“I am such a wet blanket, I am afraid of even failing at self-care.”
My client’s closing remark at the end of a therapy session is quite an honest admission. She is a single mom, recently divorced and has a high-pressure job with a media organization. She has survived depression for several years and mostly without much help from family or community. She weighs her self-worth in the currency of “self-utilization” which is sharply at an angle from any practice or habit that encourages her to also consider self-compassion. Her identity is rooted in “doing” as opposed to “being”. And mostly this doing is for everyone else, except herself.
“Every time I want to pick up a box of cupcakes or an expensive scented candle, I also have to negotiate where else I could have used that money for something more relevant or functional.”
The low-maintenance woman, the ideal woman, has no appetite. This is not to say that she refuses food, sex, romance, emotional effort; to refuse is petulant, which is ironically more demanding. The woman without appetite politely finishes what’s on her plate, and declines seconds. She is satisfied and satisfiable.
(Jess Zimmerman, Hunger makes me)
Apart from being a a backbreaker of a negotiation with the explicit reality of living in the maximum city, this utilitatrian mindset is something I have witnessed in preceding generations within my own family. The women I grew up around had their existences tailored by measurements of race, class, caste & gendered hierarchies which rarely allowed them to consider how self-acceptance is not directly proportional to how much you can offer others on an uninterrupted schedule. Inter-generational trauma is coded in our inherited belief systems that can be algorithmic and hard-wired. They directly inform our inability to trust the idea of “self-care” particularly when that self-care is often funneled through a capitalist & acquisition-oriented mentality.
When I hear the louder chants of “self-care” affirmations on social media, I am usually privy to a spotless and expensive chaise longue with a carefully strewn collection of “self-love” notes or a gaggle of Clinique lipsticks. Prolific filters enhance the colour gradients on a bowl of quinoa nectarine pecan salad or something equally elaborate. Mundane ceramics and culturally-appropriated imagery of “eastern” religions. The dainty pastels of overpriced yoga wear. Kale smoothies consumed against a backdrop of pine and cedar soy candles. These might be duck soup for others but for women in my part of the world, these merely remind us of what is inaccessible to us on account of our financial, geographical and social location. It is a lesson in irony to see a woman of privilege living in California charge $100 for a hour long class on “bollywood dance” when I know of my own childhood kathak (a classical Indian dance) teacher — a 55 years old, semi-literate queer man in India whose identity is repeatedly marginalized and made invisible — is struggling to keep a roof over his head. In other words, this supposed blanket of “self-care” starts to resemble a spiderweb designed to ambush us towards consumerism directed at self-sabotage.
Often when I see folks speak about self-care, they usually love to position Audre Lorde’s transforming quote front and center — “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation..” but what they conveniently erase is the second part of that very quote which proceeds to declare selfcare as an act of political warfare. Lorde — a Black queer author, theorist & renaissance woman — also said : “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. This means that the idea of self-care, inherently, carries a dedicated consciousness (borrowing from Edward Said) that perseveres in recognizing self-compassion as the fount of acceptance as well as change. To find resonant sources of happiness in our daily lives despite and especially in the face of adversity is self-care. It is not means to egotism or calculated procrastination from our lived experiences but ways in which we can fully participate in those very experiences without feeling invalidated, unheard or unloved.
Self-care is often not easy or even tangible in an instant grasp. A lot of it involves wrangling with the hard-wired conditioning of our own psyche : to authentically believe yourself capable of caring about yourself, as much as you care about everything else around you. Self-care is boundary setting, creating and maintaining support circles and networks, differentiating between self-reliance and social alienation. It is the idea of slowly making hope into a sombre discipline and a practice despite the possibility of failure. It is not exerting force on oneself to do or be something legible and well-defined at all points in time. When we appreciate ourselves via cute snapchat filters, bath bombs and neon nail paints, let us also make room for conversations about about learning coping mechanisms to deal with daily defeats, getting a helping hand for complex problem solving and recognizing the significance of continuum in compassion. In short: finding ways towards longterm healing is self-care.
