Self-Care Or Self-Sabotage?

Self-care leaves me exhausted. There. I said it!

All that talk of bubble baths and scented candles and DIY artisanal food trays make me want to crawl under the covers and never come out. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a pretty salad as much as the next person – but notice how I said ‘pretty’ salad and not ‘healthy’, ‘tasty’ or ‘fulfilling’? Because that’s what our generation gets caught up in – how things look (literally) and how they appear to others (representative of our success at adulting). Self-care, as we’ve come to popularly understand it, has started to feel like an awful lot of work to me.

I’m a high-strung person. I work with animals, I’ve got a serious health issue and everything is a lot tougher than it used to be before I got sick. There’s really nothing like an easy/ off day and with the pandemic, there’s a lot more to do. I don’t relax easily. 

After an exhaustive last couple of days, I sat down today to open up a bag of Blue Lays (iconic) and a bottle of Diet Coke and binge-watched Queer Eye on Netflix. I didn’t hate myself for the calories or the aspartame or the slumped-on-the-sofa TV session. I didn’t try to make it look pretty, I didn’t post on the ‘gram but I did take a photo for some friends to let them know that while folks were putting together impressive DIY pizzas and avocado salads, I was opting to let go.

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And yet today, post the snack-and-Netflix session, I found myself oddly peaceful. The buzz lasted well into the evening and I got a ton more done than I can usually. It got me thinking: Could that one little hour of unplanned relaxation have not just boosted my mood but also my physical energy levels? Isn’t that what self-care and me-time are supposed to be all about? So why do I never feel better when I consciously make the effort to take some time out?

Well, here’s the answer: When you’ve got this idea of what care needs to look like, when it involves setting up a whole mood, when the prep + planning take about as much time as the experience itself, when you’ve actually got to check if you can spare the time/ energy/ resources to invest in yourself – you’re losing the essence of self-care. Because it’s not supposed to be another task on your to-do list, it’s not supposed to be something you’ve got to get right to be able to benefit from, it’s not supposed to be something you follow from a social media blueprint. It should be fun, easy, restful, nourishing but most importantly, it’s gotta be you. 

I realized popular self-care methods weren’t for me when I started hating face masks. What an odd dislike, isn’t it? Feels great, does wonders for my skin but this whole schedule where I just have to do two face masks a week and maybe throw in a sheet mask or two for cute points (ugh); it got tiring. I realized that the last thing I want to do on low-energy days is mix up ingredients and wait 20 minutes, aimlessly wandering around the house before washing it off and beaming at myself in the mirror. When you’re running on fumes, care doesn’t look like draining the last of your resources: all that does is perpetuate unhealthy cycles and you end up needing care, but never really achieving it.

In an age where everyone’s talking about self-care, individuality, mental health, and identity, we’ve kind of lost sight of the fact that even within these conversations we’re reinforcing ideas and ideals about what self-care should look like. Oddly self-contradictory, isn’t it? Why does the phrase ‘self-care’ immediately conjure up images of pastel bedsheets, mint-colored face-masks, fairy lights, DIY pedicures, herbal teas, and yoga? Are we opting into a homogenous, commercialized, cookie-cutter format EVEN while we’re talking about tapping into your innermost self and giving her what she needs? 

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How can someone else tell you what you need? Welcome to the Instagram Trap.

It’s easy to make things look effortless online, and it’s easy to forget just how manufactured reality works. We all do it. We post selfies on good skin days, we hype up our friendships online, we get our partners to pose ‘just once more’ until the chemistry and the cheekbones all look just right. We’re all guilty of pushing an aesthetic. I know I do. However lately, I’ve been trying to consciously share and consume content that’s more authentic and honest. But hey, don’t be hard on yourself- social media by design is created to push into this trap where you’re just peddling and purchasing a curated version of reality all the time.

The danger with social media and self-care conversations is that they perpetuate unattainable goals. It’s almost insidious, the way the cycle keeps going and you just keep working on and on at feeling better, but don’t really do – not for long anyway. It forces you to aspire to an ideal that doesn’t really exist. Happy! Fit! Upbeat! Positive! Pretty! Decadent! Organized! And if you can’t be these things, you’ve failed at self-care. I mean, come on.

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If you’re struggling with finding a balance, begin by having an honest conversation with yourself and drawing parallels and boundaries between healthcare and self-care. While the two overlap, they’re not always the same thing. Figure out the things that you absolutely need to do –essentials that actively contribute towards your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. Don’t be hard on yourself on the days that you can’t follow through, but try your best. Know that you deserve it. Commit to your own wellbeing by getting the basics right. If it feels like work, well, it’s a labor of love. And on days you can’t put in the labor, you still deserve love. That’s self-care.

