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Why “Self-Care” Might Not Be Working (What to Do Instead)

Article by Jillian Bagan

Navigating the Self-Care Boom

Everywhere you turn it’s self-care this and self-care that. Yet, despite the booming
industry- valued at a staggering $10 billion according to Los Angelous Times- many find
themselves still grappling with the same old struggles. In Canada alone, over 5 million
individuals aged 15 and above struggle with mood, anxiety, and substance use
disorders, as reported by Statistics Canada in 2022. It does beg the question: why isn’t
the self-care boom translating into tangible results for so many of us?

Image from GoodStudio/Shutterstock

Self Care ; The Forgotten Origins

What no one in the industry wants you to know is how much the commercialization of
self care has deviated it from its original intentions. What is often overlooked is that the
term “self-care” was a term used in the medical field in the 1950s. It’s use was due to
the rise of person-centred medicine, where doctors where encouraged to see their
patients as an expert of their experiences, with their own individual set of values,
desires, family situations, social circumstances and lifestyles. They were considered
equals and finding the right solution for each person was a collaborative approach. At
the time, medical professionals believed that encouraging patients to practice individual
acts of self-care would help regain a sense of self-worth. Today, many mental health
professionals still offer what is now called “person-centred” therapy.

In the 1960s, “Self-Care” was then introduced to Black communities during the civil
rights movement by the Black Panther Party. The party encouraged their members to do
acts of self-care in order to continue to fight for justice with a sustained sense of energy
and motivation. The act of self-care was also expanded to “Community-Care,” the idea
that collective care is important for helping to sustain an individual’s physical and
emotional well-being. The party began programs that provided the Black community
with things like medical care, food security, childcare and many other programs in order
to promote the holistic well-being of the Black community.

self care
Photo from The Britistorian
Black Panther Community Care Demonstration, 1972

Additionally in the 1980’s, Audre Lorde became a voice the LGTBQ Black community on
the topic of “Self-Care”. She stated that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is
self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” She encouraged the Black
community to discuss communicate about their struggles, anger and pain, as a way to
dismantle the power of White Supremacy.

self care
Photo from The Britistorian
Audre Lorde, next to one of her infamous quotes, “Women are powerful and dangerous”

The Evolution of Self-Care

Self-care underwent a new phase as it was next promoted to an even wider audience in
the early to 2000s after the impact of 9/11. The emphasis on self-care emerged as a
response to the trauma and collective distress experienced by a nation and those
worldwide who witnessed the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001. There was a critical need
for individuals to prioritize their well-being and can a sense of stability during a
distressing time. Additionally, with the brunt of the 2008 economic recession, the self-
care narrative was used as a means to navigate the emotional and psychological toll of
economic hardship. And by 2016, after Trump was elected President of the United
States, self-care was everywhere.

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Exploring the Core Components of Self-Care

The aim of a self-care practice is to increase a sense of vitality and well-being through
individual activities. These activities are designed to support our physical, psychological,
emotional and spiritual health. This can look like exercising regularly, getting the
recommended 7-9 hours of sleep (most nights), a balanced diet, and going to therapy.
These individual acts can help in reduce someone’s stress and fatigue.

self care
Photo from Medical News Today

The problem with self-care is that it has become a somewhat overstated and worn-out
phrase over the years and veered away from its original intent. And while everyone
knows what it is, the path to actually achieving it can be bewildering. The confusion lies
not in the understanding of what self-care entails, but rather in the many pitfalls one
experiences while trying to practice it.

6 Issues with Self-Care practices

Lack of individualization: Generic self-care advice might not suit everyone’s needs.
What works for one person might not work for another do to differences in values
desires, family situations, social circumstances and lifestyles. This results in ineffective
or unsustainable methods of improving an individual’s wellbeing.

Guilt and pressure: sometimes engaging in self-care activities can induce feelings of
guilt, especially when individuals feel they should be prioritizing other responsibilities.
These feelings can be intensified if there are cultural or social expectations that place
barriers on practicing self-care. When this happens the added stress or guilt can
counteract the intended benefits of self-care and a person might also become
unknowingly resistant to implementing self-care practices.

self care

Over-commercialization: The commercialization has lead to the belief that purchasing
products or services is necessary for self-care, creating an illusion it is only attainable
through spending money. Focusing on products and experiences both promotes
materialistic indulgence rather then genuine self-care practices.
Surface-Level Approach: often, self-care is perceived as merely engaging in external
activities (like shopping or spa days) rather than addressing underlying issues and
needs. They might provide temporary relief at the time, but overtime this can be
ineffective in resolving persistent issues. This might lead to feelings of frustration or
disillusionment of self-care because individuals are not experiencing the lasting
improvements that they want to.

