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Is Self Care The Answer?

Over the last number of months, the drastic rearranging of how we conduct our lives, and the challenges that arise from it, has also drawn our attention to how we take care of our mental health and wellbeing. The notion of ‘self care’ and what it may mean has come to the forefront of the conversation around mental health and wellbeing in a way that it hasn’t before.

When we think of self care we may think of a cosy evening inside, with Netflix, surrounded by our favourite snacks; the traditional ‘duvet’ day or maybe even an indulgent pamper sesh (incense and face mask to boot). These are all great and valid ways to take some ‘you’ time amidst the chaos of life but, for many, taking a ‘day’ isn’t an option. We may not have the luxury of being able to take time off with jobs to go to, caring responsibilities, deadlines to be met that have little compassion for our mental wellbeing, it may not be financially feasible to just ‘treat yourself’ when you fancy it.

Our relationship with self care is often tied to our notion of productivity. Do I ‘deserve’ to take time for myself, have I worked hard enough? This is a symptom of living in a society that places the most value upon productivity and the surplus value produced by it. We internalise this pressure to be productive, comparing ourselves to others and their ability to push themselves or out of survival, without which we wouldn’t have a roof over our heads or food on the table. The idea of working yourself to your absolute limit and *then* taking time to recuperate and recharge only to rinse and repeat, is not self care. It does however, warp our perspective toward ourselves as human beings, often tied to feelings of ‘guilt’ or expressions of ‘laziness’. We only deserve to mind ourselves when we’ve worked ourselves to the bone, not a moment sooner.

So for many, that idealistic or over romanticized image of self care we see portrayed in the media – relaxing with a glass of wine, surrounded by incense/candles – is merely that, it’s inaccessible to many of us with lives. Regardless, we do need to take care of ourselves in some capacity as we navigate life. How can we reconcile these two realities?

We need to redefine what we mean when we speak about self care. It goes back to the admittedly less romantic notion of working within your circumstances according to your own needs and abilities. That starts with giving ourselves the permission to treat ourselves with the same compassion we would a friend or loved one when we (lovingly) berate them for overdoing it. We recognise the value in those we care about and until we can do the same for ourselves (which is really difficult, don’t get me wrong) we won’t treat our time and needs with the same care and consideration.

We do not need to ‘earn’ a break through total exhaustion. Sometimes the noble thing to do, isn’t to work ourselves into the ground in order to prove we’ve earned the privilege of a little self compassion, but to acknowledge we deserve it in the first place.

This could mean finding self care through doing mundane tasks like meal planning (so you have food in the fridge and the prospect of a proper meal to greet you at the end of the day), setting boundaries around your work day so you have time to decompress in the evening, taking a few minutes to tidy up your living space so you’ve somewhere comfortable to work or relax. You could even argue that taking steps like this is work within itself. Sometimes ‘doing’ self care can be an effort in itself, but realising the value in doing these mundane things knowing the benefit it’ll bring to you later is in itself self care.

In the wider context of life it’s important to acknowledge that although taking personal responsibility for our needs is important, it is only one piece of the puzzle. While for many of us taking steps to mind ourselves can be hugely beneficial, sometimes it is not enough. That isn’t failing, that is being human. There is only so much we can do as individuals in terms of wellbeing and wider mental health awareness. There is a sad irony in watching TD’s tasked with supporting the wellbeing of society, post videos sharing their exercise routines or favourite recipes, when our current mental health supports are chronically underfunded. Sometimes the ‘little things’ and awareness campaigns are not enough. While there is undoubted value in these messages they are ultimately a band-aid on the wider issue of mental health which has become dependent on charities and individuals to fill in the ‘gaps’.

Self care as we may know it, can be largely inaccessible both in terms of time and money in accessing it; we need to reimagine what it means to care for ourselves in a time where many of our work/home/social lives all play out from the same desk/kitchen table/sofa the lines between them increasingly begin to blur.