I recently read the Forbes article Self-Care is Not An Indulgence. It’s A Discipline and found myself physically nodding as I read each line. The premise of the article is that the ever-percolating messages of “self-care” are often aimed at women, who disproportionately carry the weight of caring for others, and are often shallowly coercive to sell a product or boost a brand. The capitalistic intent works so well because it correctly identifies a need, then simply provides an easy, yet not lasting, solution.
And if the solution is based on a purchase, self-care quickly becomes about purchasing power and wealth which is harmful, distracting, and wrong.
I won’t pretend that I can summarize the article in any satisfactory way, so I encourage you to read it instead. Particularly for the list of ways Forman identifies actions of self-care.
This article resonated with me because I’ve learned so much in the past few years about true, healing self-care. I have been guilty of asserting a #selfCare while enjoying a spa day or indulging in a particularly unproductive weekend. But as I commit myself to discovering what actually brings me joy, I have started to call myself to account for mislabeled actions (or inactions) that feel indulgent in the moment but don’t bring sustained happiness.
Self-Care as a discipline, not an indulgence
For example, while I can find happiness in reading people’s stories, watching tear-jerker videos, or viewing other’s posted pictures on social media platforms, I can also use the endless scrolling of those platforms to avoid engaging with a creative project. Social media is like the candy of self-care–fun in the moment, great in small doses, detrimental if it’s a large part of your diet.
While I find delight in a new Netflix series and find that a few episodes help me escape the hamster-wheel of my mind, spending 10+ hours a week in escapism is not a sustainable habit for my self-care. It’s an easy out when a more difficult yes would add so much more to my life.
While it feels extremely satisfying to scan my home spaces and find them clean and beautiful, I can use busy chores as a way to feel falsely purposeful. Real purpose will be found through investing in tasks that add value to people’s lives in a meaningful way.
I’ve learned that self-care is identifying not only the things that fill you and ground you, but also the things that grow you and sustain you. Then interrogating your life to figure out when your actions are choices of self-care or choices of quick indulgence.
In her article, Forman writes
It takes discipline to do the things that are good for us instead of what feels good in the moment. It’s takes even more discipline to refuse to take responsibility for other people’s emotional well-being. And it takes discipline to take full and complete responsibility for our own well-being.
For me, that discipline has manifested in a few ways recently. First, I don’t berate myself for fluctuations in my productivity. I’m becoming more disciplined in how I talk to myself. It’s so easy to allow the patterns of my thoughts to continue, on repeat.
My brain immediate defaults to this message: “Hey, what’s wrong with you today? Why haven’t you checked off [most recent to-do list item]? You really need to [insert whatever the preferred behavior is].”
It’s harder to say to myself, “Look, you are a human being composed of hormones, emotions, and imperfections. To expect yourself to operate like a machine is to be unrealistic and hurtful. Would you expect this of those you supervise? Your friends? Your partners? Let’s examine what is preventing you from succeeding and what actions you can do with the remaining time to get a win.”
Another discipline as self-care for me: yoga, most mornings (catch that most instead of every–self-care right there!). Starting my day with 10, 15, 20, or 30 minutes of yoga cares for my body and mind in multiple ways. I injure less during my more physically demanding workouts. I start my day with slow, physical movements rather than frenetic mental calculations and rushing around multi-tasking. Yoga is one way I care for my own well-being, mind, body, spirit.
Self-Care as constructing boundaries and fighting perfectionism
Finally, Forman hits on a key aspect of self-care that 100% does not rely on face masks, candles, weighted-blankets, or naps. By refusing to “take responsibility for other people’s emotional well-being” we are choosing the discipline of self-care. By understanding and constructing boundaries, we are choosing the discipline of self-care.
Phew. That’s way more difficult than buying an hour-long massage.
For me, that process has required me to first establish what is within and outside of my control. I’m what Brene Brown (and a host of other counselors, therapists, and psychologists) refers to as an over-functioner: “For over-functioners, it’s easier to do than to feel.” (emphasis mine)
Will Meek, a psychologist who wrote about this topic, describes over-functioning this way:
Classic characteristics of over-functioning include being overly focused on another person’s problems or life situation, offering frequent advice or help to the other person, actually doing things that are part of the other person’s life responsibilities.
Ok, so, that describes me since I’ve been five, lining up stuffed animals to teach and bossing my younger sisters around. It also likely drove my comfort in commanding a high school classroom that saw 110 students a day for ten years. Unfortunately, and more painfully, it also describes the role I took emotionally in relationship with my ex-husband. Meek writes that “almost always, someone who is under-functioning is paired with, or supported by someone who is over-functioning.” It’s the nightmare version of that cliché opposites attract.
My discipline with constructing boundaries of responsibility started while I was still in that marriage. I distinctly remember one day looking across the table during some sort of conflict and saying: “I can’t actually fix this problem for you. What I can do, I’ve already done. The problem you are grappling with is yours, and while I can try better to support you in finding the solution, that is your work.” This, my friends, was a revolutionary act of self-care for me. It didn’t save my marriage, but it may have saved me when the marriage eventually failed.
I try to no longer accept responsibility and agency for another person’s emotions and fixing them. That’s not natural to me, and I have to practice it. I need to admit when I CAN NOT. And while it feels foreign, it also is liberating. Similar to stretching my body into a yoga position, strange and freeing. Similar to closing Netflix when the next episode is just about to begin, uncomfortable and necessary.
Self-care is loving your self enough to acknowledge your boundaries and choose your future self over your current one. Self-care for me today was writing this post when for two years my writing has been largely private. I hope by sharing some of my self-care disciplines, I’ve sparked some thinking around yours. And I’d be so honored if you’d share them!