I’ve been pissed off this week. Pissed off to the point of being incapable of doing my normal work and becoming so anxious and twitchy that I needed to call on some mindfulness skills that have gotten pretty rusty. I want you all to know this because I want you to know the consequences of trendy, uninformed, bullshit thinkpieces and their kin, the edgy Facebook status.
This week I just can’t seem to get away from people making commentary on others’ self care routines. Unsurprisingly, most of it hinges on “Tumblr self care,” that holy grail of joke fodder that is in large part created and consumed by teenagers and young adults. I want to make a note of that, because it’s important to realize that Tumblr is in large part young people struggling to understand how they exist responsibly in the world. It’s especially a lot of outcasts, introverts, and mentally ill folks who are young and trying to understand how to deal with the pain they feel while also maintaining relationships and contributing to the world.
So first and foremost, can we cut Tumblr a bit of slack? We all struggled with this same kind of thing when we were younger, so stop shitting all over today’s young people because they happen to be sorting it out online instead of in their basement. The world isn’t ending because young people are trying to figure things out.
But second, the messages that we are sending to these young people in response to their (honestly not that big of a deal) posts about self care are completely toxic. I want to start by giving you an idea of the types of messages that most people with mental illness hear on a regular basis. It’s incredibly common in the U.S. at least for the message “you are what you accomplish” to get ingrained at a pretty early age. Where I grew up, I was also often sent the message that we don’t talk about our feelings very much, we deal with them, and we move on. Once you commit to something you DO NOT back out of it or you’re a bad and flakey person. You don’t cause drama or act negatively, because no one wants to be around a drama queen and you’ll end up with no friends. Don’t be selfish, give more to other people than yourself, your life isn’t so bad, other people have it worse, why are you upset there’s nothing to be upset about get over it, I bet if you just exercised and ate healthy you’d feel fine, blahblahblah. No one is living their life in some sort of uncertainty about whether their friends like them flaking out or whether it feels really great to not be able to get out of bed. The messages of guilt and shame around emotions and mental illness start early and come often.
Unsurprisingly, people with mental illnesses also tend to be people with hyperactive senses of guilt and shame anyway. There are a few personality disorders out there that don’t have those as symptoms, but nearly every other mental illness includes guilt, shame, or self-hatred as some element of its symptoms. SO. Can we all please start from the understanding that there really isn’t an epidemic of depressed and anxious people parading around oblivious to the way their actions affect others, totally ok with the fact that they can’t deal with life? There MAY be the usual packs of teens and young adults who are still figuring out the ways their actions affect others, or how to find some balance in their lives, but that has to do with being 14-18, not with having a mental illness.
So with all of that history of serious guilt and stigma and internalized bias I get real pissed off when I see stuff like this:
“Seriously, nothing is worse than the writing and the ~comic strips about mental illness~ and the pandering videos which tell us that people with anxiety are these fragile butterflies who must be catered to at every turn. ‘Just take care of yourself,’ this rhetoric says. ‘Practice self-care! Take a bath! Cancel your plans! Don’t explain yourself! If your friends can’t give you space and be totally understanding, that means they’re not your friends!!! They’re toxic! GET THEM OUT OF YOUR LIFE. You have no obligation to keep around Toxic People. If you need to throw your phone into a river and spend two weeks locked in your room eating Ding Dongs, that’s what you need!! :3′”
There are approximately a billion things wrong with this paragraph, so I’m going to start with the most obvious one: this person doesn’t link to any evidence that these people or this advice exists. What I see when I go on Tumblr is a lot of people reminding each other that they’re valuable, that emotions aren’t bad, that it’s important to eat and sleep well, notes about taking your meds or exercising, and a few about the fact that it’s important to choose your friends carefully because some people will leave you feeling worse than you started. Some are little things, like goals to drink water or buy something that you particularly enjoy, or suggestions to try a coloring book or a bath. Some of them are about setting reasonable boundaries, and reminding people that they should take care of themselves IN ADDITION TO OTHER PEOPLE. And sometimes it’s just little reminders that things will be ok.
You know what I see nowhere? Ignore your friends and don’t tell them what’s up. You’re better off alone. I see the exact opposite of that. I see people trying to connect with each other. So the first issue I have is that this is responding to a problem that doesn’t exist. I also fail to see how people writing or taking a bath hurts ANYONE. The way people seem to equate “doing things for yourself” with “being selfish” is a serious problem and contributes to the ongoing struggle many people have with taking any time or resources for themselves. As you can see in many of the linked examples, people talk repeatedly about having a hard time with giving themselves time and care. That’s WHY the dialogue at the moment is so one-sided. We don’t need any more reminders that we should think of other people too. Those are already everywhere (as discussed above). So these messages exist to combat the current climate, and so don’t feel the need to pussy foot around things or talk about how you also need to take care of other people. People who only look at messages like “it’s ok to cut someone out of your life if you need to,” are ignoring all the messages that say “only bad people give up on their friends.” Do you see the fear in this article? It’s completely tinged with the terror that all the ways of dealing with mental illness are bad and wrong. We don’t need more of that. We don’t need more thinkpieces telling us that we’d better watch out or our mental illness will sneak up and make us jerks (and it will be our own fault).
