I began to be suspicious of self care when it started to seem expensive.
At first, I thought self care had to do with exercise, eating well, and fulfilling, healthy relationships. But then my social media feed started to fill up with Girls’ Day photos of mani-pedis with champagne, yoga retreats at hot springs and shopping — all captioned #selfcare.
It just seems rather indulgent and, as I said, expensive. And the people I see advertising their self care seem most in need of it, most often. Why isn’t all that “me time” translating into more health and resilience?
Maybe they just aren’t doing self care right. Maybe they need a primer and the proper tools of self care. That’s the bet one company took when they partnered with the millennial consultants at BuzzFeed to launch Lunarly, a new “moon-based self-care subscription service.”
Lunarly is a $40/mo subscription box timed to the lunar calendar. Every full moon (or something), subscribers receive a houseplant, bath bombs, crystals, journals, tarot cards and incense. Lunarly promises to teach us the art of self care, but it is in fact a non-sequitur corporate play to get to a new generation of customers.
Are you ready for this? Scotts Miracle Grow came up with Lunarly as a way to sell plants (and other stuff, but mostly plants) to millennials.
I say no. Rather, these are only symptoms of a fundamental misunderstanding that can have serious consequences for us, individually and as a society. You can also see it as a problem of misplaced emphasis. It begins with centering the idea of the ‘self’ in self care.
So why do we think it’s OK to put the idea of the self at the center of sustainability and health? It doesn’t even matter if you accept what Buddhists, Hindus and physicists have been telling us all along. Break it all down, they say, and all matter in the universe, including us, is a whir of molecules, atoms and energy. Follow that rabbit hole down and you quickly realize it’s pretty hard to distinguish where you end and not-you begins.
In more practical terms, all of us are connected to other people, places, animals and things through a range of relationships that are characterized by varying degrees of mutual dependence. That’s why a “self first” approach to being a person in the world feels about as off as an “America First” approach to global politics. Doing so, we’re no longer emphasizing relationships, or mutual dependence and benefit. Self care has become all about me — and worse, the idea of me. And the more we do it, the more concrete and separate this idea of me, my self and my ego become.
Continuing the person-as-country metaphor just a little, self care is built on the idea that building walls around ourselves is going to keep the bad stuff out. Self care is often utilized as a response to stress and burnout, borne of the idea that there are external conditions we should change or get away from in order to be calm, even-keeled and happy. But the external conditions aren’t the problem — we are.
Everything changes. The good goes away and so does the bad. Our feelings of joy and sorrow have more to do with our perception and conditioning than actual external circumstances. And the fact is that we can’t stop stressful and bad things from happening in our lives, even if we do excellent jobs of Marie Kondo-ing our homes and friends. There will always be sources of stress we cannot wall off or keep in indefinite detention — like our children, parents and having to hold a job. Not to mention the biggest whoppers of being alive: that we’ll all experience illness, aging and eventually, death (whether our own or of those we love).
So in short, rather than focusing on building walls to keep the events that stimulate negative responses out, we should be looking at changing our responses. I know. Easier said than done. But yet, doable. (Stay tuned!)
The third mistake we make in self care is to believe that self care as reprieve, vacation or spa day is going to increase our resilience and make us better prepared to respond to stress in the future. According to the American Institute of Stress, the definition of stress is just “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”. It’s not a qualitative definition — there can even be good kinds of stress.
Exercise is one kind of good stress. But while it’s easy to understand that we need to train our bodies to tackle a sustained and stressful experience like say, a marathon, we take the opposite approach through self care, trying to remove the things we perceive as negative from our lives. Doing so, we achieve the opposite of our intended effect.
Self care, with its wall of champagne flutes and bath bombs around the self, only perpetuates the weak and stuck points that make us feel habitually overwhelmed, burnt out and sad. It concretizes the idea of a self that is separate and small. We get into the all too common habit of being that small self, tensed and prepared for the onslaught from the outside, instead of growing bigger, stronger and more resilient.
So what if the solution is not to avoid or hit pause on the stress we experience in our lives, but to go right into it, instead? In my next installment, I’m going to share how people have learned to build resilience and ability to adapt to the biggest stresses we’ll experience in our lives — again: aging, illness, loss, death — by going all the way to exercise the muscles needed to deal with those daily or even bigger-than-daily stresses. And I’ll show how throwing away my self and putting the focus on everyone else before me ended up being the best way to care for myself.
Community: the solution beyond self care, with a Hawaii Zen twist.
Cristina Moon is a writer and technologist, and lives in a Zen temple in Hawaii. Find her on Twitter as @cmoon and sign up to receive her newsletter and get Parts 2 & 3 of this series here.