time doing something together, sit in circle and, if the emphasis is on care and holding each other in healthy ways, experience many of the benefits we receive from solo-time.
The much-quoted words of Audre Lorde a black lesbian woman writing in the 1980s speak to her sense that caring for herself was crucial in the face of the cancer she was suffering from, her tendency to over-extend herself (which she distinguishes from merely stretching herself) and the relationship of both to injustice she and her communities faced.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” (from her essay ‘A Burst of Light‘)
When I see the first half of that quote in the front of yet another book or article about adding ‘wellbeing’ practices to our agendas, I feel sad that her radical call to action for ourselves is lost. To me the imperative in Lorde’s words is not just to drop the idea that caring for ourselves might be selfish, it’s also to recognise that doing is is a deeply political act.
Capitalist culture thrives on our busyness and our lack of replenishment. It’s not a simple thing to unpick this either individually or collectively, but an awareness of what is radical about caring for ourselves is fundamental to avoiding self-care becoming another ‘to-do’ or ‘investment’ we will participate in when we have time/get around to it.
In most cultures across the world, women bear the burden of care for others as well as trying to manage work and home life and all the other things that call their attention. In this context there isn’t much time left to care for ourselves. What is more, I believe that the structure of patriarchy and capitalism actively invite us to squash our own needs. We are invited to work as hard as we can, juggle all the things and accept a scant reward for them. We are invited to feel like we ‘should’ do more for ourselves, but there is never time. It’s not just women that experience this, but the extra burden women often bear in caring for others and their routinely lower pay compounds these things.
We internalise these messages too and so we may find there is a part of us that won’t look after ourselves. That is sneaky and sabotages our efforts. We are all, I believe, to varying degrees, sub-consciously internalising many, if not all of, the oppressions we want to resist. In this way we can find ourselves making plans to do things for ourselves and then prioritising other things or avoiding them, telling ourselves they aren’t really that important after all, and so on.
As I have begun to work with people on these issues, I have also noticed that self-care can easily become another ‘to-do’. Or worse, another ‘diet’ type ‘stick to beat ourselves with. As in, ‘I know I should be caring for myself better but I’m just so useless at it/I’m hopeless/I’m useless etc (add your own version!)’
In my work I invite people to be compassionate with themselves and I invite them into the practice of caring for themselves which doesn’t necessarily need to take a lot of resources. It is about developing a willingness to chose to take moments for ourselves whether alone or in community. To stop and connect to our heartbeat. To be open to considering our own needs. To pause in the middle of a busy day. To go outside. To allow ourselves 15 minutes away from your desk.
We also explore how to model that to others in our workplaces, community, home & ‘out in the world’ in general. In doing so I recognise that we are pushing against a culture that tends very much to keep us busy. But in doing personal work around this and then modelling it to others I believe that we are practising resistance to the ‘do-it-all’ culture we are conditioned in to.
That by building things together like community care structures, that give us a break and cultures in organisations that take wellbeing seriously we are not just choosing to change our own lives, we are helping contribute to a shift that is needed in our culture and to the building of a new world.
If you’d like support around building up your own wellbeing practices to sustain the impact of your work long term, find out more about working with me as an individual or hiring me to work with your organisation here.
This post has been updated since it was originally published here on April 3, 2018. It was also posted on Medium on April 26 2018.