Self-care! Which of us hasn’t been infuriated on stumbling across yet another article advocating bubble baths and walks in nature? Self-care is a big old trend at the moment and that is an excellent thing. It isn’t enough, of course. We also need a societal structure that supports people to care for themselves properly. The reason we have all those articles that tell us we should go jogging three times a week and rinse our mouths out with oil every morning is that we don’t live in a society that permits most of us to do truly beneficial things without a large amount of energy, time and money – assets that most people just don’t possess.
That said, there are things that most of us can do to help ourselves. We’re all doing a lot already, even though we may not realise it. But most people, I am quite sure, struggle with some areas at least.
The thing that is sometimes mistaken about self-care is that it is not about doing things that make us feel good. It’s about doing things that help us to stay alive. In other words, it is about meeting our needs, our own individual needs. We all have different pasts and different presents, and they create our current needs. That is why self-care is different for everybody.
To take an example, self-care for me comes under a few main headings.
Conserving energy. This is vital for me because of my illness, ME/CFS, which leaves sufferers with little energy and a huge cost when we do more than we should. Cooking, cleaning, laundry and tidying are all things that I am no longer able to do for myself. I have a kettle, microwave and fridge upstairs for my use. I recently had a care assessment with the council which discussed, among other things, fitting a stairlift and providing a carer for me. I rest on my bed for two and a half hours a day and am almost housebound.
Independence. At the moment, a lot of my self-care around independence is to do with accepting my lack of it. Other people doing things for me means that I no longer have control over the way they are done. I can’t eat what I want when I want it. I can’t have my wardrobe arranged the way I like it. My things are no longer private, and people can walk into my room at any time. I am no longer financially independent, but must grovel and beg the state to give me the pittance that will allow me to live. So far I have retained the independence of washing myself, but I have paid a price, which is that I do it very rarely.
Emotional stability. Or attempting to retain something approaching it, since my situation is having a severe impact on my mental health. I do what I can, for instance in reducing stress by opening bank and DWP letters the moment I get them, and avoiding upsetting and frightening input (including, often, the news). I write this blog. I use and help to moderate an online mental health community – both the using and the helping are positive for me. I keep my brain occupied to avoid downward thought spirals, especially when trying to sleep.
Things that made me happy. I consume media that is enjoyable and familiar. My chair and desk are set up beside my bedroom window, where I can look out and see the green outside my house and, when my chair is reclined, across the fields. I keep my room as tidy as I am able. I try to eat foods that I like, and now that I have a kettle, I can make tea sometimes. I spend a lot of time on facebook, where I can connect with people I love. I have choose my friends carefully and I get rid of people who have a negative impact on me, so that social media is mostly a very positive experience for me.
But the thing is, this is my version of self-care, which works for me. Imagine if I told a person who works a full-time job and then jogs in the evening to work off their excess energy that they ought to lie on their bed for two and a half hours every day! Conversely, imagine if they told me that I ought to do some baking and go to bed early to make myself feel better. The problem with self-care rhetoric, of course, is that the latter happens all too often. Healthy people think, astonishingly often, that they know what is best for ill people, just as wealthy people think they know what is best for poor people, white people think they know what is best for black people, and so on.
The real truth is that self-care is different for every single person because every single person has different needs.
So, a well-off white middle class person with an able body, a neurotypical mind, a job they love with a supportive management structure, and little trauma in their past, might be in a situation where, when they decide to go for a walk along the cliffs once a week and have a bath and a glass of wine every so often, this is genuinely all they need in terms of self-care. If everything else is taken care of, then doing things that are pleasant and restful could be the only additional things you need
The higher our levels of stress, anxiety, illness (mental, physical, or both), disability (again, physical or otherwise), poverty, trauma, fear, being discriminated against, and myriad other factors, the higher our self-care needs will be. And so we move from bubble baths and nature walks to things like planning your time so that you have days off, practising good sleep hygiene, and spending time with people you like. Then there are those who need to drop to working part-time, to start having therapy, to go to the doctor, to talk to our loved ones about our feelings.
And for some of the most vulnerable people in our societies, self-care is quite literally about staying alive. It is about trying to scrape together sufficient food or water. Or finding shelter for the night. For some, it is continuing to live in a toxic environment rather than becoming homeless, and for others it is recognising that being homeless is better than the situation they have been living in. It is the choice between asking for help when everybody who has ever helped you has also taken advantage of you, and not asking for help and your life being in jeopardy.
It is a real condemnation of our society when those who are literally fighting to stay alive are those who are the most despised, those whom we are least eager to help. And make no mistake, this is the case here and now and today. We look dubiously at those who get therapy. We regard people who take time off work because of illness as weak and lacking in dedication. People who can’t work are actively despised. But homeless people are barely regarded as people at all. Yes, many individuals are better than this, but society is not (and neither are many individuals).
I wrestled with this post for a long time; it’s easy to fall into the trap of simply giving a long list of self-care ideas. But you can find those anywhere on the internet with a bit of canny searching. Instead, I wanted to talk about the fundamentals of self-care, the fact that self-care is, quite simply, what we need it to be. There are actions, of course, that are helpful for many people, but nothing works for everybody and no two people are the same.
Many of us, naturally, struggle with self-care, with knowing how to help ourselves effectively. Some types of self-care are far more popularly advocated than others, and if we don’t fit that mould it can be hard to work out what it is we do need, let alone how to meet the need. It is what we need to do, though. It is the foundation of self-care.
If you see, or think, that somebody you know is struggling to look after themselves then by all means offer them help. Sometimes two heads are better than one. Do remember, though, that they are the one who gets to define their own needs and the manner in which those needs can be met. And also that they may refuse, and they have every right to do so.
As for we ourselves, I can only say again that only we get to define our needs, and only we can say how we want them to be met. For some, it is quite impossible for our needs to be met in our current situation. In those circumstances, we do what we can as well as we can (and that is why it is cruel and blinkered to stigmatise people for using unhealthy coping methods). Many of us can do something, though. We can consider ourselves and work out what are our greatest needs and whether they are being adequately met. If they are not, perhaps we can find ways to do it better. Either way, it is for us to say.