Self Care Culture is a Scam

Pete Ross

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I’ve never really liked the term #selfcare. Maybe it’s all the Instagram photos or advertising I’ve seen behind it, that reduces an important topic that deserves a lot of time and attention down to glasses of wine in a bubble bath. That was actually a couple of years ago, before it became this gigantic thing thanks to Covid. 

Since then, the thing that’s irked me and that most people don’t seem to have noticed when it comes to all the #selfcare hastaggery going on is that it rarely seems to involve actual self care. Nope, the vast majority of the time what I see is something entirely different and not necessarily helpful:

Indulgence. 

It’s completely logical too. After all, in 2020 everyone’s life was turned upside down by Covid. If you didn’t get fired from your job, at the very least your working situation changed and your employment became less stable. Maybe you were stuck at home trying to look after kids while trying to work at the same time. Or maybe you were one of a half dozen people working from home in a share house, trying to hear your conference call over the talking that everyone else was doing.

At such a time in life, it’s natural to want to indulge. You’re tired and stressed, so you indulge in the things that make you feel good. Chocolate, wine, UberEats, sleeping in, leaving the house work. It all sounds like a never ending lazy weekend.

The problem? That’s not what self care actually is.

The truth behind the hashtag is, companies and their marketers have hijacked the concept of self care so they can get you to buy more of their products. If they can sell you a product that makes you feel good — regardless of whether or not it’s actually good for you, they’ve started a virtuous cycle for themselves by making you a repeat customer.

It’s actually one of the great advertising moments of modern times, because the most effective advertising isn’t really about convincing you to want something. No, it’s about giving you that nudge, that excuse, to go ahead and buy something you already wanted anyway. 

And boy, have people taken that and run with it. Because it’s not just about buying stuff we don’t need to make us feel good during Covid, we’ve decided to default to doing whatever makes us feel good because we deserve it, right? That’s a pretty slippery slope, because soon enough those pesky things called responsibilities and obligations get palmed off because we just don’t feel like it anymore.

Let’s face it, some people really did need to slow down and take stock of things, and Covid was a forcing function for that. The hard charging, type A personalities who will burn themselves to a cinder taking on too many responsibilities or the people who are working their asses off to make ends meet are perfect candidates for self care. 

But it wasn’t all people, and many have used it as a free pass to become lazier and take even less responsibility for their lives. Let’s face it, when your regular clothes don’t fit anymore and you feel more fatigued despite doing less, you’re probably getting this whole self care thing wrong.

So what does self care actually look like then? Well, here’s what it doesn’t look like:

  • Real self care doesn’t look like spending money you don’t have on expensive loungewear you don’t need, just so you can feel a bit more comfortable watching TV.
  • Real self care isn’t taking a nap in the afternoon when you’ve already had plenty of sleep, or watching yet another episode of whatever show instead of cleaning the house.
  • Real self care isn’t ordering UberEats for the fifth time this week because you can’t be bothered cooking.
  • Real self care isn’t getting wasted after you’ve had a hard week, when what you really need is a good night's sleep.

This is the problem that I’ve seen a lot of: self care has not only been co-opted by marketers to sell you stuff, it’s been used an excuse by many to be lazy and if you call anyone out, well now you’re just challenging people’s mental health. It’s the perfect escape. 

A better term

Being an athlete for going on twenty years I can tell you that self care isn’t an option, it’s a necessity. Otherwise you just burn out and get injured. But there’s an important distinction: we call it recovery. It’s a much more useful word, because recovery is about ensuring that your body and mind can continue to perform day in, day out. That means things like sleep, the right food, reducing stress levels, not taking on too much, while avoiding the things we know are bad for us.

That’s why a lot of the indulging we see disguised as self care would never fly when using the word recovery, because you know that it’s just about feeling good and not about doing what your mind and body needs. Hot bath after a hard training session? Good for recovery. 5 beers after a training session? It might feel great at the time, but definitely not good for recovery.

So with that in mind, let's start looking at what real self care might look like, and the fact that it’s not the same for everyone.

Real self care is not one size fits all

What self care looks like for you will be entirely dependent on your personality and lifestyle:

  • For someone who eats clean and hits the gym 7 days a week, self care might look like taking the stick out of your ass and having some ice cream once in a while or taking a day off to let your body recover. For the person who isn’t shy about indulging, self care might look like cutting back on that ice cream, eating more vegetables and less sugar.
  • For someone who lives a hectic life with a high powered job and lots of responsibilities, self care might look like taking a nap on Saturday afternoon, hiring a cleaner, or saying “no” more. For the person who has a lot of couch time, self care involves getting up off said couch more and moving around.

Those are just two examples of very different sides of the same coin, and how self care looks radically different depending on which side of the coin you’re on. 

Real self care requires radical self awareness

There’s a reason that strength coaches don’t like the idea of newbies training by instinct rather than a program. It’s because when you’re a neophyte to that world, you have no idea how things are supposed to feel and 99% of the time you’re likely wrong.

Such is the case with self care.

When life gets hard, as it does with COVID, we want to go with the message that is the easiest to swallow. Have you noticed how many articles have done the rounds of Medium telling you to let go of expectations, to go easier on yourself, to forgive yourself, to not try too hard, that just surviving is enough? That the people who are still out there trying hard aren’t to be emulated? Notice that the clap counts on those are off the charts?

That’s because all of those articles are telling people less what they need to hear and more what they want to hear.

I even saw one just this week where the author talks about the fact that her job can wait because she needs two and a half hours in the morning for self care and to feel like she’s in the right mental place to start work. Needless to say, the comments were numerous and universally supportive. All were responding to the notion that it was self care without actually addressing the details.

Hey, I’m all for a relaxed morning routine, especially now that many of us don’t have to commute, but if you need 2.5 hours to get your act together and feel like you can actually work, that’s not self care, it’s self indulgence. Gwyneth Paltrow’s morning routine probably doesn’t even take that long. 

Self care for this person would be trying to find a job that didn’t make her hate her life so much. 

The question to ask yourself

So the next time you feel like engaging in #selfcare, it’s probably a good idea to ask yourself if what you’re planning on doing is what you actually need. Deep down you’ll know whether you’re truly taking care of yourself, or whether you’re just indulging for the tenth time this week. One is about doing the right thing for your body and mind now and into the future, whereas the other is just about feeling good in the moment. 

Because let’s face it, if you need to take the whole weekend off from all your responsibilities and obligations just because you worked a normal week, that kind of #selfcare isn’t the answer. It might be time to talk to a professional about why you feel this need and develop some resilience instead. 

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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