I remember falling out of love with self-care. I remember precisely how and when it happened. I fully understood the concept and agreed that taking care of oneself was important, however, it all fell apart for me. To this day, try as I might, hearing someone talk about “self-care” - especially when that someone is me - makes me cringe.
Buzzwords are handy, catchy and can be effective at conjuring images, feelings and interpretations of a pre-determined concept. The danger, however, is that, when overused, these buzzwords start to lose their meaning. I’ve seen two seemingly opposite things occur with buzzwords - both equally troubling. When overused, the buzzword becomes a catch-all for the concept itself and other peripheral topics. The buzzword then becomes so big that we then try to make sense of it and end up stripping it down to its bare bones. The problem though is that those bare bones are often not what the concept was about in the first place. “Self-care” is certainly overused and we seem to have failed its essence completely.
My distaste for self-care began in December of 2014. Christmas was fast approaching and I had roughly eight months of caregiving under my belt since my husband’s accident. I had slid into a deep depression, was away from work and my days consisted mostly of making meals and driving. I drove our children to and from daycare and activities. I drove my husband to and from his numerous rehabilitation appointments - he had at least one appointment per day, sometimes two. I drove to and from the grocery store, the drug store, Costco and Walmart. I also drove myself to my own appointments as a psychiatrist tried to find the right cocktail of medication that would help me cope with my daily reality. I won’t go much further in painting this picture. Despite the upcoming holidays, these were dark times for us as a family and I was in a dark place.
Whenever I’d see my psychiatrist, we discussed the effectiveness of the medication on my moods and energy levels and determined the next steps in terms of dosage or drug changes. We’d also discuss what I was doing for myself. I remember explaining quite emphatically that there was absolutely nothing more I could delegate or standards that I could lower. Our house had become a bit of a disaster zone. Laundry - clean and dirty - was piled high and I felt I couldn’t keep up with any of it. There were always places to drive to and from, paperwork to file or forms to fill out, meal prep or other things that were more important. I felt overwhelmed and yet powerless to change anything.
That recurring question though - are you taking time for self-care? - became the bane of my existence. Well-meaning family members, neighbours, friends, doctors, counsellors and the specialists seeing my husband all uttered those words to me at one point or another. They’d remind me that self-care was important and that I wouldn’t be any good to my husband or kids if I was falling apart. Were they right? Of course they were. Was hearing that helpful? Not one bit. There are, in my opinion, two reasons for that.
First, to me, “self-care” was so overused that it no longer meant anything of value. See, for me, it brought to mind bubble baths and painting one’s toe nails. Is that self-care? Sure, it can be. Over time though, I’ve come to realize that this imagery is likely the result of the overuse of the term “self-care”. At the heart of it, getting a massage or spending a day at the spa can certainly have a large number of benefits. Is it imperative to one’s wellness though? I would guess it isn’t.
Let me explain my point further. When I worked in policy for the federal government, we had this expression we often used when there was a tendency for the organization to want to create too many rules for staff to follow. We used to say: “when everything is important, nothing is important.” It makes sense, right? When you start to lump everything into the “important” category, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the truly imperative stuff and the nice-to-do’s.
The “care” part of “self-care” implies that it has benefits that are necessary for wellness. Wouldn’t it be more impactful if we valued actions like slowing down and connecting to our bodies, setting healthy boundaries, learning to say no, learning to hear and listen to our intuition or even letting go of unhealthy relationships? To me, these actions are what self-care is truly about. The benefits from those actions will likely outweigh those of a massage or day at the spa.
The second nail in my self-care coffin came from the “self” assignation. Here I was, feeling utterly gutted by responsibility, overwhelmed and being told that I should carve time out for my own self-care. This effectively placed yet another responsibility squarely on my already over-burdened shoulders. The combination of this responsibility, said with the “should” and the added consequence that I would fail my kids and husband so much more if I didn’t participate left me feeling even more deflated.
I am not suggesting we devolve people of their responsibility to care for their own wellness. What I do suggest though, is that if we recommend self-care, that there be more resources available to back up our words. Respite care is valuable for caregivers, however, what’s often most impactful is helping with the day to day stuff. If I’d have been gifted a magic wand when I was in the thick of it and existing in survival mode back in 2014 to 2016, I’d have used that wand to deal with the laundry, the meal prep and the dishes. I didn’t want time away from my husband and children. I wanted less time shovelling the driveway or hauling the garbages out to the curb. I wanted to find some ease, to slow down and to have some quality time to connect with my loved ones.
I firmly believe that “self-care” needs a makeover - especially when we’re speaking to caregivers. It needs to be recognized for the important concept that it is. Those who are struggling and who need it most are precisely the ones who will balk at the idea of carving time out for something that doesn’t provide real value and who will likely send you packing if you tell them it’s their responsibility to do so.
It took me a long time to understand that I couldn’t barrel through the pain and keep going forever and ever. It took me even longer to realize that self-care didn’t need to be expensive and take hours of my time. True self-care, the lasting kind, meant that I needed to recognize my own value and believe myself worthy. Then and only then, was I able to start to read my energy, to tweak where that energy was going and to learn to fiercely protect my energy level. “Self-care” (or whatever term we might want to use) may be squarely on one’s shoulders but parents, friends, society need to play a role in teaching our kids that wellness and health come down to energy - a finite resource that we cannot squander. Much like learning how to budget our money, we all need to learn how to budget our energy. Self-care needs to be those actions that credit our account - not just about bubble baths.