You’ve Been Getting Self-Care Wrong This Whole Time

Photo: Eylul Aslan
Considering the amount of stuff you’ve probably seen about "self-care" on the internet of late, you’d be forgiven for thinking we’ve got the whole concept nailed, tied up in a neat bow and consigned to the close-to-empty box labelled “Things Society Has Totally Bossed”.
In fact, like most things we learn about from clickbait headlines on Facebook, we’ve got it a little confused. Sure, self-care can include early nights, long hot baths and expensive massages, but the number one thing about self-care? Knowing what works to help YOU feel good, and applying that to your life without guilt.
“It is about knowing ourselves,” says Jayne Hardy, founder of The Blurt Foundation and author of a new book, The Self-Care Project. “It’s about being self-aware about how we feel at any given moment in time and then acting accordingly by prioritising our needs.” We’re all so different, she continues, that what works for one person may very well not work for another.

This fad will pass, but self-care shouldn’t. Because self-care is really the same thing as mental health.

Jayne Hardy
For the longest time, I thought the magic answer to nailing self-care was meditation. I saw people doing it on Instagram, talking about it on Twitter and extolling the virtues of Headspace-esque apps in the pub. Surely once I had mastered it, I too would achieve peak self-care and, by definition, mental stability.
And sure, for some people meditation has worked wonders and seriously, power to them. For me, though, I felt like the fact that I couldn’t clear my mind meant I was a failure. The voices of the people instructing me in the coached meditations felt like judgements. So I took meditation off my self-care list. And it was a weight off my shoulders. Instead, I took a long hard look at myself and realised that what makes me feel good is being around people, working on writing projects that I feel proud of and, erm, doing jigsaw puzzles. I now try and practise all of these things as much as possible. So if your definition of self-care looks completely different from what you see on social media, don't worry; there's no one-size-fits-all solution.
Another huge thing we’re doing wrong is coming to self-care when we’re already in a bad place. “I came at it the wrong way,” Jayne says. “I came at it when I was at rock bottom with depression, I was suicidal, and lots of us do this, we only adopt self-care when everything goes wrong… But we shouldn’t get to that point!”
For Jayne, forging her path to understanding how to care for herself mentally (because of course, this is what self-care really is) involved relearning about boundaries with people. “When you don’t like yourself, you seek approval from others,” she says, explaining how she’d say yes to everyone in an ill-fated bid to get that approval. “You’re making a rod for your own back. You’re setting expectations up to those people that you’re a 'yes person' which means they can rely on you to do things. Actually, though, we have a right to say no to anything we don’t want to do. It was a bit of a revelation for me. I could say no to people and they would still like me!”
Social media has impacted self-care exponentially. Not only does it create all sorts of anxieties and stresses as we struggle not to compare ourselves to whatever Millie-who-only-eats-acai-berries and Hannah-who-works-out-eight-days-a-week are doing on Instagram, but it’s also guilty of perpetuating the wrong idea of what self-care is.
At this moment in time, it is possible to see self-care as something of a fad and, like feminism last year, marketing companies are falling over themselves to take advantage of it. Feeling a little down in the dumps? Do an expensive face mask. Anxious about Monday’s big presentation? Soak in the bath with a bunch of essential oils. And sure, while having these things as part of your self-care routine is no problem in itself, they’re not the basis of self-care.
“Self-care should never be a trend,” Jayne says, carrying on to say that the concept is so the opposite of a trend that even Socrates taught it (in between inventing nonsensical paradoxes to mess with your head in GCSE history 2,000 years later, of course).

We tend to feel guilty at not fulfilling the expectations we’ve set for ourselves, without ever stopping to think whether those expectations are actually fair and attainable.

“I think we’re all so tired and fed up and ill that we latch onto anything we think is going to solve our problems – like a supplement,” Jayne says. She is confident, though, that this fad can't last forever. “This will pass, but self-care shouldn’t. Because self-care is really the same thing as mental health.”
In the mental health community, Jayne explains, she and her fellow survivors have come to use the term to alleviate the stigma that some people still struggle with when talking about anxiety, depression and other conditions. “It [self-care] is an easy concept to understand,” she says. “Using the term is a really easy way of getting a lot of people involved in the conversation just by changing the terminology [from mental health]."
For a lot of us, one of the most trying obstacles preventing us from committing to self-care is guilt. “It’s a big one,” says Jayne. “I love my family but I need time out for myself and that’s quite hard to explain to a 3-year-old.” Worse than the guilt we feel radiating from others, though, is the guilt we put on ourselves. We tend to feel guilty at not fulfilling the expectations we’ve set for ourselves, without ever stopping to think whether those expectations are actually fair and attainable.
Getting past this guilt is hard, considering how few people openly practise what they preach in terms of self-care. In fact, this was one of the reasons I wanted to talk to Jayne. How often have you read that we should take our emails off our phones? “I should do that,” we always think, and then don't. Never, though, have I met someone who’s taken this concept as seriously as Jayne. Her out-of-office, which you get in response to every email you send her, reads:
"I might not reply as quickly as other people reply to you or as quickly as you're used to me replying to you – I've removed my emails from my smartphone. Because I LOVE my job, I was finding it increasingly difficult to disconnect which meant I wasn't being the Mum, wife, self-care ninja I aspire to be. I will reply as soon as I can and really do appreciate you getting in touch."
How great is that? “It’s not impacted my work or my working relationships. Back in the day you had to write someone a letter and I’m absolutely going to respond quicker than that,” she laughs. “I know [with this out-of-office] that when I log in, expectations have been managed.” She’s even had people ask her if they can pinch it for themselves.
So with Jayne in mind, take some time to figure out what exactly you need to make yourself happy. It might not be that yoga class that everyone is banging on about; it might be spending time around animals, it might be doing Lego, cutting a specific friend out of your life, quitting the gym, or ditching your iPhone for a Nokia 3310.
Then, once you've decided what makes you feel good, GO for it. Obstacles be damned. Who cares if society says you should do the opposite, or if someone on Instagram claims their magical self-care tactic has made their life complete. Only you know you. And you're the only "you" you've got. So look after yourself; you deserve it.

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