The Problems with Self-Care
A Social Dilemma
Americans are obsessed with the concept of “self.” If you have any doubt about that statement, just peruse the slogans, mantras, and cliches that adorn endless amounts of digital content and merchandise in this country:
Just believe in yourself.
Don’t tread on me.
We come by such a viewpoint honestly. Our nation’s founding documents put the liberties of the individual at the center of concern. What matters are the freedoms of every single human as a stand-alone entity. Personal rights are of paramount importance. So naturally, we look through this same lens regarding mental health. It’s all about the self. And why shouldn’t it be? After all, the only mind I can control is my own.
Taking this line of thinking through a logical evolution, the term most used these days to describe self-directed personal maintenance is somewhat obviously, “self-care.” Of course, we all engage in activities that could be construed as a form of it: healthy eating, exercise, adequate sleep, basic hygiene, etc. But these are primarily physical solutions aimed at addressing physical issues. And self-care, in its current definition, is mainly referencing upkeep and recovery of the mind.
As is the case with everything in this country, debate rages around the validity of such a concept. Those on one end of the spectrum feel it’s completely unnecessary. Your grandparents didn’t need “self-care.” Stop being so weak and suck it up! On the opposite side, others view a break from absolutely anything at any time as warranted for mental health concerns. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. But my intent here is not to adjudicate such an argument. Instead, I want to dig into the problems with self-care itself. How we think about it incorrectly at times, how the term is flawed, and how it can even be counterproductive to the goal it’s trying to achieve.
Let’s start with the reality of our modern environment. Despite being social creatures who evolved to operate in interconnected groups of a few hundred people, we spend increasingly more time in isolation. Technology has made it so that we no longer need one another to survive. Anything we require to sustain life can be ordered online and delivered to our homes. And various screens provide a form of interaction that satisfies our dopamine receptors. Even with our close friends, we tend to meet virtually instead of in person.
The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated this situation. Repeated quarantines kept people in their houses for weeks or months on end. What’s worse, it made us perceive other humans, including our friends and family members, as dangerous in ways they had never been before. On a societal level, face-to-face interaction became a potential threat. So we retreated into bubbles of self more than ever before. As a result, we now live increasingly solitary existences. Note that I’m not making a statement about the wisdom behind any of the precautionary measures people have taken over the last few years. I am simply making an observation about some of the consequences we now face.
At the same time, rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental conditions are at an all-time high. Correlation isn’t necessarily causation, but it stands to reason that a significant factor contributing to such internal anguish is this isolation - the lack of connection we now have to other people. And yet our solution to the situation in the form of “self-care” is essentially more time alone. In this era of seclusion, we are saying that when things start to weigh on your psyche, you should sequester yourself even further. Focus on you. Figure things out on your own. Self, self, self…
I completely sympathize with this line of thinking. It’s my tendency too. I’m an introvert by nature and require some measure of time by myself to recharge and reboot. I’m also a veteran accustomed to living by a popular military mantra of “suffer in silence.” The idea is to control physical discomfort. You can’t let it detract from your ability to do your job. That’s sage advice at times. But unfortunately, too many of us apply this approach to the mental and physical struggles in our personal lives. In these circumstances, it’s terrible counsel. We need to do the opposite.
I’ve learned this lesson numerous times in various forms. The most striking example was via my physical fitness routine recently. My wife and I are avid CrossFitters, and during the pandemic, we built a home gym as our local box was shut down for months. We are perfectly capable of working out by ourselves from a knowledge and discipline perspective, and once we got into this routine, we kept it. For nearly two years, I exercised in our garage, alone.
But eventually, I decided to start going back to the gym a few times a week. Not for the programming. Not for the instruction. Not for the motivation. I did it for the social interaction. It’s simply more fun to work out with other people. There is an element of joy that comes from group training that you can’t get as a lone wolf. Doing this also takes my focus off me for a while. I can’t sit there wallowing in my own mental detritus while engaging with others in some activity or conversation. Even when I feel my worst, one of the best things I can do is simply hang out with friends. Any former service member or first responder knows that survival depends on the team. We would all be wise to remember that.
There is an African proverb that states:
If you want to go fast, go alone.
If you want to go far, go together.
The pursuit of mind fitness is not a sprint. It’s an ultra-marathon. But it never ends. Which means we must go together. To be sure, it takes a bespoke approach for each individual. Ultimately, no one can sort out you but you. However, the solutions for me involve an element of we as well.
Modern answers also aren’t always the best ones. I suggest you take a slightly more atavistic approach based on our hunter-gatherer tribal roots when it comes to self-care. The most crucial piece to healing in the moment might just be another person, especially when things are at their darkest.
Don’t suffer in silence. Talk with someone. Lean on the team. Be social.