The Problem With Self-Care: A Stand-Alone Solution To Stress?

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“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” - Howard Thurman

Bubble baths. Naps. Manicures. Healthy eating, clean living, exercise, strategic indulgences. These are all behaviors that fall under the umbrella of “self-care” as most of us understand it – ways we attempt to mitigate the pressures of modern life by focusing solely on ourselves for a little while, instead of the countless tasks, pressures and anxieties that clamor for our attention.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this. A good nap under a fuzzy blanket is a wonderful thing. However, self-care as described in millions of Instagram posts is frequently inadequate to the task of addressing what ails us on a deeper level, as individuals and as a society.

Without a more nuanced understanding, self-care can even become another chore to accomplish, a source of anxiety about why we aren’t doing more to better ourselves, a way to let ourselves down. This is probably the last thing we need.

To achieve a more useful understanding of what self-care can mean for us, it may help to start with the origin of the term, and its original purpose.

Activism And Community Care

The term “self-care” originated in activist spaces. People on the front lines of essential cultural change frequently give so much of themselves to their causes that they burn out, which hampers community efforts. Reminding one another to take the time to regroup and recharge, then, becomes an essential component of connection and support. 

When the concept of self-care took root in the wider world, particularly in commercial contexts, the focus on community connections and values was lost. 

We are social creatures. We’re not meant to go it alone. The lack of meaningful interconnectedness that many of us experience in day-to-day life can’t be counteracted with a bath bomb or a trip to a day spa. 

In our highly individualized and goal-oriented society, true self-care requires fostering rich community relationships, to spread the weight out a bit so we can all be of service to ourselves and others and begin to live in a more fulfilling way.

Essentials, Not Luxuries

The commercialized version of self-care can frame basic human needs – for rest, for good food, for exercise, for physical comfort – as indulgent treats, not foundational aspects of wellbeing. 

In fact, our lives are often stressful and isolated because of deep systemic issues that have existed for a long time: an output-driven work culture that requires so much of our time and energy, exploitation of our natural environment that isn’t healthy for us or the other living things that depend on it, and increased social isolation. 

Commercialized self-care asks us to shift our focus onto what we can do or buy to feel better in the moment, instead of looking at the deep underlying roots and true causes of what’s wrong. 

Does Stress Have a Purpose?

The human stress response has a very specific function. In certain circumstances, heightened anxiety makes us into temporary superheroes. If a predator leaps out at us, or someone we know gets stuck under an avalanche, or we’re caught in a riptide, elevated stress hormones and hyper-oxygenated blood help us react quickly and with tremendous physical strength. This complex physiological reaction played a major part in the survival of our species.

In modern life, however, there’s no saber-toothed tiger about to pounce. Stress can become cyclical with no immediate release, spiraling and feeding itself in a way that people with depression or anxiety disorders will recognize immediately. 

A reactive response to stress and anxiety – ie: throwing a white chocolate mocha or a pair of cashmere socks at it, if you will – may temporarily distract you from the overwhelm, but does nothing to address its root causes, and may even contribute to the cycle.

What Is To Be Done: The True Spirit of Self-Care 

Over and over again, we see evidence that preventative care pays dividends in managing our emotional as well as our physical health. Rather than simply reacting to stressors in the moment (perhaps by diving into bed and cranking the white-noise machine) we can be better-served by creating long-standing daily habits that shape the arc of our lives, and the lives of those around us, towards balance.  

When we’re resourced in our own lives, we become a resource for our communities, fostering those deep connections that we need so badly. We become available for inspiration to effect change in ways that matter to us and others. We can help to heal the world as well as ourselves. 

Be Outside

For most of our history on this planet we lived closely-attuned to our natural environment, experiencing all of its cycles and changes as if they were a part of us. But according to the EPA, the average American today spends 93% of their life indoors. 93%.

A recent study, which analyzed data from all over the world, found that spending significant time in green spaces improved health outcomes across the board. (Japan, where Shinrin yoku or “forest-bathing” is a widespread practice, is ahead of the curve.) Spending time outdoors also gives us a chance to meet and interact with members of our communities who otherwise would have remained strangers – fostering those essential connections.

Self-care and care for our living environment are intrinsically linked. We depend on a healthy Earth for everything we do and everything we are. When faced with apocalyptic news about climate change, pollution, colony collapse and other looming disasters, crawling into bed and staying there can be very tempting – but there are many organizations doing good work to help stanch the bleeding, solve the problems “upstream,” and make a better world — and they always need help. Getting our hands dirty, either literally or figuratively, can be the most energizing and inspiring thing we can do.

Real Faces, Real Voices, Real Life

The ubiquity of the internet, and social media specifically, has had a complex effect on how we interact with others. It’s been a great boon in many cases – bringing light to causes that otherwise would have been swept under the rug, providing a valuable tool for sociopolitical organization, and, often, just allowing us to keep in touch with loved ones who might have scattered to the four winds without it.

But communication through screens also flattens discourse. When we’re deprived of real-world contact with the people we’re talking to, we’re only getting a part of them – and they’re only getting a part of us. Too often, communication can become harsh, stylized and inhumane – an endless cycle of battling Yelp reviews instead of meaningful, nuanced interaction. We’re surrounded by chatter, and many of us have never felt more lonely.

Unplugging isn’t enough. We need to replace that addicting screen time with something else of value. Consider making an effort to carve out real-world time and space for the people you mostly talk to over text, instant message or your social media platform of choice. Get together with a common goal in mind, and you might surprise yourselves.

Our Stress, Ourselves

Treating ourselves with lovingkindness means understanding the nature of what is causing our difficulties and working proactively to ease those difficulties, inside and out. Self-care isn’t a one-and-done deal, something to buy or a button to push, and it certainly isn’t a gauzy picture of  someone doing yoga on a rock.

Remember that anxiety alerts us to the presence of an unfulfilled need, or something that wants to be balanced – and recognizing those cues before the stress starts is critical to feeling truly empowered, living with intention, and fostering a sense of wellbeing. To live authentically and well is an ever-changing symphonic coordination of internal growth, resilience, community tending, engagement with our deepest values, loving fiercely, and living beyond the sole focus of the self. 


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1 Comment

  • Beautiful words! I find the polished IG version of self-care to be somewhat hollow, so thank you for expressing so eloquently what it should really look like.

    Amber on

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