5 Times Self-Care ISN’T the Answer

Whether you’re spending time with a book, a foot bath, or a manicurist, making time for yourself is a crucial part of surviving in this hectic world — especially if you’re a person who experiences trauma and/or oppression(s) on a regular basis. A restorative personal ritual can keep you going during hard times, and build up your emotional reserves in good times.

What self care isn’t, though: An obligatory performance we owe to others. A cure for everything that ails us. A substitute for self-work. Or the right thing to suggest in every situation. We’ve gotten into the habit (myself included) of prescribing self-care for every type of suffering. Sometimes, that’s exactly the wrong thing to say. Here’s when not to prescribe self-care, and what to do instead.

When Self Care is Draining

Self care can become a performance that people (especially women) owe others, rather than a personal restorative. Concerned friends ask, “Are you taking enough time for self care?” and unintentionally create the obligation to demonstrate self care so friends and family will stop worrying.

A non-zero amount of time is required to perform self-care. Some days, time taken for a manicure or face mask is simply borrowed from future obligations, leaving us staying late at work the next day to make up for it or losing sleep to read a chapter a day, because, you know, #selfcare.

Tip: Ask open-ended questions when someone complains of feeling overwhelmed. A good substitute is, “What’s helped with that feeling in the past?”

When the Real Problem is Abuse

Some forms of intimate partner violence, like habitually interrupting a partner’s sleep or preventing a partner from attending school, can sound like ordinary stress/exhaustion until you dig more deeply into the situation. Knowing that your friend’s real issue is an abusive relationship doesn’t mean you’ll be able to “save” them, for many reasons thoroughly covered by excellent writers online. But it does mean you’ll avoid suggesting a massage when the real problem is an abusive partner.

Get to the root of a problem before suggesting self-care as a possible solution. Self care can help people endure, but focus on listening to your friend. Let them tell you whether or not they have a self care ritual that helps in their current situation.

Tip: Learn the SSVVPP method of trauma support, and use it to listen to people experiencing harm and trauma.

When Someone Needs Medical Care, Not Self Care

Fact: If someone needs a SSRI to get them to the same baseline where neurotypical people start their day, that individual can’t replace their medication with yoga and vegan cupcakes, post a #selfcareselfie, and go on their merry way. If someone has a chronic autoimmune disease, there is no skincare routine that will rid them of all its symptoms.

When someone discloses to you that they’re seeking medical treatment for a mental or physical illness, focus on what they chose to share with you about their medical care, rather than changing the subject to self care. Congratulate them for overcoming stigma to make a healthy choice for themselves.

Tip: Ask, “How can I support you in your health journey?” This leaves your friend an opening to bring up self care if they’re interested, or ask for something concrete like help with a GoFundMe for medical bills.

When It’s a Cop Out

You don’t owe anyone anything that you can’t or don’t want to give, including friendship or emotional support. However, if someone feels comfortable asking you for help in a crisis, but you don’t want that role in this person’s life, there comes a time to be clear about your boundaries. Don’t brush people off with self care advice when they’re asking you for a specific form of support. Say honestly, “I’m sorry, but I can’t help.”

If you do want that role in your friend’s life, but you find it scary or intimidating to involve yourself in someone else’s struggle in the way they’re asking for, brainstorm some ways you can feel safe supporting your friend. Maybe you can’t take a 3 AM phone call, but you can write your friend a letter telling them how much they mean to you. Maybe you can’t offer a place to stay, but you can send an email out to your network on their behalf. Always ask permission first, especially if your means of helping involves disclosing your friend’s difficulties to others.

Tip: Take some time to think about what you are and aren’t comfortable doing for others, before you need to know. Some people aren’t good at long conversations, but will take charge of a cancer patient’s meals in a heartbeat. In the friendships that you most cherish, know ahead of time what support you’d be able to offer in an emergency.

When Someone Needs Less Oppression, Not More Self Care

Well-meaning people sometimes respond to anger or grief — especially women’s anger or grief— with self care advice. And yes, a solid self care routine can help navigate those difficult feelings. But sometimes when the world is making someone feel fragile, sad, and angry, they may not want to calm their turbulent emotions. They may want to use their grief and rage to demand a change in the systems that caused them.

Or, they may simply want some space to be righteously angry for as long as they darn well please. There’s no time limit on how long someone is allowed to be mad or sad about something that harmed them.

Tip: When someone expresses a strong negative emotion, start by validating their feelings with a response like, “You’re completely justified in feeling angry. That’s awful.” Then keep listening.

The bottom line is: Self care rituals are intensely personal. Self care is something that requires, at a minimum, time and the right frame of mind. Often, it also requires money. Although it’s a crucial tool to promote wellness, self care doesn’t work when forced through peer pressure.

When someone reaches out to you about their personal struggle, they may be seeking care, not self care. If you have the capacity, try to listen and support the other person with whatever they, as an individual, need — whether that’s encouragement to have a guilt-free ice cream cone on a #selfcareSunday, or material help with moving out of an abuser’s home.