“Self-Care” Does Not Mean “Being An Adult Toddler”

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I was reading some TFD comments yesterday when I came across this truly awesome one from TFD regular Summer, on a (great) post about self-care. Without spoiling the whole thing — you should go and read it! — I’ll cite my favorite bit: “The term has become something of a catch-all, a fantastic way to justify basically anything from random purchases to abandoning plans to shirking responsibilities. Just because you’re spending money on yourself doesn’t mean it’s ‘self-care’ anymore than being frugal means you don’t give a shit about yourself.”

I must have knocked over a glass standing up to clap at that, and at the entire idea of the ever-expanding (and often damaging) umbrella of what constitutes self-care in our culture.

You see, over the past few years, there has been a proliferation of “taking care of yourself” advice on the internet — largely on social media, but there are plenty of articles about it, too — that often seems frankly counterintuitive to one’s own long-term well-being. It’s advice that justifies essentially any activity, behavior, spending, or opting out as not just productive but morally right, if done under the guise of self-care. This new, often difficult-to-pin-down version of “self-care” seems to be generally defined as the following:

Internet Self-Care (n): The act of doing (or not doing!) literally anything, regardless of long-term consequences or impact on others, as long as it makes you feel good in the moment.

This warped definition is used to describe any act — cancelling plans, spending money on designer makeup, calling out sick from work, buying a big steak dinner, not responding to people or calling them back — as almost medicinal in nature. The theory is that your mental comfort and happiness are your highest priorities at all times, and anything that impedes them (even things generally considered social norms or professional requirements) are liable to be cut from your life, on your terms. Not answering the phone for a week is, in this language, completely justifiable as “self-care,” and moreover, a friend getting angry at you for that — or even scaling back from the friendship — is all but victimizing you for taking care of yourself.

In the language of self-care, there is only one person: You. And of course, this perception of the world immediately falls apart when we acknowledge that we are all interconnected and surrounded by people who have every right to prioritize their self-interest: friends, family, partners, employers, colleagues, etc. But it’s temporarily satisfying to put all of our decisions through the prism of just ourselves and our own needs, and positioning everyone around us as simply un-empathetic or overly demanding. Aggressive self-care theory is sort of the Monopoly money of emotional maturity: you can have as much of it as you want, but no one else actually takes the currency.

But it’s extremely satisfying in the short term (invoking self-care when we’re about to do anything from make an impulsive purchase to cancel a dreaded plan makes it suddenly feel like we’re doing something wholesome), and I also believe that it comes, on some level, from good intentions. I think that until just a few years ago, our cultural discussions around mental health, mental illness, and prioritizing oneself (especially for women) had been lacking, if not hostile. Women’s lives were so often defined by the people they cared for “selflessly,” and speaking frankly about the mental health issues that may prevent us from living exactly as we are expected to was unheard of. “Sucking it up and getting it done” seemed to be the only prescription for everything from postpartum depression to a bad headache on a work day.

And while it’s undoubtedly a good thing that our conversations around our inner lives have proliferated, the truth is that the “suck it up” method is not only often the correct prescription — going to work when you don’t feel great because you’ll really need that money or those sick days later seems like an easy example — but “sucking it up” is also, in and of itself, often a form of “self-care.” There are many times throughout our lives — throughout our days, frankly — where pushing through an unpleasant task or making the less-tempting choice is the best thing for us, long-term. And running a site about financial wellness, I see that phenomenon play out dozens of times a day. Saving money, not buying that thing that would make us feel good, taking on extra work when we’re tired, living in a less luxurious place than we could: all of these decisions in the short-term can grate on our notion of self-care, but they are all contributing to a much greater form of self-determination. These choices allow us to determine our financial future, much like taking the (sometimes tiring) effort of maintaining relationships and making efforts with people allows us to create a strong, dependable social circle that will serve us enormously throughout life.

