The #selfcare revolution
It’s infiltrated wellness vocab. But beyond the hashtags, do you know what self-care actually means – and how to do it?
We reveal the real benefits behind the year’s biggest wellness hashtag
“You can’t pour from an empty cup,” reads one. “Imagine if we recharged ourselves as often as we did our phones,” suggests another. We challenge you to scroll through a social feed without landing on a statement like this written in swirly script. And don’t forget the hashtag. We’re talking about ‘self-care’: the term that has overtaken ‘hygge’ and ‘mindfulness’ to become the wellness word of 2018. Among the circa 8.6 million #selfcare Instagram posts, you’ll find endless candles, cocktails and kittens; a bath bomb, a blanket, a Buddha. The publishing industry has responded in kind with titles such as The Self-care Project and Recharge: A Year of Self-care
to Focus on You. So where did it come from exactly? “Self-care was originally a medical term that doctors used to refer to activities they recommended to patients to complement their physical or mental health treatment,” says Professor Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a New York-based health and wellness historian. “Then in the 1960s, the civil rights movement came to see self-care as a rejection of a medical system that didn’t support them. Women who felt let down by traditional medicine also saw self-care as a way to reclaim control.” Since then, wellness has evolved from a niche concept to a global industry, and self-care has become increasingly marketable – and glossy – in the process.
But it turns out self-care is more than carving out time for yourself or adding (Insta-worthy) new habits to your routine, says Dr Hamira
Riaz, a clinical psychologist. “[It’s] about becoming more skilled at discerning between the situations and relationships that serve you and those that don’t, so you can make better choices about who and what to invest your time in.” When her clients come to her with problems such as “struggling to feel genuinely happy”, Riaz finds that self-care – or a lack thereof – tends to lie at the heart of the issue, and the solution.
The one tiny problem? Riaz worries that social media sometimes gives off the wrong impression, though, presenting self-care as a narcissistic act as opposed to mental-health maintenance. “It’s such an important distinction to make,” she says. “Many of my clients establish healthy self-care practices only to sabotage them by convincing themselves that it’s unjustifiable self-indulgence.”
So, what does self-care actually look like? According to psychologist Dr Alicia Clark, we need to go back to basics. Unless you’re routinely getting your eight hours, she suggests starting with sleep. “The parts of your brain that deal with decision-making and self-control plummet when you’re fatigued. As do two areas called the insular and prefrontal cortex, which enable you to choose between what you want and what you need,” she explains. “Trying to make good calls when you haven’t [rested] is like trying to prepare for a presentation in your living room the morning after you’ve thrown a house party.”
PERMISSION TO BE BORED
Break it down and self-care appears mundane. Or, as mental health occupational therapist Hannah
Daisy calls it, “boring”. “About a year ago, I kept reading comments online from people complaining about being told to ‘go and do something nice for you’ when they were so depressed that their house was an uncontrollable mess,” she says. “I noticed a disconnect between the practical way we talked about self-care in the [healthcare system] and the way it looked on social media. I wanted to create something to bridge that gap and make selfcare more accessible to people.”
Enter #boringselfcare. Scroll through Daisy’s Instagram feed – @makedaisychains – and you’ll find touching and often funny illustrations, the likes of ‘changed my bed sheets’ and ‘did the dishes’. It’s an inclusive, quiet pushback against the idyllic version of the movement, and shows how practical and actionable self-care can be.
“Accept that prepping healthy food can feel laborious and that leaving work on time can be difficult – but do it to feel good later,” says Clark. “That is the true message of self-care. It’s not about buying expensive candles and posting pictures of them on social media.
It’s about finding that sweet spot between being disciplined and being kind to yourself. Commit to that larger goal by having empathy for future you.” At the risk of paraphrasing an Insta-meme, it could be the most powerful commitment you’ll ever make.