Self-care is a term that has grown in popularity of late. Suddenly it’s everywhere: thrown around with hashtags all over social media, used in advertising and on lifestyle blogs, and even making appearances on health websites. Clearly it means different things to different people, so it can be hard to define. But the type I’m thinking about, in popular culture, seems to be synonymous with (though not exhaustively): yoga, coffee, pampering sessions, cancelling plans, long baths, treats, snacks, scented candles, body scrubs, having a lie-in, going to the beach, not apologizing for looking after yourself, getting a manicure, and having a glass of wine at the end of a long day. It also means weight-lifting, being kind to yourself, and wearing a bathrobe. So as you can see, it means a lot of things to different people!
If that’s all there is to it, what is the problem?! The majority of these things, in and of themselves, aren’t harmful. But as a growing trend, the concept and wide embrace of self-care presents some concerns. The underlying attitude that draws all these separate activities together is one that says: if it makes you feel better, and you need it to feel better, then it is “self-care,” and as long as it makes you happy/calm/relaxed, then it is justified.
In a humorous and exaggerated way, this CollegeHumor video highlights exactly the problem with self-care. In the video, titled “You Can Be Terrible if You Call it “Self-Care,” three women justify their increasingly outrageous behavior by calling it “self-care” (and some of the behavior is outrageous, so exercise discretion when you watch it!). Humor aside, “self-care” as an unchecked habit leads to a life that is inward-looking and ultimately selfish. We’re living in a world where more and more we want to switch off the news and retreat away from the horrors that we hear on a daily basis. And it is good that we avoid mindlessly consuming the wall-to-wall media indulgence of tragedy. But while switching off the TV is one thing, switching off from the reality of helping those in need around us is another thing. With that in mind, here are some points to consider:
1. When self-care is embraced as a constant attitude, it becomes an excuse for avoiding responsibility and the duties of our state in life; i.e., getting out of doing anything you don’t want to do. It’s an excuse to bury ourselves away at the expense of reaching out and helping others, especially when “others” might be annoying, difficult or just plain irritating.
2. It’s an attitude that forgets the value of self-discipline and routine, of the goodness of doing things simply because they need to be done, however boring or pointless the task feels. And “self-care”, unchecked, says that we deserve everything when we want it, how we want it, simply because we’ve somehow earned it for being nebulously “a good person.” In the worst case scenario, this leads us to using others as objects for our own pleasure and discarding them when we are done.
3. Perhaps the explosion of this kind of self-care is a backlash at the materialistic culture that we also live in, that says we are only worth what we produce, we are only of value if we work harder and longer, earn more money, produce more things. Fair enough! We are not machines. We must prioritize the truly good things in life. Time with family, friends, time to rest and play are more than just important, they are utterly necessary.
4. “Finding balance” seems to be the answer then, but I think it is more complex than that. We are dealing with the innate human struggle that wants to be generous, while at the same time wants to be selfish. The question to ask ourselves then is: am I living a me-centric life, or am I living a Christ-centric life? A me-centric life will, of course, prioritize ourselves. A Christ-centric life will seek to serve Him by serving others. It will become sensitive to the times when we are asked to give more than we want to, and sensitive to the times when Christ asks us to come away quietly with Him and rest.
4. Real self-care is better described as “self-respect” or “self-discipline.” Real self-care is an attempt to live a well-ordered life, with all things in moderation, in order to avoid detrimental stress. If “self-care” means you are putting off tasks that need to be done, delaying other people, or avoiding work, study or chores for the sake of excess luxury for yourself, then the effect is that life starts to grind to a halt. “Looking after yourself” doesn’t mean indulgence. It means things like getting enough sleep in order to function, eating healthily so you can live well, watching your alcohol intake, keeping on top of chores and bills and cleanliness. In that way, life is calmer and more balanced, and you are then able to look around you and live with a heart that invites others in, rather than blocking them out.
6. There are times for sorrow, for bedding down and retreating and healing, and there are times for getting up and facing the world again. What matters is our inner attitude: are we still prioritizing those worse off than us? Are we listening with sensitivity to where we should be and what we should be doing with our day to day life? Is our rest and downtime allowing us to get up and begin again with renewed and refreshed enthusiasm, or is it leaving us apathetic and lazy? Are we still centered on Christ or on ourselves?