Self-care has become such a buzzword. It’s easy to understand why—by definition, taking care of yourself really comes with no downsides. But now there’s a nebulous gray area of self-care now doesn’t sit right with me. “Stay fresh, stay self cared up!” The meme gods remind me. Yes, Instagram. I shall obey. (But how exactly do I do this? I asked myself under my breath, hoping Alexa didn’t hear me.)
I don’t know when it began but I do know the moment I noticed it. I was in CVS and there was an end-cap topped with a giant “SELF-CARE = SELF-LOVE” sign. Okay, I thought, I’m in for some self-love! What’ya got, CVS? Some free therapy session coupons? Some B12 supplements to help with this seasonal depression, perhaps? Maybe a pocket guide on sticking to the more difficult boundaries my ex keeps managing to walk his way over?
Turns out, none of the above.
What it did include was a wide variety of face masks that didn’t look like the face masks I remember from my face-masking days and instead vaguely resembled wearing another face on top of your face. The less Hannibal-Lector-variety face masks were basically just face mask sheets that make you look like a panda or a cheetah, which, okay, I guess, but do you have anything for us non-You-Tube-harajuku-influencer types who are just looking to rip a layer of crusty aged skin off our face as quickly and as satisfyingly as possible?
Turns out the answer to that is also a no.
The other self love products included bath bombs, leave-in hair conditioning treatments, a lot of coconut-based products, and bath salts (are people still smoking these and stripping naked in intersections, because I’ll argue that’s the exact opposite of self-love or self-care from any perspective).
And thus, as all good marketing ploys would have it, I determined that “self-care” has really just become code for “treat yourself.”
The hard truth there is that those of us who need self-care the most, treating ourselves is often the exact opposite of self care: spending more money than we should on things we don’t need, that extra glass of wine to buzz away the pain, neglecting responsibilities, empty sex, drugs. In an attempt to numb the pain, we end up shrinking ourselves to reflect as little as we feel. And it works every time.
The issue I have with these things being labeled with “self-care” is that they’re devoid of any actual inner “self” and meaningful “care”. Sure, it’s nice to pamper yourself, especially if it means taking some time to yourself. But what’s more important is the ability to recognize that you need to in the first place and then finding the time to do so. For those who are otherwise not very good at doing that, it’s no easy task, and it’s easy to lose yourself in the mix. Hand a face mask to someone who prioritizes weekly face masks and it’s just another face mask. Hand a face mask to someone who is imploding under a to-do list that is longer than a CVS receipt, most of which includes favors and care for others, and it will most likely get filed in the “wouldn’t that be nice?” brain folder. There’s also this implication (and plenty of memes to support this evidence) that you can just slap a face mask on it and make it all better.
Wouldn’t that be nice?
There is also the superficial implication that if you look good on the outside, you’ll feel great on the inside. And obviously that’s true. I believe it was the Dalai Lama who once said: the smaller the pores, the happier the soul.
Those of us who have experienced trauma–whether through sexual assault, emotional abuse, physical abuse, tragic accidents and experiences, a chaotic environment, war and conflict–find self-care to be an oddly foreign concept. In fact, most of us end up being pretty good at taking care of others while wildly neglecting ourselves and what we truly need in the attempt to regulate the environment and relationships around us.
So how should we talk about self-care? Well, we can start with the reality: self-care doesn’t always feel like self-care as its happening. It’s challenging and hard and uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s exhausting in itself. That all sounds counterproductive to caring for yourself, but this is the difference between learning to focus on your long-term growth over temporary relief. Self-care is about doing the things that help us grow, heal, and transform into even better, brighter versions of ourselves (hopefully also with minimal pores). And those things are often difficult.
Examples of what real self-care looks like in action:
?Setting boundaries around the co-dependently toxic relationships in your life and sticking to them. Even when (especially when) it’s hard.
?Not skipping the things that are good for you because you are fixated on something toxic.
?Knowing your triggers. Make a list of them. Everything that sets you off, anything that makes your heart instantly jump to 300 bpm. Know them better than you know the lyrics to every Beyonce breakup song. Memorize affirmations and breathing techniques that help calm and regulate you in those moments.
?Being comfortable giving the unpopular but kind “no” when you know you don’t have the time, energy, or brain space. This might mean not being able to be the maid of honor in your best friend’s wedding. If you’re struggling, you need to know when to protect yourself.
?Being able to say “no” to things that make you uncomfortable even when you think they shouldn’t.
?Releasing the ego and the urge of pleasing everyone all the time.
(Spoiler: It’s impossible.)
(Second spoiler: It’s pointless.)
?Accepting that you are not able to do all of the work on yourself alone and seek professional help instead of viewing it as failure.
?Taking unwavering accountability for your mistakes and actions and instead of spiraling in shame, committing to learning from them and doing better.
?Then, next time the situation presents itself: doing better. Not perfect. Just better.
?Use all your vacation days at work. Use some for mental health days to rest and recharge.
?Letting go of grudges, resentment, and anger of those who hurt us even if they don’t don’t deserve it. (Letting go isn’t about them. It’s all about you.)
?Forgiving yourself for getting here in the first place.
(Say it again.)
(Now say it again.)
?Raising your heart rate 30 minutes a day instead of watching Netflix
?Calming your mind for 20 minutes a day through meditation instead of texting work gossip.
?Not listening to a society that begs you to live in comparison others and instead loving yourself and what you look like in all of your “imperfections.”
(For additional help, play Lizzo on repeat.)
?Getting to bed early for a full night’s sleep instead of scrolling through Instagram.
?Blocking their number. (You know who.)
?Making a financial plan for yourself for the year and sticking to it.
?Instead of immediately reacting, going for a walk around the block.
?Staying home when you’re emotionally depleted instead of going out for drinks again.
?Learning how to stop yourself when you’re spiraling. Whether you’re lashing out, being negative, gossiping, acting out in jealousy, throwing a fit, yelling, road raging, crying, drowning in anxiety. You can stop and find your calm. It’s uncomfortable as hell. But it can be learned.
?Asking for what you need instead of lashing or acting out because others aren’t able to read your mind.
?Not sinking every last bit of energy into a job that is slowly sucking your life away one minute at a time, every day.
?Being crazy enough to go for that one thing–that project, that dream, that goal, whatever it is–that’s always in the back of your mind but you push aside because you think your life is too small to dream so big.
?Keep a journal. No, really this time.
?Accepting help instead of considering it a sign of weakness or failure.
?Cutting the people who consistently hurt you out of your life even when doing so also hurts like hell.
?Understanding that no one is responsible for your growth or healing but you.
?Believing in yourself instead of listening to self-doubt.
?Being brave enough to dust yourself off and keep on your self care routine, even after you had a bad day or weren’t perfect.
If you want to do any of these things while wearing a face mask? All the better. But it’s the ability to know and love yourself enough to do the work necessary to help you grow beyond whatever you’re going through—that’s real self care.
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