The problem with our definition of self-care, though, is that it’s not really about what’s best for us in any macro sense. It’s about what makes us feel good. The idea is that feeling good — feeling relaxed, feeling relieved, feeling pampered or satisfied — translates to mental health. And on a very thin level, it translates to comfort, which may in some instances be the difference between continuing on and breaking down. But the truth is that feeling “good” is only one very small slice of all the emotions we need to experience in order to live a balanced, fruitful life. The American obsession with happiness as an emotional resting state, rather than just one peak and valley among many, is ultimately making us worse off in the long-term. The truth is that no human is going to be happy all, or even most, of the time, and the feelings of dissatisfaction, failure, frustration, exhaustion, sadness, disappointment, and delayed gratification are all equally important to building a longer-term balance.

We acknowledge all the time on TFD that spending money on things that bring you joy or improve your quality of life is very much a part of overall financial health and happiness, and that it can very often fall under a banner of “self-care.” But that is only true when balanced against a much more consistent record of making more responsible, longer-term-oriented choices with one’s money. Otherwise, that spending is simply a pattern of recklessness and self-sabotage, because buying everything we want to sate ourselves when we’re feeling uncomfortable or sad is a) not a solution to the problem, and b) actively harming our future selves and their options with money.

“Self-care” doesn’t, and shouldn’t, mean “what feels good in the moment,” because that is literally the emotional compass of a toddler. Self-satisfaction and happiness, when measured on a short scale, are simply giving ourselves pacifiers throughout our days as if we were teething. And while sometimes a pacifier is useful, and even necessary, the ultimate point is not to temporarily stop the whining — the point is to teach the child how to be okay with not getting exactly what he or she wants all the time. Our personal definitions of happiness should have a horizon that extends way, way past “the end of the day,” because being an adult means being able to imagine our future, and being a mature one means taking a little discomfort now in order to shape it.

Image via Unsplash

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  • Violaine

    Preach.

    Also I don’t like the whole “one size fits all” behind it. Like cancelling plan is a great advice if you’re someone who tends to do too much, but for me it’s exactly what I should avoid – I always feel enthusiastic about meeting my friends in three days, but if it’s in two hours I suddenly don’t feel like it anymore and I’d rather stay home and Netflix or read. Would it be self-care to cancel? Probably not because cancelling is my routine behaviour, which don’t actually make me happy. From time to time, it’s good to force oneself to do something we know will be good for us, even if it’s not what feel like doing right now. It’s like choosing broccoli instead of fries…

    • Samm Wechsler

      Definitely. I think forcing oneself to do something that will be good for us long term is something that should be added to the definition of self-care. It’s a good idea to exercise, cook yourself dinner, pay your bills on time, call about your appointments, finish that work project, support your friends, or update your resume, even if you don’t feel like it at that exact moment.

  • Hailey

    Maybe it’s just on my social feeds, but it seems like the same people who practice “aggressive self care” are also the ones who use the term “adulting” a lot. They (or at least their social media personas) never do anything even remotely uncomfortable, but expect a goddamn parade when they follow through with any kind of basic responsibility. Both mindsets perpetuate this idea that being “an adult toddler” is somehow acceptable. And you’re right! It distorts the ideas of legitimate self care and accomplishments.

    **I know this sounds super salty and I’m sorry!**

    • Smashley

      I think we must be friends with the same people. I absolutely hear you on this one.

    • Meg

      The problem is that when you’re severely depressed, ‘adulting’ is a fucking difficult thing. Cleaning your room, getting a chore done or taking a shower is a big deal. I have a couple friends on social media who have taken to this terminology within their tight social circles of describing these accomplishments in order to gain support from fellow friends who understand *why* these simple acts are actually so massive. Other people I know are exactly how you describe lol.

