“But I have to,” he groaned through the cracks of my iPhone 4. “It’s in the name of self-care.” I was sitting on the edge of my bed, staring fixated at the black mould splattering the ceiling of my third-year university house share. I’d just returned from my then-boyfriend’s house, where we were celebrating his return to our university city after spending some time in his hometown. Everything was fine in the time we spent together, but during the half-an-hour bus ride to reach my home, he had suddenly experienced an epiphany where he determined that the right thing to do was to immediately call time on our relationship — but it’s okay, he isn’t the bad guy, because it was all done in the name of “self-care.”
Sure, he could’ve communicated his concerns earlier, but under this definition of self-care, you don’t “owe” people anything. Suddenly, every relationship in your life becomes transactional, as you hyperfocus on how the people in your life are serving you, and cutting them off or shutting them down the minute they seem to desire anything in return.
When did self-care become…something else?
Once upon a time, self-care was about striving to be the best version of yourself, because ultimately, how can you look after others if you aren’t looking after yourself?
The history of self-care goes way back — all the way back to Socrates. Self-care also has roots in Black history. As Black feminist writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde wrote in her 1988 essay collection A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Lorde defines self-care as a radical act of resistance and a means of survival. Self-care is also all about compassion and community, and as Mashable journalist Chris Taylor puts it, “Self-care isn’t performative self-coddling. It’s doing the hard work of examining and improving yourself in order to better serve the world.”
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The problem is, wellness and internet culture have essentially stolen the term, which has led to the original definition of self-care to become co-opted. Thanks to Twitter discourse, the creator economy, and wellness culture colliding, this nonsensical version of “self-care” has grown a life of its own, and from there has amassed a self-indulgent cult of devoted followers.
Google Trends data shows that in the last five years, searches for “self-care” have almost tripled, while over 66 million Instagram posts include the #selfcare hashtag. Meanwhile, the #SelfCare tag on TikTok has racked up a cumulative 30 billion views, as the app encourages users to “show us how you prioritise yourself.” Prioritising yourself is important, but should this come at the expense of others?
The version of self-care that I’d learned about from social media felt like a golden ticket to do all the destructive things I wanted to do.
Like a lot of scams, this co-opted version of self-care preys on vulnerable people. In my case, I was experiencing a particularly bad patch with my OCD and was angry at the world. The version of self-care that I’d learned about from social media felt like a golden ticket to do all the destructive things I wanted to do — neglecting staying in touch with my family, blocking people whenever they mildly irritating me, and trauma-dumping on my friends for hours on end but then refusing to let them lean on me for support because their burdens were detrimental to my mental health.
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Integrative psychotherapist Caroline Plumer, who runs her own therapy and coaching practice CPCC London, told Mashable that “self care is a crucial part of preserving our mental health and building resilience. But like most things in life, the term can be misused, or taken as an excuse to refuse to compromise even where perhaps we should.”
Online spaces have co-opted the meaning of ‘self care’
The language of self-care — which aims to give words to coping strategies, boundary setting techniques and non-violent communication styles — has entered mainstream internet discourse. The only problem is: these words are often used incorrectly. Phrases like “toxic,” “love-bombing,” “narcissist,” and “trauma-dumping” are thrown around far too liberally and applied inaccurately. In online spaces, where our hot takes are largely limited to 280 characters, these deeply important and complex psychological terms and definitions are stripped of all their nuance and turned into trendy buzzwords. A friend disagreeing with you about where to meet becomes “toxic.” A roommate who asks you to wash your dishes becomes a “narcissist.” A person on a dating app opening with a cheesy pick-up line becomes a “love-bomber.”
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All of these terms exist for a reason — they help people understand and recognise when they’re being mistreated — to put a name to often-traumatic experiences and feelings they’ve had — but in our pursuit to look holier-than-thou 24/7 online, these terms have become an extremely diluted version of their original meaning.
As Plumer explains: “Whilst self care done right can often lead to us having more patience and emotional generosity towards others, there are some that see self care as the practice of consistently prioritising their own wants and needs above everyone else’s, including the greater good.” She adds: “While getting our needs met is important, we do need to do this with respect for others and a willingness to meet in the middle where appropriate.”
