Not All Self-Care is Created Equal

Despite the buzzword status of the phrase “self-care” these days, I think U.S. dominant culture has a pretty screwy idea of what self-care actually means. This phenomenon is what I’ve started calling “remedial self-care.” It’s the half bottle of wine and three hours of Netflix every night to take the edge off a too-long workday full of unreasonable deadlines that left no room to cook an actual dinner rather than eat saltines and peanut butter in front of the TV. Or the long weekend in Vegas that’s supposed to relieve three months of randomly-crying-in-the-bathroom-stall stress that’s been building up amid OkCupid disasters, roommate drama, office politics, and unanswered passive-aggressive voicemails from parents.  

What I’m calling remedial self-care is the lifestyle equivalent of depositing that $35 in your checking account to cover the overdraft fee you just incurred. Overdraft fees are the worst; they punish you for having an empty bank account by driving your balance further into the red, like you needed that extra kick when you were down. But if you see that -$35 balance and deposit $35 back in to cover it, well, then you’re at $0. Which means the next purchase you make with your ATM card, even if it’s just a pack of gum at the corner store, will send you back into the negative, incurring yet another $35 overdraft fee. So that pack of gum actually just cost you $36.59, and you’re back where you started: at zero, with no reserves.

If we treat self-care as resetting to zero when we’ve overdrawn our emotional, mental, or physical resources—in other words, simply paying the overdraft fee—then how can we ever hope to start building that nest egg that our parents’ generation keeps telling us we’re supposed to have? The one that will let us take that big vacation we’ve been dreaming about, or buy a house, or change careers with a safety net in place? We’ll just be paying fees for the rest of our lives, making the banks richer but staying at zero, without room to think about what we could be building rather than just recovering from

Remedial self-care is basically the least we can do for ourselves. It’s self-care that’s focused on survival. Don’t get me wrong, survival is no small feat, especially for those of us facing multiple axes of oppression—AND I want you to get to dream bigger than that.

Yes, for sure we need reminders to drink water and eat something when we realize we can barely restrain ourselves from taking a baseball bat to the fax machine. When we feel utterly crushed by life to the point where we can’t think straight, some basic protocol is super helpful. But what if we didn’t have to hit rock bottom so frequently? What if we could build up enough resilience that the baseball bat fantasy happened only a couple of times a year instead of every week? What if we could save up all those $35 fees and get to invest in something we actually wanted?

That’s what progressive self-care is for, and my wish is for us to value it as much as the remedial kind. Figuring out the difference is a crucial part of learning how to build a life that feels not just survivable but nourishing, rewarding, and at least occasionally awesome. 

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