      In my own mental health stuff, there was a time when I was literally a blob who needed my partners help to get dressed in the morning or get out of bed, who couldn’t work for about six months because of how rough it was. As I go through a recovery process, which is partly me coming out of that, partly medication, partly self determination, it’s become a standard part of my every day life to ask myself whether a task is hard because I’m depressed, or the task is hard because I’m being a shit. Is the self care critical because it’s easy to do what I want now, or do I deserve to spend money on an expensive makeup item because it means that I will have motivation to make myself look good, which in turn will help me feel good and give me a boost to get going? (Eyeliner has been one of my best anti-depression tools lol)

      You’re right to be salty. I am salty. Celebrating adulting isn’t because it’s hard, it’s because it’s harder for ME (and those like me)

      • Violaine

        But surely it shouldn’t be called “adulting”, but more… “functioning”, right? I was also depressed many years ago and yes, feeding myself, showering, getting dressed… was hard and I felt quite accomplished when I could do that, but I wouldn’t call it ‘adulting”. It’s not being an adult! It’s being a healthy, balanced being. Being depressed does not make you less of an adult, it just means that these basic functions most adults can handle (getting up, going to work, following a schedule, being social, look after one’s health) really hard. I find it nearly insulting for people who suffer from depression because it implies they aren’t proper adults if they don’t do these basic things. They’re still adults! Going through a rough time.

        (I say that in general – I don’t mean to sound aggressive towards you because even though I see it differently, I can see what you mean. And best of luck in your recovery! It’s tough but you’ll get there and one day depression will only be a memory.)

        • ansuz

          “But surely it shouldn’t be called “adulting”, but more… “functioning”, right?”
          As I understand it, it’s Adulting when it’s stuff that you’re a) just learning how to do, or b) just learning how to do on your own (and learning to do things on a healthy schedule that you set and enforce yourself is a major Adulting skill, and what I see people celebrating fairly often). It’s ‘functioning’ when the things you’re doing are (or have been) routine.

          I use the term Adulting because I was nonfunctional from age 16 to age 22, and so I’m still learning (at 24, now) how to do that kind of basic shit (figure out how long my commute to school *actually* takes, and how long I *actually* take getting ready so that I can get to my classes on time; figure out how to write a vaguely professional email; etc.). I need to have a sense of humour about the fact that I’m essentially six years behind other people my age in terms of life skills*; it’s self-care (which I define as safeguarding my mental and emotional wellbeing).

          *I did learn some life skills, like How To Have Feelings And Deal With Them In A Healthy Way, but that’s only visible in the recent absence of public crying/puking instances in my life and very few people notice that.

          • B Grooms

            I can definitely relate to the spending thing with depression. As someone who chronically struggles with suicidal depression, I have spent a lot of money on “prizes” for surviving the day. Or I would justify large purchases by saying that I did that instead of dying, which is what I wanted to do. I don’t want to be too critical of how I handled those extremely low moments because of how life-or-death the situation was. However, now that I am a little less extremely on survival mode, I am trying to regain a sense of financial discipline. I am in a sense relearning how to take care of my current and future self. I want to extend gentleness and compassion to my whole self by not neglecting care to the person I want to be in the future.

          • Jay0623

            I can relate to the mental health angle on this, too! “Spending money on prizes for surviving the day” is a very real thing, and I did that a lot in my late teens/early twenties because I didn’t have any better coping mechanisms. It was a huge milestone and sign of growth/stability, getting to the point where I could acknowledge that self-care meant taking care of my future self, too, even if that may be unpleasant in the moment. And, of course, that required getting my mental health to the place where I COULD handle that calculus, extrapolate out from that present discomfort to the bigger goals. When you’re mired in a broken brain, that’s math that can be nearly impossible to do. It’s something called “executive dysfunction,” and it’s common with a lot of mental health/learning disorders — you can see the bigger picture from an abstract angle, but translating that into the discrete steps to get there is like pulling teeth. When living through that, “self care” feels like whatever is easiest in the moment, even if it makes your future life a lot harder.

