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I Think I’ve Been Abusing the Concept of “Self-Care”

Something needs to change, fast.

05.11.17
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When I first came across the idea of self-care, it was a total game changer. Suddenly I could say “no” to dinner plans without feeling guilty. I could do things for me, just me, simply because I knew what was best for my well-being.

Self-care — at least my interpretation of it — taught me that when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I can flick on an old episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine in the middle of a hectic day or lay down for a quick nap to recharge. These little free passes have, at times, helped me to feel more balanced. They’ve abated my stress levels and even made me more efficient at work than if I’d slogged through task after task after task without a moment of rest.

Initially, self-care changed my life. But after a while, something felt off. It got to the point where sometimes I couldn’t tell if I was engaging in genuine self-care or just procrastinating — disengaging and detaching myself from my responsibilities.

A few weeks ago, I was incredibly stressed with work and school and decided to take a Netflix break. One episode turned into two until, three hour-long episodes later, I decided I’d finally gathered up enough energy to keep working — but by then it was midnight and I figured I’d better get to bed. Did I really need three hours of entertainment for self-care, or was I hitting “Next Episode” because I wanted to put off my to-do list, to run from my obligations?

Too often I found myself confusing self-care with relaxing (but unhealthy) indulgences that detached me from the minutiae of my life. I’d look down at my phone for a five-minute break and burn out my thumb tapping “like” while scrolling Instagram. A 15-minute power nap would become a full REM cycle.

It became hard to draw a line because, when I’ve been stretched to my limit, sometimes I legitimately do need to take a full night for myself. Other times, what I dub a “self-care” break is far less for the preservation of my mental health and, I suspect, much more about a temporary escape, of being able to do whatever I want without worrying about the bigger picture. Finally I realized that the line was too important to leave undefined.

So I’ve started to parse self-care from indulgence by tracking how I feel after I do it. I’ve noticed that when I really do need a break and I take a bubble bath or read a few chapters of a book, I feel refreshed — I want to get back to the grind, I’m gunning to get things done, I feel energized. But when I use self-care as an excuse, the opposite happens: I feel less productive than I did before.

Self-care is important to me. But I’ve learned over-indulging can have consequences, too. And left unchecked, who knows? Maybe I’d be watching Netflix instead of writing this very sentence.

Victoria Chiu is a student and writer. Follow more of her work at her website victoriachiu.com. Collage by Emily Zirimis.

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  • So real, girlfriend. Also, what a super-smart way to differentiate between self-care and distract-o-saurus rex!

  • Annabel Waterhouse-Biggins

    Yes, thank you. It’s difficult to distinguish when I’m just messing about and when I’m actually doing something good for my productivity in the long run- I’m glad I’m not overthinking and actually the line totally needs to be drawn

  • Alessia

    This is my life!

  • So true! Thinking about how I feel after an act of supposed self-care has been a really good litmus test for me as well.
    I’ve also been thinking about the class politics of “self-care” after seeing the line “When you’re middle class, it’s considered self-care. When you’re poor, it’s considered an indulgence.” This maybe doesn’t line up with the examples you lay out (TV watching, power naps), but I think when it goes into the realm of “purchases as self-care” such as manicures, or rewarding yourself for a job well done with an expensive coffee concoction, there’s a real double standard there about how people think other people can/should spend their money.

    • Ariane

      I think you’re right about those given examples also, because when you’re struggling it doesn’t matter how hard you’re already working to get by, you’re expected to work harder. In Britain and the US at least it’s acceptable to suggest single mums are lazy if they work less than 40 hours, that young people should work full time jobs plus unpaid internships to prove they “really want” to achieve their professional goals, etc. Working is supposed to be “virtuous”.Time is a luxury! (insert cheesy joke about the Justin Timberlake vehicle In Time here)

  • Amaranta

    So relatable! I can never differenciate between self-care and procrastination until its too late and I already feel bad and guilty

  • Kay Nguyen

    Wow this is my life! From a nap every day to I need this expensive designer handbag because… I earned it (but cmon, I didn’t), I also abused this concept so much. I did use it reward myself in the beginning but now it’s just an excuse to satisfy my impulse needs 🙁

    https://www.myblackcloset.com

    • Mellisa Scarlett

      WAIT! I forgot all about my favorite “I deserve it” moments when I truly just mean I buying this because I have no self control and things make me happy sometimes lol.

