When the term “self-care” first appeared in the 1950s, it was in a medical context. Doctors were looking for ways to help institutionalised patients find a greater sense of autonomy and independence in daily life. In the 1960s, the term was used to frame best-practices for people with high-stress jobs, such as firefighters and paramedics. In the 1970s, it was used to describe best-practices that could help African-Americans escape systemic oppression.
Sometime around 2016, “self-care” was minted as a mainstream concept. Part of it had to do with the skyrocketing wellness movement, in which greater numbers of people gravitated toward health diets, yoga, and similar practices. There was also a perception of heightened chaos in the world. We had collective problems, like climate change. We had a relentless stream of troubling news. We had feelings of isolation that come, ironically, from always being digitally connected.
The current mainstream definition of self-care is as broad as you like. Basically, it describes the little things we do for ourselves. Getting a manicure, booking a masseuse, painting a picture – any of these can be described as self-care. You might count to ten and take deep breaths when you’re feeling stressed out. You might enforce a strict “no screen-time after 9 pm” rule. Anything we do to prioritise our mental, physical, or spiritual health can be placed under the umbrella of “self-care.”
Give & Take
The self-care movement has great validity, of course. We need a greater focus on self-care. If we want to make a better world, we need to look after our emotional and physical health. It’s the only way we can give our best.
But that’s exactly the point: Giving our best, not taking it.
The reality is that self-care and wellness trends, as vital as they are, have a decadent side. You can find plenty of evidence of this on Instagram (#selfcare). But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that self-care has swerved into the realm of luxury and escapism. Life is challenging, after all. The world is a complicated place. Getting away from it can be the sweetest thing.
But the desire to retreat from the world is only useful to a certain degree. Beyond that, we reach a point of diminishing returns. In the end, we can’t have individual wellness without social and community wellness.
This brings us to the #1 myth about self-care: That it’s primarily about taking care of yourself. Sure, there’s a place for spa days – who would want to live in a world without them? We’re all human beings, and we all need to be soothed. Even pets enjoy being pampered once in a while. But one never feels happy, never feels whole, never feels complete, if one’s primary focus is always on one’s self. Sure, we have studies to back this up – but does anybody really need academic research on the demerits of selfishness?
The new frontier of self-care is volunteering and charitable giving. Why? Because these are actions that make us feel noble and valuable to others, which is a core form of self-care. If we’re honest, adversity is the thing that really brings us together. If we don’t feel like we are valuable to others in the face of adversity, how can we truly feel valuable to ourselves. How can we then value our own self-care, right down to the core?
This is a deep and exciting frontier – the possibilities of self-care through giving are endless, whether it’s patting someone on the back for a job well done, or helping with the household maintenance of someone we love who has recently suffered a setback. Self-care is about taking care of ourselves, but taking care of each other is a huge part of what makes us whole.
And let’s face it – getting that 90-minute massage is so much sweeter when we feel deep down that we’ve given our best to someone else.
What are your go-tos for self-care?