SELF-CARE vs. SELF-PRESERVATION
For the longest time, I thought this girl's name was Courtney. Even with this month-long misunderstanding, bonding with her seemed like second nature and that holds true to this day I admire her vulnerability with others and myself and I am really excited she's on the blog!
Disclaimer: I am by no means an expert on self-care. I’m constantly learning more about it and what I think it is, what I think it means for us to engage in self-care practices. I’m hoping that I’ll learn something through writing this blog entry. But just so we’re clear...I’m not always sure what I’m doing.
Which, I’m sure, makes you feel less apt to read this, or less inclined to see me as any form of authority on the subject I chose to write about. That’s okay!
I’ll stop rambling and qualifying my words though and get on with the thing!
I think I first heard the phrase “self-care” when I was in college. It seemed to pretty easy to define: taking care of oneself. Self-love and self-care seemed to be one and the same. The concept was depicted on shows like Parks and Recreation with Treat Yo Self day, and in the magazines I read at the hair salon with recommendations for face masks and mani pedi parlors throughout the country. I thought I had self-care pretty figured out! I would take a bath at least once every two weeks; I drank wine with my roommates and rewatched Sex and the City until I learned every line. I would go on walks late at night and listen to the town around me, thinking that the air would clear my head and keep me sane. Unfortunately, as much as the concept was ingrained in me, I still hit walls that my conceptualization of self-care couldn’t break through. Like many college students, I became depressed around my junior year of college.
I’ve always been open about my struggles with mental health, and as I’m currently doing pretty okay most of the time, it’s particularly easy for me to look back on that time with a kind of numbness. I can look back and think about how I managed to get through it without any major sense of pain or difficulty. But back then, I could barely get myself to class each day. I almost stopped attending classes my senior year because I didn’t have the energy to do anything but fail all my course requirements.
When I found myself approaching rock bottom, many people encouraged me partake in self-care. They asked me what made me feel good, and told me I should do those things. It was difficult, though, because I couldn’t bring myself to do the things that used to bring me joy, and even when I did, I didn’t end up enjoying them. I would end up feeling guilty or selfish, or like I could be making better use of my time. The two things I did love to do and still felt like I could do were eating and sleep. I did a lot of eating and sleeping.
Eating and sleeping were easy for me to accept as self-care because they felt needed and helpful. Sleeping a lot made me feel more rested, and eating made me feel full. Self-care, right? I was doing something that made me feel good, and I was taking care of myself in the way I needed to. Sure, I had classes to attend. Sure, I had homework to do and relationships to keep up with. But sleeping and eating made me feel good, and I had to prioritize that. That’s what people told me to do.
Looking back on it now, I think what I was doing was more so self-preservation than self-care. At the end of the day, all of this is just words, so these might mean the same thing to some people. But I knew I wasn’t actually attempting to love myself during that difficult time. I’m not sure I had the capacity to. Instead, I just carried on as best I could, hoping that I would see the other side soon. I did what I needed to do to get to the next day, as everyone must do as well. One of my major critiques of how we view self-care today is that it’s simply inaccessible to such a large portion of the population. So many people work tirelessly, care for loved ones, and rarely sit still. What does self-care look like for them? What do you do when you can’t take a moment for yourself? How do you care for yourself when you must care for so many others?
I’m on the other side of my depression now, and I’m happy to be here, but I also know how lucky I am to be able to look back a tougher time with perspective. Depression can be lonely, and it forced me to look at myself in a way I really, really didn’t want to. But, the introspection brought me a bit of clarity, and I was able to learn about myself in a completely new way. I was able to notice my patterns, notice my tell-tale signs of struggle. Hopefully, my brain will continue to be forgiving enough that I can move forward and use the knowledge I’ve gained to help myself in times of trouble. But I still wonder what happens to those who can’t help themselves in the same way?
I believe self-care has to be more than what we’ve commercialized it to be. In a capitalist society, where competition and money drive nearly everything we do, we have to be aware of how we treat concepts that were once pure. That’s not to say that everything about the way we function is wrong -- I still love a bubble bath, and I still love to walk in the park and listen to trees sway and feel the earth beneath me. Those are some of my favorite self-care activities. The difference now, is that I have thought about why and how those activities help me, and understanding how I’m helping myself is what truly brings me love and joy. The bath forces me to focus on my body, and the heat, and the way the water makes my bones tingle and shake. I can’t focus on much else when I take a bath, which gives my overthinking brain a break. When I walk outside in the park, I often feel very small, very young, and very quiet. All of these things force me to give myself a lot of empathy, and remind me that it’s okay not to have every answer.
These forms of self-care are just as valuable as paying a bill on time so I don’t have to worry about it later, or taking myself to the gym because I know I’ll sleep better at night. Sometimes self-care for me looks like sleeping in on a Sunday. But other times, self-care looks like waking up early to work on freelance project, because I know it has to get done, and I won’t want to feel guilty for not doing it later.
In the gentlest of ways, I want to encourage anyone else who struggles to take care of themselves to think of how they would want to take care of the person they love the most. We should be looking to care for ourselves in the same way. We should be learning about ourselves with each day, paying attention to what we want and what we need, and then using that information to really, truly love ourselves. A friend of mine recently asked if everything we do should be self-care, and though I struggle with that idea, it’s definitely something that made me think about the lines between self-care and self-preservation. Hopefully, one day the line is thinner.