Do not Google “self-care.” Especially if you feel like you need to take better care of yourself. Sadly, if you are interested in better care of yourself, you have probably already engaged in this unhelpful web search. Like most women who have undertaken this journey down the self-care rabbit hole, you may have found that the journey to get better at self-care made you feel worse about yourself and your ability to take care of yourself.
A Google search on “self-care” nets approximately 250 million hits. How many women have Googled self-care for ideas on how to feel better and ended up feeling worse after we started? How did the notion of self-care become something to avoid instead of embrace? When did the idea of self-care become more harmful than helpful?
The Radical Roots of Self Care
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Audre Lorde
Before self-care became an Instagram hashtag, it was a radical idea of resistance in the 1960s touted by Black liberation voices. The concept of caring for yourself as a survival and political liberation strategy was integrated into the Black Panther Party’s community empowerment message and advocated by Black feminist poets like Audre Lorde.
These radical roots of self-care acknowledged the harm caused when the world around you did not care about you and the necessity of caring for yourself to resist oppression. Self-care in the 1960s was not about feeling better. It was about survival.
Lorde explains, “We draw on our creativity, celebrate our culture, wisdom, authenticity, and experience liberation and lightness in body and soul. We reconnect to our innate healing and bring community-based healing as an antidote to community-based trauma. As we dare to move, we see ourselves for who we are rather than how the world positions us. Honoring our beauty and worth and prioritizing our needs and wellbeing becomes self-care as a radical act.”
Self-care as an act of self-preservation in a world that traumatized you is not the notion of self-care we are bombarded with today. The connection to the radical roots of resistance and liberation has given way to self-care checklists that - from what I can tell - are not even rooted in the experiences of people writing the lists.
To truly exercise self-care, we need to remember the radical roots of self-care. These roots remind us that self-care is about liberation from rules you weren’t a part of, creating and living an authentic life that relies on your innate healing wisdom.
Self-Care Cannot Begin in the Middle
Most self-care checklists are more harmful than helpful because they don’t honor the primary principle of self-care - you will not thrive in a world that was not created for your success. If you want to thrive, you must take care of yourself in a way that honors your definition of self and success.
The 250 million hits on Google get you lists to suggest that “Self-care activities range from physical activities such as exercising and eating healthy, to mental activities such as reading a book or practicing mindfulness, to spiritual or social activities such as praying or catching lunch with a friend. The important thing to remember about self-care is that it is about listening to what your mind and body need.” Nothing is inherently wrong with this list - these things are generally good for you.
The list tells you to listen to what your mind and body need, but it doesn’t tell you that nothing on the list will work if the environment is not conducive to your mental or physical health. The list doesn’t ask you to differentiate exhaustion from the chronic stress experienced by operating in systems that don’t prioritize or even care about your mental or physical health.
Most of the self-care lists we encounter today start in the middle of the story - they start with you being exhausted or unwell and purport to tell you how to feel more energized and well. But beginning in the middle ignores what got you exhausted and unwell in the first place, and it leaves out the essential point that even if you self-care your way out of exhaustion and unwellness, you will end up right back where you started because the causes of the exhaustion and unwellness have not changed.
Last year, I was coaching a successful partner in a private equity firm who reached out to me because she felt burned out and unmotivated. She wanted to explore energy management principles to reconnect to her work, colleagues, clients, and firm. “I just need to get out of this rut I’m in,” she told me in our first session. She told me that she had tried several self-care strategies she had received from her therapist, but they hadn’t worked for her.
I asked her to close her eyes and imagine that she was in a canoe on a beautiful lake when she noticed a small hole in the side of the canoe through which water was slowly flowing into the canoe. I asked her to visualize herself grabbing a small cup, scooping out the canoe water, and putting it back into the lake. I asked her to imagine how she would feel after doing this for several hours. “Exhausted! I can’t even enjoy being out here on this beautiful lake if all I’m doing is scooping out water in this leaky canoe.” I then asked her to fully feel that exhaustion - the physical fatigue of engaging in scooping out the water, the mental frustration in not being able to enjoy the lake, and the emotional frustration of not knowing when the scooping would end.
The self-care lists we encounter today begin in the middle. They begin with us being exhausted from scooping out the water from a leaky canoe, and they suggest that if we worked out regularly, we would have more strength to do this all day long. If we took a bath after hours of scooping out the water, we would feel refreshed and have the energy we need to return to the scooping. What the lists don’t tell us is that real self-care isn’t feeling better and more energized about scooping water out of a leaky canoe; real self-care, the kind that Audre Lorde was talking about, is about patching that damn hole in the canoe so that you don’t have to keep scooping out the water perpetually.
Beginning in the middle validates the exhaustion and unwellness as natural and inevitable. Beginning at the beginning allows us to question how we can patch the hole or why we aren’t ditching this leaky canoe for a non-leaky one as soon as possible.
Self-Care, Starting at the Beginning
Nothing in any self-care lists I’ve seen is necessarily bad for you. But, what I’ve seen in many self-care lists doesn’t challenge the root causes of why you are chronically exhausted to the point of burning out. If self-care lists are teaching us to revive ourselves so that we can keep scooping out water from a leaky canoe, are they helpful to us in the long run? Shouldn’t we be talking about patching the hole or switching canoes?
Before you engage in self-care to recover from exhaustion, begin at the beginning and ask yourself why you got exhausted in the first place? Is it unrealistic expectations of achievement in the organization? Is it your unrealistic expectations of what you should be achieving? How are you defining success? Is it your definition, or did you adopt someone else’s definition without reflecting on your needs and wants?
Beginning at the beginning allows you to question how you ended up in that canoe and if that leaky canoe is your only option to move forward. Being tired from paddling a canoe that you want to be paddling is different than being exhausted from scooping out water from a leaky canoe. Self-care will work to recalibrate your energy levels in the first scenario. Still, it won’t help you feel better in the second scenario because the work of feeling better will never end since the cause of exhaustion is never-ending.
Real Self Care for the Real World
If you want to practice real self-care in the real world, honor the roots of self-care by challenging the root causes of exhaustion or unwellness. Sometimes we don’t have the option of getting out of that leaky canoe, but we may have some creative options to fix the leak. If fixing the leak isn’t an option, we can accept the reality of ongoing water scooping and go about our work with both the grace of acceptance and the recognition that we need to be on the lookout for getting out of this canoe as soon as possible.
So, Here’s My List:
- Identify what is draining your energy and exhausting you.
- Ask yourself if the energy drain is inevitable or if it can be avoided.
- If the energy drain is avoidable, plan to avoid it in the future.
- If the energy drain is inevitable, identify the energy renewal strategies to help you replenish what is drained daily.
- Then, plan to change your environment to one where this kind of energy drain is not inevitable.