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OK, onto the blog post!
If you’re in the northern hemisphere, we’ve got about a month of summer left.
Get your body into a body of water. Ride a bike. Eat ice cream. Dress scandalously. Have sex outdoors. Wear sunscreen. Watch a free movie on a lawn. These days won’t last forever, and we’ve got to take joy where we can find it.
I’m nursing a wicked sunburn this week (see above: wear sunscreen), which has me thinking about everyone’s least favorite topic: self-care.
A lot of people seem to hate the term “self-care.” I don’t blame them. At its worst, “self-care” embodies the worst of woo culture and the worst of capitalism. “Eat that cupcake, gurl! You’ve earned it! Self-care! But now go on a juice cleanse to cancel out the cupcake! Flush out those toxins, honey! Self-care!” Ew ew ew.
But I do think it is wildly and radically important to take care of ourselves. I think that in a kyriarchy that wants to erase and traumatize us, taking care of ourselves is an act of resistance. We need comfort, healing, and wholeheartedness if we are to show up in the fight for a better world. Taking care of ourselves asserts our worth in the face of an environment that persistently negates that worth.
So I decided to outline what I think genuine care for self looks like, as opposed to Self-Care™ as self-help propaganda. (Note: I don’t actually mind the term “self-care,” but I’ll be framing it as “caring for yourself” as a reminder that that’s what we’re here to do, and to avoid activating any icky associations with the “self-care” terminology.)
1) Caring for yourself is not something you do alone.
So often I hear “getting a massage” as an example of self-care. Which is kind of ludicrous, because, um, someone else is giving you the massage. Yes, it is an act of kindness toward yourself to book and purchase that massage, but the fact that we define “someone else performing a service for you” as “self-care” just shows how out of control our culture of “bootstrapping” and rugged individualism has gotten. It erases the service provider entirely, and allows us to think of ourselves as self-sufficient when, in fact, we are interdependent. (Mark Fairfield expands on this beautifully in this episode of the Healing Justice podcast, which I recommend heartily to all.)
In fact, there are very few instances in which “self-care” is actually a self-contained act. Meditating in the morning? Cool - but how did you learn to meditate? Isn’t it great that someone else taught you how to do that?
MLK famously said that before you finish breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world. Your soap, your coffee, your toast, all came from someone else - probably many people for each item. We are so deeply interdependent, and yet we use terms like “self-care” to erase those connections. Even if you go on a walk by yourself in the woods, guess what? You didn’t create the woods. You are still benefiting from the labor and beauty of beings other than you. We are never, ever operating in a vacuum.
Yes, caring for yourself requires conscious effort on your part, and it’s great to acknowledge and celebrate yourself when you take those steps. AND: also acknowledge the other beings on whom you are dependent. Take a moment to express gratitude to them, even if you will never know who they are or they will never know that you gave thanks to them. (Gratitude has proven health benefits - Google it.) When we acknowledge that we are rarely, if ever, truly alone, we don’t lose any of the benefits of “self-care”; if anything, we deepen them, because we see how supported we truly are. Fuck the capitalist myth of self-sufficiency; your fellow humans have your back.
2) Caring for yourself cannot stop with physical pleasure.
A number of folks have expressed some version of the following sentiment to me: “I’m good at doing nice things for myself, like having a glass of wine at night or going out for a good meal, but I’m not really tending to the deeper stuff.”
Don’t get me wrong: bringing pleasure to our bodies is absolutely vital. Our desks and devices hunch our spines and kill our eyes; our food is pumped full of bullshit; our societal relationship to exercise is largely transactional and fatphobic. There are a million forces disconnecting us from our bodies, and I cannot overstate the importance of doing nice things for the soft meat-suits we live in.
But if caring for ourselves starts and ends there, our souls get left off the agenda. You are more than your five senses. Your needs are deeper and longer than this present moment. Are you doing what’s important to you with your time? Are you satisfied with your relationships? In a year, what will it break your heart to NOT have done?
Tending to our creature comforts can even prevent us from truly tending to our selves. If I’m depressed and I want to stay in bed for a week, or if I’m low on funds but keep buying myself comfort food, ultimately that does not fully show myself care; I’m doing things for Present Mariah at the expense of Future Mariah. (I subscribe to the Get Bullish mantra of “Be awesome to your future self.”)
If you really want to care for yourself, think longer-term than, “Oh God, another stressful day at work, I’m going to reward myself with a cocktail/ cookie/ massage/ quickie session with my vibrator.” Like, maybe address why work is so stressful that you feel the need to reward yourself for simply surviving it? Name the big unaddressed need(s) or unanswered question(s) that you’ve perhaps been avoiding, and look for one small thing you can do to address it this week. Is it checking out a book from the library? Texting a friend about it? Booking a consult with a therapist or (cough) life coach?
Cookies and orgasms are great. But if something inside you is screaming for something bigger than a hit of dopamine, listen to it. Thing long-term and deep deep deep.
3) Caring for yourself is not frivolous, selfish, or optional.
Just because Self-Care™ culture on Instagram can be annoying, doesn’t mean that caring for yourself is a cutesy whim that you can opt out of.
You need care. Full stop. Your body needs it, your mind needs it, your spirit needs it.
Refusing to care for yourself is not noble or practical; it’s ego. Everyone else needs to tend to themselves except you, because you’re stronger or more focused or your particular brand of busy-ness is soooo special? Nah. I’m calling bullshit. You are not a martyr, you are a squishy breathing human and you need care.
(I mean, listen, don’t use this as an excuse to beat yourself up or anything. If you haven’t been doing much in the way of self-nurturing, you’re not, like, a deficient human. You’re figuring it all out! How exciting and auspicious that you now get to start caring more deeply for yourself! Lucky you!)
Want proof that you need care? Great, there’s tons of it! Like, just Google the health risks of not getting enough sleep, or why our brains need downtime. Or read Dr. Stuart Brown’s magnificent book Play for scientific evidence that we biologically need to do pleasurable things that are not inherently “productive.” Or read Brene Brown’s amazing observations about the inextricable relationship between boundaries and compassion (setting fierce boundaries is suuuuch an important way to care for yourself).
You can care for yourself with zero dollars. You can care for yourself by simply breathing a little more deeply or drinking more water (I use the Pranayama and Plant Nanny apps to keep me on top of these). You can care for yourself by saying “no” to a so-called opportunity that will actually drain you. You can care for yourself by putting that shirt away now so it won’t be staring at you from the floor for the next week/month/year. You don’t need to make a fucking homemade foot soak if you don’t want to. You can go as small as you please.
If you want to learn more about self-care from a scientific perspective, I was super into this article, which touches on how the term originated, the different life areas that self-care can touch on, and left me with four really useful questions: “What works for me? What isn’t working for me? What do I want to add? What do I want to take away?”
Bear in mind that your version of care may not look particularly “glamorous.” Taking your meds may not be as Instagram-soft-focus as, say, bullet journaling, but it’s how you show yourself care and that is gorgeous and glorious! Ultimately, the most important thing to remember is that you need and are worthy of care, and to be honest with yourself about what taking that care means for you.
If you'd like a little accountability in your self-nurturing journey - sweet, I can help with that! Helping my clients care for themselves is a huge part of my coaching practice, whether that's through establishing nourishing habits like meditation or journaling, starting a new career, reaching out to friends more, or saying "no" more often. We can do a one-off session, or ongoing coaching. Check out my offerings and testimonials - if you're inspired, you can schedule a free consult with me or contact me!