The Truth About Self-care

What is self-care? I ask myself this question a lot - when I make a choice or decision, am I doing it to look after myself? Are the benefits short or long-term?

I started the #selfcaresunday feature on The Respite Room Instagram because I think it’s something that gets mentioned on social media a lot, but usually in its most aesthetically pleasing and easily digestible form. So rather than just posting pictures of the cute self-care things I do, I’m also going to be sharing the real stuff, the things I do to ensure I keep my life together when things get hard. I’m also going to use this blog post to explore where self-care comes from, how useful it can be, when it becomes a little dangerous and how I’ve benefitted from using it as a way to consider my choices and coping mechanisms.

Self-care has become something of a buzzword, even a way to sell beauty products. I think this stems in part from the way social media encourages us to make everything we do aesthetic, easily digestible and beautifully lit. It’s also deeply linked with capitalism, if we are told that the answer to our problems lies in buying the right product, rather than as a part of mental illness (which is perhaps caused or exacerbated by the lifestyle you have to lead to succeed in a capitalist society) we’ll buy the product, blame ourselves if it doesn’t solve anything, and come back to buy it again.

I used to think self-care meant having a bubble bath, painting my nails, or plucking my eyebrows. All of these things involve taking care of myself arguably, but if I’m low on energy, is that the best task to complete? Would it not be more sensible, although probably less fun, to complete any of the household chores I’ve been neglecting due to the combination of lack of energy and low mood my mental illness creates? I’m adjusting to working full-time after many years of working part time and being a student, so some days when I get home from work, I go straight to bed and don’t get out until the next day because I’m so exhausted and overwhelmed. Functioning at the required level to retain my job is difficult for me, it means that some days I don’t feed myself, clean the flat, see friends or talk to family. These are the times I need to be making self-care choices that are more meaningful than my beauty routine. I need to pay my council tax on time even if the thought of opening my laptop is so deeply exhausting I start crying just thinking about it. I need to ensure I have clean clothes for work, I need to respond to emails, I need to answer the phone when my mum calls (most of the time), I need to be thinking consciously about what needs to get done in order for me to be coping long-term.

The term self-care actually originates in the practice of self-managing health-conditions, both mental and physical. In the context of a health system struggling due to Tory austerity this can seem a little scary. Does this mean we become our own doctors? While researching the term for this piece, it seemed that self-care is usually ‘prescribed’ in the form of education for patients to help them achieve the best possible quality of life with a chronic condition. It’s not something I’ve ever had explicitly mentioned in an appointment with my GP about my mental health, but it has come up a lot in the treatment I am having with Glasgow Rape Crisis.

The NHS has a free self-care toolkit online which helped me understand this more clinical definition. It asks questions in order to define a ‘vicious health cycle’ which can be treated with self-care; ‘do you do more on good days and less on bad days?’, ‘do you have a problem saying NO to others?’. It also specifically refers to managing persistent health conditions, and for those for whom ‘your healthcare professionals may have done all that they can to help you’. This isn’t a fun thought, and I like to think it applies more to long-term health conditions than someone seeking support for a newly diagnosed mental health condition, but it makes a valuable point. Self-care is important, it is necessary, and if done correctly it is a form of treatment.

When it comes to mental health, based on my own experiences, I really advocate seeking a diagnosis (if that feels right for you) and attempting to access professional treatment– which can take a pretty determined attitude and a lot of patience to be successful sometimes.  But that option won’t be available to everyone for a variety of reasons; maybe where you live healthcare isn’t free, maybe like me you’ve tried to access treatment and are still on waiting list months later because of massive underfunding to our health service, or maybe your mental health situation makes the process of accessing treatment much more difficult than it is for other people. Clearly then, there’s value in unpacking this term, taking it back to its root and considering what we can do to support ourselves. The NHS toolkit I mentioned highlights an important fact – people with ‘persistent health conditions’ on average spend less than 3 hours a year in contact with a health care professional, and for the remaining 8,733 hours are alone, in charge of their own health. Self-care then, is about taking charge of your situation, empowering you to make the best choices for yourself. I won’t reiterate everything the toolkit covers, but it’s a good starting point in understanding self-care as a treatment, rather than a lifestyle choice. You may not agree with it all, but it definitely makes some meaningful points.

There is still a certain degree of privilege in this discussion of self-care. What if you don’t have the resources? There have been times in my life where I haven’t been able to make the right choices. For example, it’s sensible to say that if I am exhausted and hungry, I should go to the shop to buy food to cook and nourish my body with, but if I don’t have the money or resources to do so, it does me little good to know that. Similarly, it’s easy enough to say that if you know you’re too exhausted to prepare a balanced meal, you should spend a little bit more on a balanced prepared meal instead of convenience food, but that isn’t an option for everyone for a variety of reasons, and it’s inappropriate to suggest that it’s something available to everyone.

To me, self-care can be a double-edged sword. I’ve used it as an excuse to make some bad choices ‘I don’t have to do x because it’s creating anxiety and that’s self-care to opt out’. This line of thinking works if I’m in a complete state over going for coffee with a friend who understands my situation, but if I applied that logic to paying my rent (something I do find very anxiety inducing because it means looking at my bank balance and sending a large amount of money), I’d be in big trouble pretty quickly. Used appropriately though, it’s a useful rationale to make the best decisions for myself ‘if I do this, am I doing it for myself or to please someone else? Will it impact negatively on my energy levels? Do I have the time and space to recover from it?’.

I’ve come to understand it like this; take care of yourself as much as you can, make choices that are right for you and not based entirely on ensuring other people’s happiness, listen to your body, but equally, if you don’t have the resources available to you to make some of those choices – that’s not your fault. Capitalism has crept into the concept of self-care and poisoned it a little, made it into a product you can possess. If you just have the right look, the right clothes, the right routine, you’ll feel better – I don’t buy into that, self-care has to come from within. It’s about finding a sense of strength to push yourself into making the choices that will benefit you long-term.

As I mentioned at the beginning, we’re posting an image of a self-care choice every Sunday on The Respite Room Instagram #sundayselfcare, and we’d encourage you to share yours and tag us in it @respiteroom. It doesn’t have to be cute, that’s the whole point, maybe taking the time to sit down on your sofa and have some peace is your self-care choice, maybe it’s paying a bill you’ve been ignoring, maybe it’s preparing food for the week because you know you’re going to be too busy. It can be small or big, we all have unique situations so your self-care choices are going to be just as unique, there’s no judgement here at The Respite Room. I’ve already found myself doing things that I’ve been avoiding or acknowledging choices I was making which were not benefiting me long-term, because I knew that I was going to be making a #selfcaresunday post, and it’s becoming a useful habit, so get involved if you’d like!

Mel Reeve

@melreeve on Instagram and Twitter

Halina Rifai