When self-care is just a euphemism for selfish
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, white activists spoke about how they were suffering with “allyship fatigue” — lamenting about how posting a black square and attending a march or two had wreaked havoc on their mental health, and how for the sake of their wellbeing, they could no longer show their solidarity with Black people.
Earlier this year, amid the onslaught of news about the war in Ukraine, people began sharing infographics and articles about how we can practise “self-care” in the wake of distressing news. Of course, for some people with existing mental health issues and those who have lived in active war zones,, this kind of news cycle can obviously be deeply upsetting, triggering, and traumatising — and in those cases, self-care is important. But when it comes people were centring themselves and taking attention/focus away from the people experiencing systemic racism and losing family members in a war — but because it was underpinned in this idea of “self-care,” we were meant to think it was ok.
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Even earlier, in 2019, a Twitter thread focussed on a text conversation between friends, which included a copy and paste template for how you can tell someone via text that you don’t have the capacity listen to them vent, went viral. In the thread, the OP discussed how they used this interaction with their friend to “set boundaries” in terms of venting, but was subsequently meme’d because, like other clinical terms under social media’s version of self-care’s umbrella, its meaning had become co-opted. The user’s text message, which she offered up as a template for others wishing to “set boundaries,” read: “Hey! I’m so glad you reached out! I’m actually at capacity right now and I don’t think I can hold appropriate space for you. Could we connect [later date] instead? Do you have someone else you can reach out to?” Of course, setting valid boundaries is not the problem here, but as many responses to this thread pointed out, this type of self-involved mindset was “exhausting.”
“Wellness culture has debased real self-care.”
“Friendships shouldn’t be transactional,” one user wrote. “This is weird.” Another described the thread as a “fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be human,” adding that “being of service to others is what relives us from the bondage of hyper individualistic “self” under capitalism.” Underpinning both these examples is a very-online attempt at mental gymnastics, as people strive to justify the lack of reciprocity inherent in this version of self-care as a spiritual journey as opposed to plain old selfishness.
Trauma, sex, and relationship therapist Sally Baker tells Mashable that “wellness culture has debased real self-care,” describing it as a “narcissistic call to arms.” In trying to differentiate self-care from selfishness, she explained, “when it’s all about what an individual needs there’s no context; no responsibility and little or no opportunity for personal growth.” Meanwhile, Sally defines “real” self-care as “intuitive,” and insists that at its core, it’s centred around “establishing healthy boundaries as well as respecting what is your stuff versus what is other people’s responsibility.”
Villain era? Or just setting boundaries?
What’s especially interesting about the tail-end of the self-care movement is the directly-opposing counter-culture that seems to have arisen due to it. All over Twitter, we’re seeing people declare that they’re in their Fleabag and villain era, when all they’re actually doing is setting healthy boundaries with people, like not getting back with an abusive ex or refusing to let someone with sinister intentions take advantage of their good nature.
You might think the rise of the villain era further supports the need for a self-care culture: with the fact that people are struggling to even communicate their most basic needs to others being a surefire sign that more of an emphasis on self-care is the very thing we need right now.
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But that’s not the truth. The problem is, people are recognising that when it comes to self-care, a lot of us are really taking that term and running with it. They’re using it to excuse all kinds of actions and behaviour which, as I’ve explained, are objectively shitty things to do. This means that, contrary to promoting actions that are good for our mental health, self-care has become a dirty word, as people have learned to see the phrase as synonymous with not just selfishness, but even villainy.
So, that leaves us with this Catch-22 where people who really do need to practise self-care are anxious about doing so because they don’t want to be seen as a “villain,” while those who arguably need to practise less ‘self-care’ and more care toward others feel emboldened to continue toxic patterns of behaviour.
Perhaps at the root of all of this is a need for better emotional education so that we are all able to communicate our boundaries and needs in a healthy way, but the question is, at what point does self-care become selfishness? When do we know where to draw the line?
Of course, after a tough couple of years, looking after ourselves is going to be more important than ever. The key is making sure that we don’t fall into the scam of narcissism packaged up in a pretty Instagram infographic. Maybe we can all agree on one principle: Don’t be a dick.