Self-care can feel like a tricky concept to properly get to grips with. It isn’t just bath bombs and scented candles – it’s doing everything we need to do to stay functional (whatever that looks like for you), comfortable (same again), and alive.
This can, and should, mean going out of your way to give yourself little luxuries without feeling like you have to earn them. This can definitely mean face masks and manicures, or a night in with pizza and a movie, or whatever indulgence looks like to you.
It’s important to understand, though, that these things are often unaffordable, even actively demonised, if you’re oppressed and vulnerable. If that’s you, I see you, and I’ve been there. If you’re unable to do the big self-care gestures you’re being told you need to do, you have not failed to take care of yourself. There’s this toxic dual thinking that having a long soak in the bath with some chocolate and strawberries will make everything better, but also that you shouldn’t be having those things if you’re poor because you haven’t earned them, and are you sure it’s ok to be made happy by fruit if you’re actually depressed, but also why haven’t you tried it yet if you actually want to get better? The answer to anyone who says those things to other people is that a), poor people deserve everything they can get and more; b), mental health is more complicated than that; c) some people literally can’t take baths or eat whatever you think is a ‘good’ food; and d), bite me.
If that stereotype of self-care where you listen to Toto by Africa and meditate is all you want and need, please don’t be ashamed that it’s a stereotype – do whatever helps. Taking time to meditate, write in my journal, and take a very hot bubble bath can certainly help me to feel more human after a busy week. If your idea of comfort, relaxation, and rejuvenation is really off the beaten track instead, you’ve got to do that, too. For example (so you don’t feel alone), for some reason, something that helps me feel normal again after a period of emotional numbness and dissociation is wrapping myself in a huge blanket nest while wearing my onesie that makes me look like a wolf and eating grated cheese out of the bag. It’s weird but, fuck it, it does the job of making me feel like an actual person again when I emerge from my fleece-and-cheese cocoon. Trust your mind and your body, and go with what feels helpful.
I don’t know what it is about this onesie but I swear to God, there’s depression-curing magic stitched in there.
With this in mind, it’s also important to spot when something you think of as self-care is actually a self-destruct. If, for example, the glass of wine that chills you out at night makes you feel bad the next morning, shopping to help you feel good is financially damaging your future plans, or (my speciality) playing a video game ‘for just an hour or so until I feel up to the task I need to do’ turns into basically a week of increasingly anxious Pokemon battling, it’s time to revisit whether those treats are actually tricks.
Moving away from the idea that self-care is always about making yourself feel amazing, what’s often really involved – and what’s actively ignored by those who wish to make the idea a capitalistic buzzword – is that the essence of self-care is doing hard things slowly and continuously, especially if you’re mentally ill, physically disabled, neurodiverse, and/or poor. It’s pushing yourself to do the important things you’ve been putting off without making yourself feel bad if you only do a little of it that day. Sometimes it’s really hard stuff, like asking for help; holding yourself accountable for your actions; learning uncomfortable truths about yourself; making big life changes you need to make; or trying to access medical services like therapy. It’s working through something that hurts because you know life will get better once it’s done and then, hopefully, taking that relaxing bubble bath.
Even though the big stuff is often the forgotten linchpin if self-care, it’s important to celebrate the small stuff, too. Self-care is also making sure you have a big bottle of water, some snacks, and some face wipes near you if you can’t get out of bed, for example, or making sure you wash a pot a day if your kitchen’s become overwhelmingly messy. It’s brushing your hair and putting on a clean pair of pyjamas when you haven’t done that for a while. It’s working on a new habit, throwing some frozen veg in with your instant noodles, or making a scary phone call. You’re almost definitely engaging in self-care all the time without even realising that’s what you’re doing. That’s because you’re amazing. Everything you’ve done to keep yourself alive today, even if that’s just been breathing in and out, means that you’re taking care of yourself in some way. I’m genuinely so proud of you. Keep going!