Is self-care a marketing ploy or mental health movement? Because whatever it is, we’re obsessed.
We can't stop talking about it.
We’re making it a New Year’s resolution and reading books written by acne-free celebrities on the topic. Yoga and bubble baths, bee pollen shots and cold pressed juice, setting boundaries with coworkers and Gwyneth Paltrow’s skin care regimen . . . Self-care is a de facto life goal at this point.
A very commercial life-goal, as you may have noticed from the bougie, privileged shopping list above.
And it’s not just “stuff,” like organic charcoal whitening tooth powder, CBD tea for a better night’s sleep, or a watermelon face serum (all stuff I’ve bought, BTW)—it’s experiences too.
Everyday we’re streaming, scrolling, and internalizing images of the self-care ideal: a satisfying career of your choosing, punctuated by photographable vacations, a ride-or-die squad of fun friends, and Zen weekends set aside for “you time.” We’re being pitched a new version of the “American Dream”—and many of us are totally unaware of it.
For the record, taking better care of ourselves is a great idea; any psychologist, neuroscientist, or mental health professional would 100 percent agree that practicing real self-care will vastly improve our health and happiness.
But the Market isn’t interested in improving our health and happiness.
The market exists to sell us things—more things than we’ll ever need—and in order to create demand for this stuff, the market has to convince us we have secret, unmet needs and problems that need solving.
At its worst, self-care is a marketing gimmick, a crafty repackaging of work-life balance by the market, invented to sell us all kinds of shit we don’t need.
But wait—the surge of self-care's popularity is more than commercial, isn't it?
At its best, "self-care" is also a movement; an excuse to slow down in a society that runs at breakneck speed, a reason to question which of our life's activities are making us numb and exhausted, and most importantly: pop-culture's permission slip to talk about our mental health, freely, for the first time in history.
These conflicting and intertwined messages (self-care requires an external product, self-care is internal) have us up in arms with the question: WTF is real self-care, and how do I prioritize my mental health?
As a millennial raised on equal parts skepticism (show me the data, 'cuz I can smell a scam a mile away) and optimism (anything is possible)—I have two humble suggestions for us, rooted in personal experience and scientific research:
- Stop Trying to Buy Self-Care.
There’s an important difference between self-care habits and self-care products.
Capitalism guarantees that there are thousands of ways for us to buy self-care (subscription boxes, apps, face masks, and the like) and thousands of purchases that can represent who we are as unique individuals. “The self” is now all-powerful; we express ourselves with what we buy and through the online personas we build around the “lives” we bought. (Ugh, I feel like a need a shower.)
But let’s be clear: We can take care of ourselves in a lot of different ways, and, occasionally, that self-care can include buying stuff. For the record, I really like that charcoal toothpaste, CBD tea and watermelon face serum I bought.
But what we’re really looking for, and what we need to ground ourselves, to sustain our joy, is space.
Freedom to take up space.
To feel embodied.
Room to breathe.
An inner reserve of energy.
Unfortunately, the Market has convinced us that the space we crave—feeling comfortable in our own skin, mental quietness, an inner reserve of energy—can’t be created; it must be bought.
The market offers us instant spirituality, fully optimized free time, and perfectly packaged “life hacks”—and we’re throwing our money at these meditation apps, morning journals, vitamin packs, and productivity software because most of the time, these tools work. These kinds of products can help us to create the habit of truly taking care of ourselves, and that’s important in a culture that has, until very recently, idolized working ourselves to death.
But, like anything else in our lives, routines, books, classes, bubble baths, and superfoods will rush in to grab our attention and fill our schedules—unless we learn how to create and hold space for the life we want to lead.
How do you make self-care a habit, not just a product? With intention. Real self-care is trying to live the entirety of your life on purpose.
“Creating and holding space” will look different for each of us: It might mean setting aside protected, open-ended time in our schedule; it might mean creating communication boundaries with our friends, coworkers, or bosses; it might mean valuing our mental health through something as significant as therapy or as simple as deleting Instagram from our phones.
Real self-care is an act of intention, not consumption.
- Stop Beating Yourself Up; Your Brain is a Body.
What inevitably comes with a new wave of social and cultural messaging, telling us to "prioritize our mental health" or "practice self-care"?
A sudden hyper-awareness of how we're feeling.
Am I depressed, or just tired?
Is this what social anxiety feel like, or am I "shy"?
I'm exhausted. Is this job wrong for me?
Am I in a "toxic" relationship, or am I expecting too much?