      • Hailey

        You’re right! I’ve never suffered from depression, but I can only imagine how hard it makes completing seemingly “everyday” tasks. My interpretation was that this article was pointing the finger more at those who are using these ideas to postpone adulthood. I really hope that those who actually need to practice self care and celebrate “adulting” (as much as I dislike that word) do so when it’s actively helping them. My saltiness comes from seeing perfectly healthy (I assume) and capable adults using these terms to shirk their responsibilities.

        I’m so glad to hear you’ve found a treatment plan that’s working well for you. And you’re right that I should keep those who suffer from mental illness in mind when I start getting salty–my apologies. (And girl, love me a killer cat eye when I’m feeling down.)

        • Violaine

          I understood that too – pretty sure it was more about being “irresponsible” with money (i.e splurging on a new handbag and cocktails because of “self care” instead of investing that money/ spending it towards something productive) than about mental health.

      • jdub

        YES. I lived with someone who suffered from severe depression, so I totally get how it can be a huge struggle to even find the motivation to shower, let alone take proper care of yourself on a daily basis. That should definitely be celebrated and you should be proud that you can overcome it any day that you are able to.

        However my brother celebrates his “adulting” and it drives me up the fucking wall. You paid your bills on time AND made yourself a healthy meal at least 3 times this past week? Congratulations, you’re a functioning adult. You’re also 31 and do not suffer from anything debilitating that would prevent you from doing so, so I’m not going to throw you a parade for it.

    • Samm Wechsler

      “Adulting” is the worst word ever in history and I will disparage it until my dying breath. For real though, I’m disabled and I can go about my life without mentioning every single regular task on the internet.

    • Judith

      I think acknowledging the word “adulting” is a useful thing because it gives form to the “Wooow, responsibilities… Now, hoooow do I do it??” feeling that I think scares the shit out of everyone in their early 20s. Acknowledging that feeling helps a lot (heh, would’ve helped me a lot) because it makes you realise that everyone feels the same and it’s okay, it’s got gonna magically change unless you work for it and deal with it.
      On the other hand, when used too much, it’s nothing more than an excuse and something to hide behind comfortably so you don’t have to “deal with it”.

  • Hana

    “Aggressive self-care theory is sort of the Monopoly money of emotional maturity: you can have as much of it as you want, but no one else actually takes the currency.” Bahaha, yes! So well put. So many sentiments in this article I heartily appreciate.

    I like that you acknowledge that the often obnoxious, ever-expanding concept of self-care originates from good intentions–a certain degree of self-care is truly important! And yet sometimes “self-care” seems like a euphemism for “selfish.” The term is simultaneously broad while also missing the mark/neglecting to include many acts that actually ought to fall under the “self-care” categorization, like investing in what will bring meaning to one’s future self and their well-being.

  • nancxpants

    I have a lot of friends who take this mentality, and fell into the habit myself for my last few semesters of college and the depressive spiral of those first post-grad months. But no matter how many phone calls I screened or late night diner runs I charged to my credit card, I didn’t feel any ~better~, just guilty. What I’ve found really helpful since then is to have some go-to options that have little to no cost but that I know will help. Now, instead of using a bad mood to justify my every whim, I have a game plan. I also made sure that list includes things that help me wrap my head around what is stressing me out, like breaking down a to-do list or cleaning my room, simple tasks that help my not feel as overwhelmed moving forward.

    But, like you said, this trend does have its roots in good intentions. I know it was hard for me and many people I know to spend any time (or money) on ourselves when there are things we *should* be doing, despite the
    fact that we were burning ourselves out trying to do those things. Even if it’s not a healthy attitude to have in the long-term, having a community that gave me permission to take care of myself first served as a stepping stone towards learning how to balance what I need and what others need from me.

  • Kathleen Murphy

    “Saving money, not buying that thing that would make us feel good, taking on extra work when we’re tired, living in a less luxurious place than we could: all of these decisions in the short-term can grate on our notion of self-care, but they are all contributing to a much greater form of self-determination.” Brb, having that printed in a cute font, framing it with a floral wreath, and hanging it above my desk at home.