Most of us have already had friends disappear on us, or been told we’re selfish and self-absorbed, or that we’re manipulative and abusive, even when we’re trying so hard to be ok. We don’t need more reminders to watch our backs, or keep from getting too selfish in our self care.
And beyond the people guilting us for just engaging in self care, I’ve seen the start of battles between people who like different types of self care. In particular, I see a lot of people who prefer more “active” or “accomplishment” type forms of self care looking down on self care that’s a little more basic. Most people with a mental illness know that they should get out of bed, take a shower, eat well, exercise, clean their apartment, call their friends, etc. That’s why there’s so much effort to validate the other kinds of self care: it’s ok to hide under the blankets sometimes. It’s ok to wear pajamas to go see your friends. It’s ok to spend a little extra on that latte if it means you’ll have the energy and emotional wherewithal to get to work today. None of this says “you should probably always do these things because they’re really productive.” It says they’re ok to do sometimes.
As someone who really does thrive on self care that is very sensory and very basic (footie pajamas, a mocha, my cat, a chewy necklace), I can guarantee that I don’t do these things to replace my basic life skills, nor do I use them to focus on myself over other people. I often end up feeling childish and incompetent. I need reminders from my friends that I’m not hurting anyone, and that there’s nothing inherently great about looking dignified. I certainly don’t need someone to tell me that I’m trite and my mental illness isn’t “real” or “gritty” enough because I use “cute” coping skills. I’ll use whatever damn well makes me feel better, even if it’s riding a unicycle while playing the kazoo. I don’t care how it looks, and the reality of mental illness is that when it hurts that bad you don’t care if you look stupid, you just need it to stop.
The hierarchy of “productive” self care over “useless” self care and the anxiety about being good to friends is not just thoroughly unhelpful in general, it also screws over people who happen to have physical disabilities or who can’t afford a gym membership and good food or people with chronic pain. It creates more stigma against people who can’t easily leave the house, or who might have days that are unexpectedly painful. There is no good reason to tell people that they should stop using coping skills that are working and that don’t hurt anyone.
Now what is true is that sometimes people with depression or anxiety do become self absorbed because their own pain overwhelms their ability to look at much else. This however, has little to do with someone’s self care routines and more to do with the actual illness: when you cannot physically get out of bed, you are generally not at your best as a friend. But the solution to this problem is to increase the number of coping skills and self care options available, not to increase the guilt and shame. The more blame we place on self-care, the more we miss that it’s actually helping improve the situation. I know that I am a better friend when I let myself cancel sometimes and show up when I will actually be a decent person to be around, when I take some time for myself so that I can listen and support my friends. I am a better person and a kinder human being when I treat my depression. That treatment includes self care, everything from the tiniest fidget to the expensive massage, and the showers and cooking and sleeping and cleaning in between.
I know that this has gotten long and ranty, but there is nothing that ruins my day faster than people saying that there are right and wrong ways for me, in my own life, to deal with my mental health, and then heaping guilt on me for not doing what they think is right. There’s a reason the dialogue around mental illness has turned to (perhaps too much) validation and love: it’s because those things work a whole lot better than shitting on someone. There is no reason to continue perpetuating stigma against mental illness under the guise of being “edgy” or “real.” Stop.
About that “ignore/ditch your friends” meme, which was made infamous by “The Secret” and other, similarly aggressive positive thinking advice:
I don’t think it’s just about mistaking self-care for being selfish. It’s also about mistaking setting boundaries with your friends, for abandoning your friends.
This is something I’ve struggled with a lot myself. Emotionally, I’ve always believed that the minute someone sets a boundary with me, our relationship is effectively over. Because I effectively can no longer be meaningful to that person… I no longer have permission to do meaty, worthwhile things with them. Our relationship is restricted to small talk and small deeds.
And since I’m not interested in only playing that part in someone’s life, the only option is to move on. Which in practical everyday action terms, usually means abandoning the relationship.
Truly, this has not served me well. A more nuanced understanding of how to live with boundaries would have saved some of those friendships. Not being suspicious that boundaries were a nice, subtle way to say “GTFO of my life” would have made me respect them more. I would have not felt like boundaries were my enemy, out to deprive me of life experiences and stunt my emotional growth.
If Tumblr users are not saying, “Ditch your friends for the sake of self-care!” then that’s something to applaud… it means we’re rejecting the toxic tenets of “The Secret” and its kin.
Thanks for bringing this up. I had forgotten that many people interpret boundaries as the end of a relationship (I have done this and had many people interpret my own boundary setting as such). I’m sure there are some people on Tumblr and in the self care communities who don’t understand this nuance, but for the most part I have seen posts that remind people that healthy friendships and relationships are ones with boundaries. I really hope society can start to understand that.