“Self-care” has taken on a whole new connotation in today’s culture of excess and mass marketing. Feeds are littered with workout flexes, avocado toast, chocolate cake, elaborate spa trips, and trendy hashtags like #metime, #treatyourself, and #motivation.
We are peppered with message suggesting that unless we are master boundary setters and time management ninjas, ingesting obsessive amounts of turmeric with precise black pepper ratios in between our intermittent fasting, we will not be OK.
Wellness hype can have unintended consequences, leaving us thinking that our only remedies include superficial means, even though we are facing deep issues within today’s global mental health crisis.
It’s not that the term “self-care” is entirely problematic and needs to be cancelled or banned. Still, it can mislead us into overspending or distract us from being able to turn our attention to methods that are more likely to sustain us. Too “me-focused” methods of self-care do not offer more contextualized approaches to understanding what helps people thrive. Heres what to keep in mind:
The term “self-care” can trivialize deeper systemic issues
It can imply the onus is entirely up to an individual to change versus focusing on the context that ramps up stress and the need for coping strategies. Think BIPOC and LGBTQ communities, pervasive poverty, social determinants of health, and the stressors experienced by marginalized populations. Access to knowledge and resources vacillates dramatically based on privilege. Self-care without deeper change isn’t enough; creating access and equity is essential.
The term “self-care” is being associated with lavish experiences and indulgent products
Self-care has become a big business, baiting us to spend an entire paycheck on organic fermented sprouts, $25 hot yoga classes, and lavender essential oil, lest we fall into total ruin. For those of us who don’t have Swiss bank accounts, we can trade stress for stress if we get caught in cycles of overwork and overindulging ourselves. It’s not to say that treats are entirely bad, but these quick dopamine rushes are unlikely to bring the kind of relief we are pining for. The lie of upward mobility within our culture of excess can bait us into thinking that what we own defines us and makes for identity. More substantive investments of our time and money can lead to better well-being versus the Instagrammable moments that aren’t as recalibrating as they appear.
The term “self-care” is a bit cringeworthy
Especially for people who worry that it feels a little selfish, self-serving, trite, or cheesy. Or who are more reserved with their emotions and skeptical of all that’s being propagated. Over time, terms can stray from their original meaning, taking on a connotation that doesn’t fit, even though the underlying concept could be beneficial.
For anyone wanting to redefine self-care and invest in staying and doing well for not only individual but also collective well-being, here are some alternative framings:
1. Break Ritualist
Researchers at Harvard coined this term in the interest of emphasizing the value of intermittent rituals that can nourish and stave off burnout.
Suggested Mantra: I take regular breaks to replenish and recharge without exception or apology. I recognize the value of modern brain science’s discoveries on what helps prevent burnout and do not override my bodily systems in the interest of achievement or someone else’s agenda.
2. Strategic Behavior Implementer
BJ Fogg, the author of Tiny Habits and a thought leader in behavior change, emphasizes that small changes are more sustainable.
Suggested mantra: I identify areas of change and work systematically to apply them. I reflect on my values, hopes, and goals and utilize this understanding to deliberately set myself up to follow through with behaviors that align with advancing them. I am willing to go back to the drawing board to re-strategize when things aren’t working. I am willing to ask for help, knowing that this is often the catalyst for sustained change.
3. Lifestyle Medicine Activator
Lisa Feldman Barrett’s groundbreaking work in emotions reveals that well-being often relies on tending to our body budget, making sure that we’re not continually depleted, which makes us more susceptible to emotional dysregulation.
Suggested mantra: I prioritize sleep, nutrition, exercise, and time in nature and away from screens to maximize my body budget and prevent stress-related illness. I recognize that how I spend my time and what I put into my body have a cumulative effect on well-being.
4. Candid Connector
Feminist thought leader Glennon Doyle’s revolutionary work has spurred movements in truth-telling and authentic identity. Fake, contrived connections or going along to get along can leave us in a state of inner turmoil and block us from forging connections that nourish and sustain.
Suggested mantra: I communicate my boundaries and needs in my personal and professional life. I seek people with whom I can be myself, co-inspire, and offer reciprocal support. I embrace my many identities and refuse to hide myself for so-called “acceptance.”
5. Conscious Contributor
Philanthropist Lynne Twist’s work emphasizes that we find deep value in what we give to one another versus hoarding our resources and talents. Similarly, Martin Seligman and colleagues emphasize the importance of living out our values.
Suggested mantra: I strive for health so that I can maximize my impact in the world. I realize that moving from “me” to “we” will allow me to offer my strengths, talents, and resources to the world. I see the perils of our modern context and work to improve the world by the ways I engage and give.
The term “self-care” is laden with a wide range of connotations in a world that desperately needs nourishment and relief. Consider ways you can reframe it and implement strategic behavior change to stay and do well.
Lee, Kristen (2022). Worth the Risk: How to Microdose Bravery to Grow Resilience, Connect More, and Offer Yourself to the World. Boulder: Sounds True.
Barrett, L. F. (2018). How emotions are made. Pan Books.
Fogg, BJ (2020). Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.