If you've taken a scroll through a #selfcare tag lately, you likely noticed plenty of pictures of yummy treats, cute animals, bubble baths, yoga, flowers, and essential oils. Over the last several years, self-care has taken on a "treat yourself" kind of vibe. It's about taking a moment to de-stress and do something just for you — and there's nothing wrong with that.
But Jenny Trout, a USA Today best-selling author, took a moment recently to remind everyone that self-care doesn't necessarily look like this for everyone, especially people struggling with mental illness. For them, it could look like something as simple as brushing your teeth.
Tip: if a mentally ill person is talking about self-care, they probably mean brushing their teeth or making a sandwich. In my experience and from the stories of others, self-care is rarely a candlelit bubble bath with luxurious pampering.— 🏳️🌈Jenny "IDK, something Christmas" Trout (@Jenny_Trout) December 3, 2017
Of course, that doesn't mean that if a bubble bath truly does help a person with mental illness feel better or more relaxed — if even for a moment — that they're doing it wrong, Trout explained in later tweets. But there's a disconnect between the way people who don't have mental illnesses and people who do talk about self care, and that could be causing a problem if we're conflating the two.
"I think there are people who are, for the most part, mentally healthy and doing preventative maintenance, and their voices are the ones that seem to be crowding out the voices of the mentally ill, who are just working to survive," Trout tells Refinery29. "That's not to say their suggestions aren't valid; they just shouldn't be the most prominent voices."
The problem lies in assumptions that self-care for someone with depression, or anxiety, or bipolar disorder, or any number of other mental illnesses should look like the luxurious moments — walks along a beach, a mug of hot tea and a cozy blanket, a lovingly prepared bowl of fresh greens and homemade salad dressing — that we're used to seeing on Instagram. For some people, it will look more like finally being able to brush your hair after weeks or even months of being too tired to do so.
"One of the things that shocked me about the responses to those tweets were the number of people who said they felt like they were doing self-care or mental illness recovery 'wrong' because they weren't taking bubble baths or spending time in nature," Trout says. "They were just trying to brush their teeth or get out of bed, but the prevailing narrative seems to be that candle-lit bubble baths and a hot cup of tea in a stylish white-washed room full of potted succulents is the baseline for self-care."
This is yet another example of a phenomenon many people experience with Instagram — that comparing ourselves to these perfectly curated and well-lit lives can make us feel like we've failed. It's one reason experts believe Instagram is the worst social media site for mental health.
So, while self-care can be a feel-good way to spend an afternoon, the perception that these Instagram-worthy moments are the only ones that constitute doing it "right" could be harmful.
"When that's the common perception, but you're looking around your bedroom full of trash and dirty dishes and empty cans because you've been living in bed for a week, you're so far away from that vision of 'taking care of yourself,'" Trout says. "That just sends you further down the spiral because it's one more thing that you've 'failed' at."
So, let's take this as a reminder that any moment of taking care of yourself, whether that means soaking in a tub full of fragrant bubbles or going to the grocery store, is doing self-care "right." And that not every moment like this needs to be shared on social media — sometimes, it's great to just do these things for yourself and leave it at that.