We're learning to pay attention to how we feel—but most of us have no idea what to do with these feelings.
What are we supposed to do now, the walking Raw Nerves, as more self-aware and less emotionally-inhibited humans, looking to actually take care of our damn selves?
>> First, we seek help.
Understanding the human mind is like speaking a language; it takes an immense amount of practice to become fluent (and it helps to have an expert translating for you at the start).
While professional therapy has historically been ridiculously, prohibitively expensive, many professionals now offer sliding scale or pay-as-you go sessions, and more low-cost therapy options exist than ever before. New mental health resources, created by actual experts, are popping up online—and for free. Whatever our financial privilege or lack thereof, we need to seek out expert "translators" to help us understand our endlessly complex minds and emotions without shame. We need help dealing with “The Feels,” and we can't do it alone. (I realize this is a daunting task, so check out some free and low-cost resources, below.)
>> Next, we remind ourselves that our mind is a body.
Your brain—the immensely complicated thing setting goals, feeling anxiety, making plans, and falling in love—is not a computer. It's made up of neurons; cells that require oxygen and glucose to function. In other words? It gets tired.
If you're feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, frustrated or anxious, take a moment before falling into a dark and twisty mental rabbit hole, questioning each and every one of your life choices with panic and scrutiny—and check in with your body, instead.
How much water have you had to drink today? Over the last ten days, how much of the food you ate came from a plant (the kind that grows) or something that ate plants, and how much of it came from a plant (a factory)? Are you sleeping well? Have you had any mood altering substances like caffeine, cannabis, alcohol, or drugs recently? When was the last time you spent time in the sun? Do you spend most of your day seated at a desk, or have you had the opportunity to move around? When did you last get some real, sweaty exercise?
It's frustratingly common sense advice to hear, but it's true: the way you treat your body affects your brain.
Monday’s anxious mood might have less to do with whether this is "the right job for you" or if this is "what you want to do with your life," and more to do with how little water, sun, exercise, sleep, and nutrients your hard-working brain cells are running on.
So, might I humbly suggest: Drink more water. Take your lunch break in the sun and soak up much-needed vitamin D. (Your body produces it through photosynthesis in your cells. Yeah, just like a plant!) Cool it on the partying, especially if you feel distracted or irritable this week. Reduce your screen time, as it drains your attention span and messes with your vision and sleep. Speaking of sleep, set a consistent bedtime and morning alarm, and aim for 7-8 hours. Take the stairs, walk to the grocery store, sweat it out at the gym (and bask in the warm fuzzy glow of dopamine and endorphins from exercise).
Your brain is a body.
One last thing...
Work-life-balance is a scam.
Your life isn’t a scale that needs balancing and it definitely can’t be broken down into compartments. Work, life, relationships, hobbies, friendships, physical health, mental health . . . these things are too intertwined to be compartmentalized.
Self-care is an individual assessment of what nourishes you, specifically—not your dentist, not the influencers you follow on Instagram, not your best friends—YOU.
And you know that already.
But have you ever asked yourself what those things really are? Or why you think you need the life you think you need?
Real self-care is practicing self-awareness (i.e., recognizing your boundaries), while the market’s version of self-care is practicing self-centeredness (i.e., assuming the world revolves around you and your comfort level).
Real self-care can be a revolutionary act of embodiment; a reclaiming of our bodies and lives as our own.
“Revolutionary act” may sound dramatic, but by that I mean that reclaiming your body, time, and boundaries can feel like you are standing up against centuries of oppressive social norms (especially if you identify as a woman, LGBTQ+, or person of color). Real self-care can be a courageous assertion of your value as a unique individual. It is prioritizing your mental health over pleasing other people and prioritizing your time over the frantic timeline of the Market. It is practicing self-compassion when you would normally sit in self-judgment, and honoring your personal boundaries rather than minimizing them for someone else.
It's living our lives entirely on purpose, and it's much simpler than the Market has made it out to be.________________________________________________________________________
LOW COST MENTAL HEALTH OPTIONS
Open Path Psychotherapy | Find a low cost therapist near you
Academy of Cognitive Therapy’s list of Low Cost Providers
FREE MENTAL HEALTH INSPIRATION + TOOLS
List of available Depression Hotlines (24/7, free phone numbers to call)
TeenLine (phone and text hotline, 24/7 for help with mental health, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts)
Anxiety Hotlines (scroll halfway down the page to see listed numbers to call or text, 24/7 for free)
Lifeline Chat (Free online chat, call, or text operated by National Suicide Prevention Lifeline)