    I’m currently working a job I’m deeply dissatisfied with, and fantasize daily about switching industries and upping my freelance game. Last week after a particularly hard day, rather that using that as inspiration to go home, update my LinkedIn profile and pitch a few more gigs, I bought a new lipstick at the MAC store below my office.

    Why?

    Partially because it’s the shade Phoebe Waller-Bridge wears in Fleabag, and but mostly because “self care.”

    Buying things for emotional ballast isn’t making me any happier. It’s pacifying me while I make no headway toward the life I want. So much love to TFD for calling out this type of nonsense.

  • Summer

    eep! Feeling excessively honored that my comment made it to your twitter feed AND a post~~~

    Excellent piece, per usual. I think being uncomfortable is sometimes precisely what we need most, whether it’s for the security of our financial future or simply to grow as a person. Living according to our every fleeting whim is both unrealistic and self-defeating.

  • Savanna Swain

    I couldn’t agree more with this article!!! I love the ending paragraph because the toddler comparison is spot on.
    If you had a child or even a puppy you could feed them cookies and treats all day, let them do whatever they want & let them be happy… Allow yourself to be the “fun parent” Sure, they would adore you. But would that be good for their overall well-being, when in a few years their severerly unhealthy?? Absolutely not.
    You have to parent yourself, as weird as that sounds. The “freedom” to make decisions as an adult doesn’t come with a promise that every choice you make will be a fun one.

  • TinFL

    I agree with this article and the comments. I think self-care is about balance and intention. But it’s all easier said than done in my own experience, and I do struggle with deciding when to prioritize YOLO and when to value grit!

    If there are areas in our lives where we are un-balanced (working too many hours, partying too much, being anti-social, overextending oneself socially, shopping too much, practicing anxiety-based frugality), self-care may be a response to those extremes. It’s going to look different for everyone.

    Intentionality is important too – not just giving way to an impulsive desire to do something that feels good right then, but thinking about what changes would really benefit your life. For example, throughout the years my husband and I have sometimes let ourselves get stretched too thin by competing family demands around the holidays, and sometimes we reacted selfishly after getting stressed out. We would end a trip to our hometown abruptly, practically running away under the cover of darkness, when our relatives thought we were staying with them for another day or two, and they’d get upset. Later, a good article on self-care made me realize we could go into the holidays with a mindset that’s both loving and gracious to our families while still protecting our own sanity – being open to putting in the time (and, yes, sometimes emotional labor) with different households, but setting clear boundaries in advance for the length of our trip, our preferred overnight accommodations, not getting pulled into family arguments, etc. Similarly, I am declining an upcoming family trip because for my last two vacations, I went on family trips, and I’ll go on more in the future, and I am longing for some stay-cation time.

    There’s a quote in Big Magic (I think it might actually be biblical in origin?), “Be childlike, not childish,” that has been a mantra of mine this year. My hubby does a good job of reeling me back from worrying too much about what everyone else thinks, and I truly thank him for helping me develop a stronger backbone. But sometimes, I show him the value of “inconveniencing” ourselves and investing in our relationships to other people too.

    This is just one angle of self-care that’s on my mind, I could go on forever in a lot of different directions!

  • Declan

    *preach emoji for days*

    This is so so so good. Just to add to the other comments, the same people that use the phrase “adulting” loosely and practice aggressive self-care are the same ones who have hijacked Chelsea’s #totalhonestytuesday.

    I think it is the best and most important hashtag on the internet, and most people use it correctly and show imperfections in life. However, every so often, you get a post along the lines of “I didn’t clean my room today, but that’s ok because I need to take care of myself and sometimes life is hard.” And without any genuine disablement which would make it difficult for them to clean their room, it is just humble brag BS and they should just clean their fucking room!

