2020 has been a year of unprecedented uncertainty. We have, as individuals, and as communities, reckoned with anxiety, fear, loss, and suffering. The global pandemic has disrupted our lives, wreaking havoc, but for many, has been a reckoning: a shocking reevaluation of what has meaning in our lives. It feels, especially in light of the last week, that we need to re-examine ourselves, and the meaning of self care.
Throughout history, people have been striving to make their lives better. But the concept and practice of self-care has evolved and shifted noticeably over the past three decades: what began as the idea of complete shedding and replacing of the old self, grew into the work of examining the old self in the context of improvement. Then the shift continued to embracing what is self and accepting self, and now the focus seems to be on nourishing the self and allowing it to have a voice.
This progression is writ large in the type of books and media offerings that have proliferated. The original "self help" books started in earnest in the late 70’s: the idea was to do a total rehaul, a “90 days to a new you”. Then the messages became more about essentially doing some renovation work, so to speak: removing the old stuff, working with the new stuff, and ending up with a better, bolder model of self. Then the emphasis shifted and became more about empowerment and acceptance of self as is. And now we seem to be in a phase (in terms of the media anyway) of “self nourishment”.
There are lots of people who write about the culture of narcissism that has grown as a result. The argument is very provocative, and writers on the subject reference data from surveys of college students to support it. Certainly WELLNESS is a word that has become a massive industry, as well as an obsession, in our current culture. But the definition and understanding of this term, and its relationship to SELF-CARE as the new buzz word, remains mercurial, and often misappropriated.
What are we all really seeking? Are we asking how we can take better care of ourselves? How can we live better? How can we live longer? Happier? Healthier? More Successful? How can we become better people?
Before the “wellness” movement, there was a sense that less is more, that the doctor’s office was where you went only if and when things went wrong. But beginning in the 1960s, when smoking (habit) was clearly linked to lung cancer (disease), one’s lifestyle began to be scrutinized.The concept of prevention took hold. People began to think about how to stay “not sick”. But “not sick” is not equivalent to actively well.
Self Optimization: But what began as a search for methods of improving your chances of survival, morphed into a doctrine of self optimization. Self optimization being the shedding of the old self for something better, stronger, more powerful. It provided the motivation to change your unhealthy habits, not from fear, which is unsustainable, but from a place of control. This was the emergence of self-help books and webinars devoted to personal rehaul. Self-help sought to instruct and enhance productivity: “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, and “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. Self-help promoted hard work, denial, punishing exercises and starvation diets. These authorities of a self-help informed kind of wellness touted specific programs to live by and to complain about.
But more recently, perhaps due to the “potent influence of millennial values” it has become a lifestyle: Revolutionary ideas for the BIPOC community and Audre Lourde’s idea that self-care is a form of protest, commingled with the perseverance of yoga, fitness programs, juice bars, meditation workshops, and direct-to-consumer supplements implored on nu-groovy websites like GOOP and Moon Juice. Wellness & lifestyle are now a whole brand and approach to life in and of themselves. Note the endless journals, coloring books and workbooks available, and the endless inspirational quotes, and long captions on Instagram.
So we are left, in this time of uncertainty, with the task of examining the source, the intention, the value of “self care”. So what constitutes self care, and how is self-care different than self-compassion and self esteem:
Self-Esteem: Based on Judgement
As an aspect of self-care, self-esteem is a honing of social interactive skills: the ability to walk into a room with confidence, the ability to stand up for yourself, the strength to walk away from harm, and the courage to fight for what you want. But it is also filled with self-judgment: Was I strong enough? Am I fit enough? Am I smart enough? It implies that there is a fundamental external source against which you should compare yourself.
Self Responsibility: Ownership of your Actions
It is accepting your own behavior, and acknowledging your choices. It requires that you forgive mistakes or weaknesses, and celebrate successes by believing in your inner strengths, and free will. It is supporting a stable sense of your own intrinsic value, your own self-worth. This is hard work: it requires patience, and cannot be attained in a 10-day fix. As Krishna tells Arjuna in the Ancient text The Bhagavad Gita, you must release any expectation or demand, and not expect reward, or fruits of your actions.
Self Compassion: is embracing self with kindness, not judgement. It is the self of shared experiences and mindful behavior. Self-compassion is often hard to sustain: you need to be gentle, recognizing self and the inner child that, as Chopra says, is the innocence required for true joy. Try to connect with your inner child with laughter.
So, we can focus on self care as the nourishment of the present self. There are many facets - physical, socio-emotional, spiritual - that are about acknowledging and accepting the Me that exists in the present moment, in the context of a greater humanity.
When we talk about self-care, we need to consider what our goal is: and I believe that goal is Sustainable wellness. What I mean by this is the maintenance of equanimity, of an authentic balance. Unlike the earlier versions of self-help, self-care is achieved by making attainable changes, or better yet attainable adjustments - small steps that are respectful of what you and your body, mind and spirit can take with joy.
Sustainable wellness feels like a place of active resting: alert in bodily senses, internally still and calm, but vibrant and a part of humanity. You can attain this in various ways, you just need to be intentional about it (ie: meditation, yoga, walking, therapy, journaling etc).
The many aspects of self care - emotional, physical, spiritual and communal - originate from the belief that you are a person that is good, that does not need fixing, that has the capacity for love.
Maybe the “new” “wellness” journey is really the building of self compassion and self responsibility in the ongoing process of self care that culminates in a state of Love. And perhaps it’s not really new at all: perhaps we are stripping away the noise and excess, and finding old pathways to ourselves, as our ancestors did, completely present in the moments of their lives. A reckoning.