    • Meg S

      I’ve decided that I can only buy something if I use it to replace something that’s worn out. My closet is out of control because of “I deserve it” shopping over the past few years.

      I do let myself take a power nap during lunch if I’m exhausted at work, but that’s the limit to my self care when there are other things I need to do.

  • Lil

    Ah same exact problem! Lately I try to limit my self care to the bare minimum, like if I feel severe anxiety coming on.

    For instance if a few deep breaths and a water break doesn’t calm me down, then that’s when I’ll read, work out, or watch a Netflix episode or two.

  • Mellisa Scarlett

    This is my life..Once I began involving self care into my weekly routine my limitations left me for good! I noticed how left field I’ve become by allowing all my indulgences to take over. Beware of abusing self care people. I’ve now gone back to routine because honestly? I believe we truly need it. I’ll stick to weekly pedicures and binge reading as my solace. Bye bye extra slices of pizza and Instagram tours of my friends cousins sisters page. *WAVES*

    • alansa

      I feel this soooo hard! How did you go back to routine? I’ve been mulling this theory in my head for ages but it’s quite difficult to get back into it when you’ve been chilling way too hard for too long hahah. I need all the tips I can getttt

  • On Saturday I ate an entire pizza in the name of self care. I know exactly what you mean…

    http://colleenwelsch.com

  • alansa

    Oh god this is meeeee and it’s honestly derailed my life. Not trying to be dramatic, but over a couple of years I’ve definitely lost the self discipline that made me just “do the thing.” What’s helping a little is not to make “the thing” smaller or less daunting as people often recommend, but just to realise that if I don’t do it, I will be miserable as a result. I used to feel really depressed that growing up basically meant doing things you don’t want to do, but I’m realising that those things (following a healthy diet and exercise regime, completing work assignments on time, whatever it may be) are more than just chores. They allow us to build up an important foundation, and give us the capacity to reach bigger goals. Discipline is not a dirty word–in my opinion, it’s the real secret to happiness.

    • Could not agree more. 🙂

      (doing things we don’t want, the right way and with proper results, is like stretching ourselves out into the world and opening up for new possibilities we might not have envisaged)

      • gracesface

        Thirded. I read Fuck Feelings by Dr. michael barnett last August and it was the kick in the ass I needed. I realized how all the navel gazing and Netflix binging and baths in the world were not getting me where I needed to (i.e. in a job, on a regular schedule, making food for myself) go and that we will never get to stop working on taking care of ourselves and our lives. And that managing pain (sometimes with ice cream, sometimes with just showing up to work on time) and moving forward breeds it’s own self-satisfaction due to living up to our own standards. It was like a breath of fresh air and in a few short months I got a new full-time job, have re-organized my apartment, and adopted a new dog. Which is to say, MANAGING my life is so much better than self-care, for me.

        • alansa

          Sounds like you did the growing up I’ve been avoiding for a very long time. I’m gonna order this book ASAP. Congrats on getting your life together, so impressive!!

          • gracesface

            Aw thanks girl. You may really enjoy it! It’s common sense approach I found to be very comforting and sensible (!!) after literal years of woo-woo.

  • This post is GOLD.

  • Sheila T.

    the term “self-care” makes me squirm a little for some reason. but I kind of see it as different from procrastinating or indulging because I do different things. I watch TV for fun, but I put on a face mask to improve my skin, go to spin class to get stronger, cook and eat a healthy meal for better nutrition, get to bed early so I’m not so worn out, etc. I think for me the difference between indulgent fun and “self-care” is the mindfulness of my motivation.

  • Suzy Lawrence

    I totally, totally get “eating well,” but dangit it’s expensive. And lately I find myself saying, “You need that bone broth because it’s an investment in you,” just a little too much. The amount of money I spend on “high quality” foods each week is atrocious, so this last weekend I bought a case of Slimfast in an effort to get my fancy feet back on the cold concrete where they belong.

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