The Anxiety of Treating Yourself: When Self-Care Becomes Problematic

Woman by sea with coffee

Forty dollar, potentially toxic “raw” water. Pricey massages. A $400 juicing machine that doesn’t even juice. These days, wellness is big business. The average person is constantly bombarded with hot new wellness trends promising to make them healthier, happier, and more relaxed. Many of these products and services praise the benefits of self-care, or prioritize the self to de-stress, enjoy life, and prevent burnout.

Of course, this brand of self-care is drenched in irony. By making self-care into a task to check off the to-do list in your hectic schedule, many wellness trends create yet another yardstick to measure yourself by. At the same time, these trends can come with hefty price tags, making it sound like taking care of yourself requires a fancy, Silicon Valley-level paycheck.

Self-care is Simple

Luckily, none of this is necessarily true. In fact, the idea that self-care is an obligation that you have to shell out big bucks to meet is totally counter to its goal.

The notion of self-care was popularized by the women’s and black power movements of the sixties and seventies, whose activists argued that marginalized people had to prioritize caring for themselves to preserve their sanity in the face of social discrimination. It was also an important concept among counselors, emergency responders, and anyone whose job required helping people in difficult situations — those who needed to charge their own mental and emotional batteries.

The concept of self-care has now become mainstream, and that’s good for everyone. In an increasingly interconnected world, stress is on the rise. And with a large body of scientific evidence that stress can literally kill you, tending to the self is an integral part of mental, physical, and emotional health. But self-care definitely doesn’t have to stress you out — or break the bank. The secret is simple: Just find what works for you.

Give Yourself Time

Today’s Americans are working more than ever, far more than their European counterparts. While this frenetic pace of work may feel productive, complete with social media humble brags that portray a long workweek as virtuous, there is increasing evidence that overwork can also kill you prematurely.

In our highly scheduled world, wherein many of us remain connected to social media even as we sleep, we suffer from a lack of unstructured time. Ironically, the idea of self-care as yet another obligation in a busy life entirely misses the point.

Instead, one important way to care for yourself is simply to give yourself a little free time. Leave yourself a block in your week — an afternoon, or if you can swing it, a whole day — to do something unstructured, unscheduled, and just for your own joy. Whether it’s reading a book for pleasure, taking a bath, or playing with your kids, pure, unstructured time can work wonders.

If you’re crazy overscheduled, treat this time like an equally important obligation. We promise the sky won’t fall if you stop checking work email on Sunday.

You Don’t Have to Break Your Bank Account

While the Next Big Wellness Trend may promise you health and happiness at a steep price tag, joy is priceless.

Ask yourself: What gives you pleasure? When you’re busy and stressed out, which activities or relationships do you miss? What basic needs of yours — food, rest, health — are you neglecting? Make time to eat a fresh and delicious meal, get some exercise doing an activity you like (take up belly dancing or yoga, play basketball with a friend), and get some rest. Sleep is not only super important for your health — it’s totally free.

For many of us, tending to our emotional and spiritual health can be an important form of self-care, and a gift we give for our own wellbeing. You can do this however it works for you, and on any budget. Try a meditation class (or free app), a religious service, or seek out affordable therapy (whether online or brick and mortar).

If you crave a little pampering and can afford the spa, that’s great. But you don’t need to do anything fancy to tend to your body and make yourself feel good. A hot shower with some aromatherapy, clean sheets and soft pillows, and a neck rub from a partner or friend can work wonders. And of course, some of the greatest pleasure in life comes from other people. Friendship is free. So is sex (and, for those days when you crave alone time, so is masturbation).

It’s About People

Research has shown that much of our health depends on our relationships. For those of us in caretaking roles, alone time away from relatives and friends can be a much-needed release. But if you work alone, are a parent with small children missing adult conversation, or simply thrive on company, getting together with friends or family can be an important form of self-care. Investing in strong relationships keeps you emotionally and mentally healthy in all aspects of life.

In this sense, self-care is anything but selfish. Instead, it’s about relationships, with other people and, most importantly, with ourselves. When we take time to charge our mental and emotional batteries, feel joy, and focus on the things and people that make life beautiful, we give ourselves the gift of increased happiness and emotional health.

Self-care doesn’t require fancy products, big bank accounts, or hot new trends. Instead, it requires something that can’t be bought: the wisdom to know what you need, and the compassion to give it to yourself.

Published by

Reina Gattuso

Contributor