Self care is really important to me, so when someone passed along an article entitled “Why I Don’t Believe in ‘Self Care’ (and how to make it obsolete)“, I was intrigued. I like a good critique of something that I care about, especially if it makes me consider things in a different way. The intriguing thing about this critique is that it appears to be based in Marxism, which i’m mostly going to ignore because I don’t want to argue against all of Marxism, but suffice it to say that buying things ever is not inherently evil. That said, there are some interesting things to consider about the critique.
According to the article, self care means “any necessary human regulatory function which is under individual control, deliberate and self-initiated….In modern medicine, preventive medicine aligns most closely with self care.” The author pulls this definition from Wikipedia, and goes on to talk about the fact that we call many things self care that don’t fall under this definition. In the author’s mind that’s a problem, because we confuse things that are necessary and under our own control with things that we do to cope temporarily with bad situations.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but the first thing I want to point out is that hinging your entire argument on a Wikipedia definition of a word is not a strong case. Words are defined by how we use them, so if everyone around you is using the phrase self care to mean “taking care of yourself, doing things that feel fulfilling, checking in with yourself to engage in practices that keep you going”, then that’s probably what the phrase means, rather than something very strictly defined as “under your own control.” In fact, if I were to ask 100 of my closest friends what they think self care means, I doubt a single one of them would include the self initiated and under individual control elements, but those appear to be huge parts of the author’s argument.
I have a huge problem with folks who profess to be intersectional, but take strong prescriptivist positions on language. That shit is racist and classist, and if you don’t understand that we have to look at how language actually functions in real life, then I really don’t have time for you. So let’s just take a moment to find irony in the fact that an author who is arguing against the problems of capitalism and the abuses of the oppressed classes relying on prescriptivist arguments for their article.
But to move on to the main argument of the post, the author wants to distinguish between coping, which is a temporary strategy to get through a hard time, and self care, which is the ongoing actions you take to ensure your well being. I think there’s an important nugget of truth to be found in this article: there are some things that we do that feel nice in the moment but are not sound long term strategies. I think it’s important to recognize the fact that often self-care will put us at odds with other people, and that we need to be aware of how our self care affects others. I’ve seen people say that self care is eating a whole pizza and binge watching Netflix. That might be self care in this moment, but it is not going to be self care if you do it every day. That’s the challenging balance: sometimes you have to do temporary things to get through the day, sometimes you have to go exercise and eat a salad in order to stay healthy and make a sustainable life.
What I find bizarre is the shamey tone that the author brings to this argument.
She says that “The result of this [self care] is that we end up spending a lot of resources on unnecessary things, even as we are trying to work for a less wasteful and anti-consumerist world. We’ve bought into the consumerism that we claim to oppose.”
I find myself confused. It’s easy to say that if something isn’t totally ethical then it isn’t sustainable, and therefore isn’t self care. We should be able to get by without it. But that’s not always true. There are times that a person requires something that isn’t great in order to survive. An example: in order for me to eat in a healthy manner, I have to live in opposition to my values; I cannot be a vegan, which is what I logically believe is the most ethical position to take. If I were to eat vegan, I almost certainly would fall back into my eating disorder and seriously hurt myself or potentially die.
That would not change if society were different or if I had a better communal support system. It is a simple fact about my combination of sensory sensitivities, difficulties with restriction, and rule following nature. Sometimes there is no circumstance in which we can both take care of ourselves and do the best thing. That’s ok. My biggest beef with this piece is that it doesn’t recognize how hard someone can try to be a good person and still need to “fall short” in some ways in order to take care of themselves. I don’t think we need any more shame around the concept of self care. We have so much already.
What the article gets really really right is the promotion of more community care instead of an individualized understanding of health. We are interdependent and it is important to recognize that. I’ve always thought that an important part of self care is recognizing when we need others, so I think we might be down to semantics in distinguishing self care from community care. You can put the focus on the individual by saying everyone is responsible for asking for help when they need it, or you can put the focus on the community by saying that it’s impossible for any of us to meet all of our own needs. I think it’s important to remember both, as the community can’t help unless we articulate our needs, and we cannot take care of ourselves without community.
It is absolutely important to recognize that the language of self care can put the onus of survival on an individual rather than on systems. Self care cannot exist in a vacuum without advocating for change to workplaces that are unsupportive or relationships that aren’t interdependent. This is the most important element of this piece in my eyes: self care cannot replace a society that is functional for the people in it. What I disagree with is the idea that self care or even coping has no place in a “good” society.
“It sounds so simple, but here’s the big secret: community care can make our unsustainable coping mechanisms obsolete. If we can build a culture of community care, where people’s needs are met through each other, coping becomes unnecessary. We can cut down on waste. We can make our communities sustainable.”
There will never be a community so sustainable that people never have to use unsustainable coping mechanisms for some things, or so sustainable that some people don’t have to use long term self care methods that are not ideal. That is not possible and saying it is is a utopian myth. There will always be times that in order to get by, we will need to do things that aren’t perfect or that might hurt other people. One of the hardest things about engaging in self care is recognizing that sometimes it is ok to prioritize yourself and your own well being over other people.
I think that this article gives us a great starting point: communal care needs to be part of our understanding of living a healthy life. But I think that a healthy life involves a balance: giving and receiving help from others, while also sometimes prioritizing your own needs.
Not everything we do can be sustainable, perfectly ethical, or communal. Sometimes we have to do things for ourselves that means someone else won’t get our time, or that we take a resource from someone else. It’s not ideal, but it is also reality, and shaming people for being realistic about taking care of themselves is pretty shitty in my opinion. So yes, let’s aim for community care. We absolutely can do better. But making all unsustainable coping mechanisms obsolete? Ha. There is no system under which I will never want to binge Netflix and eat a tub of ice cream. Unsustainable coping mechanisms are part of life, because some situations are unsustainable and that will never change.