Not bath bombs or face masks. Not binging a Netflix show or splurging on the newest pair of shoes. How did we get to a place where self-care is about finding a quick fix rather than developing habits for real, long-term wellness?
Take the example of rewarding yourself after a tough day with an online shopping spree. Morgan Turner from the UW Neighborhood Ballard Clinic would say that this attempt at self-care is more of a spontaneous ‘treat yourself’ moment, which is one of many “avoidance strategies that prevent you from having emotions for a certain period of time, and there is a negative consequence or impact once that avoidance activity is over.” Instead, we should look to the cause of the tough day in the first place and how we can create habits to address and prioritize our wellbeing. He describes self-care as what having “makes you feel healthier, happier and more empowered as a consequence.” That’s a ‘consequence’ I’d much rather choose.
Why then, do we indulge in avoidance strategies, and why are women in particular targeted with this issue? First, we are all victims of a system that tells us that consumption is the key to everything, including our own happiness. On the contrary, studies have proven that having and spending more money does not guarantee happiness. In The Bridge at the Edge of the World, James Gustave Speth offers two reasons:
1. The grass is always greener on the other side. Ambrose Bierce’s satirical Devil’s Dictionary actually defined happiness as “an agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.” We’re constantly comparing ourselves to others, yet there will always be someone who seems to be ‘better off’ than you.
2. We overestimate the joy we’ll receive in exchange for our dollars, and we quickly habituate to having more. Our scope of ‘wants’ adjusts upward with our incomes, leaving us chronically unsatisfied. This has been coined the hedonic treadmill.
With the increased buzz around self-care to destress, corporations have marketed self-care as something we need to buy. They’ve drilled us with the false storyline that if we put on a face mask, all of our stress will go away. Samantha Heuwagen, a marriage and family therapist in Atlanta, Georgia, debunks this to NBC News, explaining that “self-care is a way for us to give back to ourselves and release everyday pressures. It doesn’t require you to buy anything, like many marketing/social media entities would lead you to believe. It can be taking a quiet moment to process or making a simple cup of tea. As long as you’re present and focused on slowing down, it can be self-care. A lot of clients think it’s bubble baths and face masks, which at times it can be, but you can’t stop what you’re doing at work to take a bath.” It’s time we reject that spending money will lead to happiness and reclaim true self-care.
Anna Borges, senior health editor for Self magazine and author of the book “The More or Less Definitive Guide to Self-Care” tells the NYT that “self-care is the necessity to do things that are good for our physical, emotional or psychological well-being… anything that leaves you feeling enriched or nourished.” It’s taking a holistic view of your life and creating habits that make you the person you want to be. What that entails, is up to you. Borges emphasizes that “it’s adaptable — what self-care is for one person will look very different for someone else.”
Looking after yourself looks different for everyone, and as women, we’ve continuously been deceived by what that should look like. In this realm, and in every realm, we have the power and self-autonomy to decide what we need, and we should continue to not let the media or corporations decide for us.