“Are you feeling better now?” she asked.
“Uh, not exactly,” I said. “I think it’s depression I’m struggling with — not a headache.”
“Of course. Self-care first. You do you.”
I had just moved to a new city, for a new job, a good few time zones away from the place I called home. Very little about my new existence was familiar to me. Disorientation had become my new companion. I knew the feeling would pass.
“Significant change brings significant growing pains.”
“My attitude determines my altitude.”
These were the truisms I whispered to myself. (Thanks, Dad.)
I could not shake the thought that, no matter where I went, my fears would always be right there with me: clawing. Fears about job security, freedom of movement, the meaningfulness of my work, duties to family, country and colleagues, making new friends, staying connected to old ones, the shape of racism, sexism and other isms in a new country. I struggled with the idea of becoming myself, losing myself, discovering no self — all these fears had balled up and lodged themselves in my throat.
In that moment, sitting with this insoluble lump of fears — sensitive to the invisible depression knots everyone around me must be carrying with them — I smiled at my friend and colleague’s mention of self-care. Granted, it was more of a gag reflex than a smile. Why is it that I found no comfort in what was intended to be a gesture of support and understanding? Why did I feel a sense of hurt, of betrayal?
We were working on a project together, and she was going through a lot too. Life throws lemons at us and sometimes we just get whacked in the face with them. We both understood that. Still, I felt myself beginning to burn with a sense of shame for not healing fast enough — for slowing us both down.
“You do you.”
What was it about that string of words, in that particular rhythm, that made the knot in my throat constrict and swell? What was I racing to heal in the first place? Was there some model of healing I was not adhering to?
Unsure of the legitimacy of my own perceptions, I did not let these questions unspool out of me just then. Instead, I was struck by what seemed like a grim performance of self-care as a kind of orthodox millennial religion. Preached in slogans, punctuated with a misappropriated “yaaaas” and a dab of coconut oil, how could I possibly not be instantly healed?
After all, it has long since been decreed: Self-care First. Implicit in this sentiment is the idea that, if you cannot “do you” visibly enough or likably enough, then one has to return to drinking more water or go be depressed somewhere else because you’re probably getting in the way of someone else’s self-care.
What we, the digitally connected orthodox self-carers, seem to have adopted in our race to glow up, is a supremely individualist definition of self. This individualism is reinforced each time we are emboldened to “cut”, “cancel” and “ghost” without warning, as if our individual actions do not affect those around us. In a world that is quick to hashtag, brand, package and resell our deepest desires and anxieties back to us at a premium, it is little wonder that self-care promotes the individual over the collective.
Trouble at home? Do more yoga.
Distressed relationships? Subtweet and hit the gym.
Low self-esteem? Just drink more water.
Institutionalised racism and sexism? It’s okay. Coconut oil will give you glowing skin.
This is the manifestation of “best-life economics” in action, and it’s not all that bad. Self-care has sensitised us to the need for new ways to nurture ourselves and assert individual agency, but it has also promoted unkind behaviours that, left unchecked, can too easily become unkind patterns that leave us perpetually confrontational, passively aggressive and disconnected.
Arguments about the philosophies underlying the True Self aside, we do not exist in isolation. We cannot survive long, or thrive, in self-imposed isolation either. So why do we self-care so selfishly? Why are we so willing to cut ties with people — friends, colleagues, lovers — before we seek to understand? What am I afraid of learning about myself? These are questions I find myself asking in my own pursuit of a more sensitive self-care.
None of this is to advocate for the coaching, or enduring, of abuse in any form. Self-care is an important rallying call and daily practice to those who find themselves persistently sidelined, threatened and mistreated in a society that still prioritises the mobility of powerful, toxic masculinities (and their finances) over all else. Here, self-care is also an exercise in self-love, which, to people within the margins, is nothing short of radical.
Within the framework of an individualist, transactional society, it is all too easy to forget that we each carry multiple selves with us. These range from the roles we play in each other’s lives to the parts of ourselves we work on privately. We might not communicate ourselves in the same way.
It is even easier to forget that being sensitive to the complexity of those around us does not take anything away from our individual wellbeing; that expressing fear or hurt is not a declaration of war; that your happiness is not my loss; and that I cannot know you unless I get to know you.
Turmeric is amazing, but it cannot do all the work.