I care for myself with more coherent intent when I have support that backs me up. Isolated and left to a protracted loneliness, I can eat as much chocolate as I want but the lack of contact keeps me entrapped in my depressive phases. A friend who checks in or a reading group that transforms into an accepting home where we leave our shoes & worldly worries at the doorstep while discussing poems, bonsais over ginger tea is my attempt at self-care. Finding a calligraphist close to my home who was willing to give me weekend lessons is another of those small wins. I collect myself in these instances as if rain gathered in brass bowls; imperfectly and with a dancing joy.
As a survivor of clinical depression, I can sometimes resonate with my client’s fear of failing at self-care because when you constantly deal with a mental health challenge or a condition, time slips between your fingers like smooth sand and you feel like you have lost out or the ship sailed without you onboard. There is a foreshadowing of gloom that as a reverse Midas of sorts — whatever I touch turns to ash so what is the point of trying anyway? Fighting against and rising above this mindset is perhaps that most significant discovery of my own self-care journey. I don’t need to be a part of everything that others are and it is ok for me to choose what I can invest energies and efforts into without depleting my own reserves for emotional and mental strength. I always tell clients that self-care doesn’t have a finishing line and it is not a conveniently balanced equation with oneself. It allows room to traverse physical and psychological vulnerabilities.
As a woman of colour from a “developing” country, I also recognize that a lot of prominent self-care advice doesn’t center me, my historicity as well as the oppressed fragility of my communities or my realities. We go unaccounted for in most healing practices and our ways of healing are roughly crated into “alternative lifestyle” or something ornate, gawked at or fancied from a distance. In a weird way, something that should make us more comfortable with ourselves then becomes a competitive ranking exercise. How many times did I practice self-care this week? Did I buy handmade vegan body butter or did I pick up some cheap variant available at the drug store?
Sometimes, “coping with” or “getting by” or “making do” might appear as a way of not attending to structural inequalities, as benefiting from a system by adapting to it, even if you are not privileged by that system, even if you are damaged by that system. Perhaps we need to ask: who has enough resources not to have to become resourceful? When you have less resources you might have to become more resourceful.
(Sara Ahmed, Selfcare as Warfare)
I am a child of a broken home and my Achilles heel has always been the lingering absence of parenting. Shuttled between multiple homes, I didn’t even fully recognize what my “self” was, let alone how to care for it. I don’t think I have a singular or a precise self which means my ways to care for my “selves” will be as cobbled & “inexact” as my multitudes. The question I ask frequently is: what kindnesses do I bring to my selves without haggling with my flaws? In these instances, self-care is “kintsugi” : a form of repair that appreciates the schisms as opposed to denying them. Getting a glass of wine or a pedicure is definitely immediately gratifying, pleasurable as well as means to relax/find comfort and we do need periodic reminders for instant gratification because we are quick to deny our pleasures or line it with the pleasures of others. However, we should also universalize a broadened and momentous language for what we mean when we say self-care in an inclusive sense. To borrow from Thomas Szasz a bit, we must lean into self-care knowing that the Self isn’t something one finds; it is something one creates.
Scherezade Siobhan is a psychologist, writer and a community catalyst who founded and runs The Talking Compass — a therapeutic space dedicated to providing mental counseling services and decolonizing mental health care. She is an award-winning author and poet whose work is published or forthocming in Medium, Berfrois, Quint, Vice, HuffPost, Feministing, SPR, Jubilat, DATABLEED, Nat Brut, Winter Tangerine, Cordite among others. She is the author of “Bone Tongue” (Thought Catalog Books, 2015), “Father, Husband” (Salopress, 2016) and “The Blues Kali” (Forthcoming, Lithic Press). Find her @zaharaesque on twitter. Send her chocolate and puppies — firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet at her @zaharaesque.