Why ‘self-care’ isn’t always facials and bath bombs – it can also be boring, uncomfortable and hard

Self-care has been co-opted into the thoughts-and-prayers school of mental health activism, writes Rebecca Reid.
woman in a field with a dogGetty Images

About a decade ago I heard the words ‘self-care’ for the first time, from a friend who had significant mental illness.

For her, being able to get through life on a day-to-day basis was a battle. She’d suffered horrific abuse and unsurprisingly had PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Self-care was the expression that her therapist had given her to describe the things she needed to do each day in order to stay alive.

In her case those things were going to therapy, walking as many steps a day as she possibly could and not drinking alcohol often, even though she loved wine.

Ten years later, it’s commonplace to see ‘self-care’ used as a hashtag on Instagram, describing getting a manicure, taking a bath or having your eyelash extensions infilled. Things which are would more accurately be described as self-maintenance.

Rebecca Reid writes that these days the self-care many talk about on Instagram can more accurately be described as ‘self-maintenance’. (Image: Getty)

There is nothing wrong with getting a massage, having a facial or relaxing in a bath. In fact, they’re all brilliant activities which can support positive mental health. But self-care doesn’t mean doing whatever you want if it feels good in the moment.

It means looking after yourself and doing what it is that you need to feel better in the long time. It’s like being your own parent, being strict with yourself about bedtimes and eating vegetables.

Instagram and Twitter are full of posts about how it’s OK to stay in your pyjamas, about how there’s nothing wrong with staying in bed all day. These posts are only half right. There is no shame in those things, and you should never feel guilty for doing that. But it’s also not how things should be. If you can’t get out of bed and you can’t get dressed, something is wrong. If you can’t get out of bed, you need active and appropriate interventional help, not a meme about how it’s fine.

When my anxiety is bad, I know what works. Exercise is the number-one most important thing I can do, no matter how much I would rather go home and hide in bed. Getting dressed, washing my hair, making my bed, tidying my room, talking to people who love me about why I’m feeling so bad. None of those things are fun or nice or enjoyable. But they work.

Self-care doesn’t always mean doing whatever you want if it feels good in the moment. It means looking after yourself and doing what it is that you need to feel better in the long term. (Image: Getty)

Conversely, taken in by the school of thought that bath bombs and face masks were the road to positive mental health, I’ve spent hours of my life lying in the bathtub, trying to convince myself that I’m calm and happy because I’m indulging in self-care. But the sad truth is that mental illness cannot be cured by face masks or bath bombs.

Self-care isn’t always doing something fun or nice. It’s more often doing something important but hard. Going outside, cooking something with some nutritional value, putting on clean pyjamas. Staying home when you want to binge drink, or going out with friends when you want to hide.

We should all treat ourselves to nice things as often as is practical, but we shouldn’t feel the need to label indulgences as ‘self-care’ in order to enjoy them. Getting a haircut or a spray tan or buying new clothes can make you happy and as such it’s a valid and important thing to do. But self-care, in a mental-health capacity, is something very different.

If self-care becomes synonymous with buying things then we run the risk of the message being missed. Self-care is essential if you are wrestling with mental illness, but more often than not the first and most important thing you can do in terms of self-care is to go to your GP or (if you can afford it) book a session with a therapist or a psychiatrist.

Taking your medication is self-care. Seeing your therapist is self-care. Dragging yourself to yoga or on a walk is self-care.

Bath bombs and pore strips can be part of a self-care routine but they cannot replace genuine intervention and structural support.

This story originally appeared on our sister site, Grazia.

If you need someone to talk to, phone Lifeline on 0800 543 354 or visit lifeline.org.nz.

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