Taking it easy is an act of self-love. Some days, it looks like cleaning up the house top-to-bottom and putting out the best linens and on others, it looks like staying in bed and introspecting and asking yourself hard questions and accepting the harder answers. In all honesty, I’ve found that when I’m feeling glum or troubled, it’s because I’m avoiding dealing with something. Maybe it’s a chore, maybe it’s a big project or maybe it’s just something upsetting from the past. It sticks and rankles until it’s handled. Sometimes self-care is just being brave enough to stop running from your thoughts. It’s doing the deeper work, fixing problematic patterns, measuring progress not by milestones or external validation but by your own feelings of satisfaction and contentment. Remember, you can’t fix bullet holes with beauty masks. You’ve got to tend to your wounds, embrace the scar tissue, and just breathe.

Today, care looked like a snack I don’t normally allow myself, tomorrow it might look like sitting down an extra hour to study. Whatever you choose to do, it shouldn’t become the end goal in itself –if you’re more focused on how/ what you’ve got to do instead of why you’re doing it, you risk erasure. The commodification and commercialization of everything mean we become focused on the superficial and risk losing sight of holistic healing.

I can’t tell you what self-care for you should look like, but I can tell you how to avoid falling into the self-care-sabotage hoodwink:

If you find yourself trying things that involve spending money you wouldn’t normally spend, don’t! I’m guilty of buying scented candles even though, tbh, I don’t much care for them either way.

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If you find yourself putting off a self-care activity because just setting it all up or cleaning up afterward is too exhausting – it’s not care. Don’t adopt ideas blindly, don’t copy people. They’re not living your struggles; you can’t live their solutions. Anytime you need to photograph something before enjoying it – time to rethink its value in your life or your lack of true appreciation for it. If you’re working backward from an aesthetic, don’t. You’ve got to work forward to a happier, healthier you and not towards a stylized ‘brand’ and a curated, filtered feed. 

Here are some things I’ve realized that work for me. Try them out if you’d like, or don’t. Remember, it’s ok to be inspired but that’s all!

Watching Queer Eye, Downton Abbey and SATC always puts me in a good mood. The first, especially, really really cheers me up and I absolutely love a good happy cry and every episode is like a mini emotional makeover for me. I’m not a people person in real life but I love watching people make other people happy and all that kindness just sort of infuses me with this desire to prioritize happiness for myself!

I love chips and coke. But I guess that’s no news if you have read so far into this article. I am confessing, I can’t fight it anymore. I’ve embraced it. Won’t indulge often enough to feel like I’m letting my health down but I also won’t make myself feel guilty afterward. Allow yourself treats without self-shaming.

I only spend time on people I actively enjoy talking to. This has been a game-changer for me. It’s another one everyone is talking about but we all think it’s super difficult to do. But once you do, you learn that so much of your life stress comes from relationships that don’t bring you joy. If someone’s name on my screen makes me want to drop other things – I do! I’m going to let myself enjoy the company I like. If I like something but my SO isn’t particularly into it, I go ahead and do it by myself. You don’t have to force someone into things you like but you don’t have to deny yourself either. I love taking photos, he doesn’t – so I take them all the time without waiting for him to be in them. 

I spend time with my pets. OK, this one’s foolproof and universal. There’s nothing like a fur baby. Nothing. They’re a lot of responsibility and work so you only take it on if you can commit to it, but if you do – they will always leave you the better for it.

I’ve hated cooking all my life but post-lockdown, I’ve tried to learn something new weekly. Here’s where my self-care and self-improvement overlap. I’m learning a skill. I’m putting in some effort. It’s all very practical. But there’s also an emotional boost that comes from stepping outside your comfort zone, knowing you can retreat whenever you want to. Think of it as mild adrenaline. The food does wonders for my health but that confidence is magic for my soul. I journal. I like memory-making. 

I wear kaftans. I glide around the house in them. They’re fuss-free & oh-so-floaty. I smile when I catch my reflection around the house. I’m comfortable, and I feel pretty.  Does it get better?

I pay close attention to people I admire. I ask them to adapt their advice to me. I ask my reader friends to tell me books they think will be good for me, and not necessarily books they like. I ask my musically gifted friends for recommendations that are mellow and migraine-friendly. I regularly seek insights into my behavior and then see if I agree/ feel the need to work on suggestions. It’s not self-absorbed. It’s about being ready to put in the work, but at your own pace and on your terms. It’s helped me create some incredible relationships and also learn without feeling defensive!

Today was a chips-and-coke day. But, I’m nothing if not contrary. I also spent an hour learning to use the oven to make homemade sun-dried tomatoes, because there’s going to be a day when I’ll make a salad and it will make it to the ‘gram. But only if it tastes good, makes me feel happy and I can be honest with myself about my choices. The day I put the ‘self’ in self-care first.

Brinda B. Hamdani
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Brinda B. Hamdani

Brinda's research specialty is in the geopolitical space, but she most enjoys writing about everyday life. She lives with a small army of cats and her husband, swears by the healing power of diet-coke-and-chips, and has never met a Pinterest suggestion she didn't want to try. She collects Archie comics, loves and abandons art projects regularly and is learning to navigate life with chronic illness.

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