Time Constraints: people often perceive that they do not have enough time to practice
self-care and do not know how to incorporate them into their busy schedules. This
limiting belief can prevent people from engaging meaningful self-care practices and can
block them from being able to establish consistent and impactful routines.

Emotional Strain: people who struggle with mental health issues and disorders might
have difficulty implementing self-care due to emotional barriers or lack of energy. These
individuals might experience a sense of frustration or shame by not being able to
partake in what society deems as “simple self-care tasks”. As a result, a cycle emerges
wherein the sense of shame, guilt or frustration further exacerbate the difficulty in
implementing self-care practices.

These six issues highlight the underlying need for a paradigm shift in approaching
holistic well-being. Instead of fixating on generic practice and commercialized trend of
self-care, it’s important to re-frame our understanding of well-being by acknowledging
the importance of personalized, inclusive, and sustainable approaches. These
approaches need to encompass diverse needs, foster community support, and focus on
intrinsic self-care methods that go beyond external remedies.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Personalizing Your Approach

In order to shift your focus to a more individualized approach, start by reflecting on your
current self-care routines or activities that already bring comfort or relief. A fun exercise
to get you started can include dividing a paper in half, where one one side you write
down activities or practices that drain you and activities and practices that uplift you.
Additionally, you can brainstorm your individual needs, values and preferences.
Consider what aspects of your life you prioritize, and if this is in line with what you are
already doing. Feel free to do some research to explore various self-care practices that
go beyond the conventional ones. This can include mindfulness exercises, exploring
different hobbies, joining groups, creative pursuits, journaling, or volunteering. The
importance of this shift is to diversify your self-care tactics and find activities that you
resonate with the most.

self care

The next step would be to create a self-care plan or routine, integrating a mix of
practices that cater to different aspects of your well-being. Begin gradually incorporating
this plan into your daily or weekly routines, with small and manageable steps. Whether
it’s dedicating a few minutes each day to mindfulness exercises, setting aside time for
journaling or volunteering, these incremental adjustments can have a profound impact
on your overall well-being. A minute can feel really short (unless you are doing push-ups) but dedicating these small moments can promote a sense of accomplishment and
reinforce the habit-forming process. The aim is for consistency rather than perfection!

Eat, Sleep, Self Care and Repeat.

Once you have an established routine, remember to reflect and adjust. Take time to
assess how each practice influences your mood, energy, and overall well-being. Be
open to adapting and fine-tuning your routine. Consider adapting the duration,
frequency, or the types of activities and practices based on your changing needs. The
best self-care practices are the ones that focus on internal growth and emotional
resistance. This can include practices that encourage introspection, self-compassion
and self-awareness. Strategies that are recommended by mental health professionals
include: connecting with others, setting boundaries, taking care of basic needs,
engaging in the arts and maintaining a mindful or spiritual practice.

It’s important to be proactive about developing and implementing a self-care plan so
that it’s in place to handles life’s natural ups and downs. Having a plan in place can
provide a sense of structure and guidance when navigating against life’s difficulties and
challenges. Additionally, you can extend proactive self-care measures into the
workplace. Revise your workload and seek out fair compensation and recognition for
the work you are already doing.

Remember, self-care does not solely have to revolve around individual efforts. It can
entail exploring and fostering a community care networks that extend holistic support
beyond individual means. Finding communal supports involves engaging in community
activities, joining interest-based groups volunteering and participating in events. Bored
in Vancouver can be an invaluable resource when it comes to connecting to your
community so make sure you take full advantage of its resources.

Additionally, the guidance and support of a mental health professional, including
therapists and counsellors, can play a pivotal role in a self-care plan. Their expertise
and personalized strategies can help enrich self-care routines with comprehensive and
professional insights. They can also help eradicate the stigmas and guilt surrounding
mental health and self-care and help alleviate the emotional strain of self-care. If you
are finding it hard to take care of your self at a minimal level, I encourage you to reach
out for more support.