  • Mj D’Arco

    ah us millenials, special snowflakes who can’t be stressed, can’t be bothered to step out of the little bubble, and can’t see beyond the tip of our nose… and when that bubble burst and we realize the world doesn’t care of our feelings and sensibilities, man it’s going to suck

  • Shelby

    I think, what this really comes down to, is that we have confused “self-care” with “treat yo self”. This is not a thesaurus and these are not mutually exclusive terms.

    • Summer

      I’ve thought the same thing. There’s definitely a difference and people seem to have forgotten that. It’s no longer a “treat” if you’re doing/buying/getting exactly what you want at all times.

  • Emily

    Preach, Chelsea!

  • Emma

    To me, real self-care is balancing the needs of your present self and your future self, which is something you touched on a bit in this post. If you lean too heavily in either direction, that’s not taking care of yourself (your whole self, present and future).
    What you’re describing just sounds like all present self, all the time. I actually lean the other way and am usually more focused on my future self. Sometimes too much so, like when I’m sick and still go to work (aka right now).

  • Capricious Feline

    This post and the comments are very interesting to me, both because I agree with a lot of what has been said, and also because I think some terms have been confused.
    I suffer from major depression and severe anxiety. It can come in waves, and “adulting” and “self-care” are both parts of how I refer to some of my coping skills, but my usage seems very far from what’s implied here.

    Thankfully in the last few years, there is much more awareness about mental health and how debilitating it can be, but there is still a pretty significant stigma around discussing the day to day struggles and how you cope with them. The blending of that stigma with social media is where I perceived the rise of both terms, though their usage has definitely morphed to encompass other concepts along the way.

    I use adulting to mean pushing through and conquering/accomplishing something that my depression or anxiety impedes me from doing easily. An example might be going to the grocery store and purchasing ingredients to cook myself a relatively healthy dinner, even though my depression is very, very sure we should get a $5 Little Caesar’s pizza and eat it all under a blanket on the couch. Another example might be handling tasks which must be taken care of in person or via telephone. As a former big city girl with social anxiety (especially centered around phones), having to call the landlord to put in a maintenance request or go in person to an actual office to replace a broken cable remote can be really scary and challenging. In my personal experience, people who have mental illness often feel it renders them “less of an adult” because society says they “should” be able to do these things with no problem.

    As far as self care, I’ve never really associated it with making extravagant purchases or regularly flaking out on plans. I know many people with mental health issues, and none of them associate momentary pleasure with happiness. Practicing self care comes in many guises. For me, it might be turning down an invitation to attend a concert because even though I would love spending the time with my friends, I would end up overstimulated and anxious from the crowds and noise. It might mean taking a social media and phone break. Or, like today, it might mean buying a puffy purse charm from Walmart for under $5, because even though it’s not a need, it makes me smile every single time I see it, and smiles are few and far between these days.

  • Hell No

    Did you mean “internal” instead of “internet self-care?” Because that didn’t make any sense.

  • Allison Dyjach

    Just got around to reading this article as it popped up on the side bar. This is written so perfectly. Such an important message to remember that taking care of yourself also means practicing self control and pushing yourself to work hard.

    Interestingly enough, my partner and I use the term “self care” in almost an opposite sense. To me self care isn’t about lazing around and giving into impulses; it is about working hard to make sure you are the best version of yourself and getting. shiz. done. When we make a great healthy dinner for ourselves, force ourselves to do dishes before bed, or clean the apartment, we proudly snapchat each other with #selfcarewin. Self care does not mean getting McDonalds because you “deseeeeerve” a night off from cooking; self care means you actually take 30 minutes to make yourself a full on meal with veggies and healthy choices because that’s what your body needs and deserves.

  • This is one of those times where I have to ask “who is we?” Because while I agree with 100% of the advice here, it feels a lot like tilting at windmills. Perhaps it is because I have spend the better part of three years curating a very specific internet presence and network, but I have literally never seen “self-care” used in this way. Never. It is another black feminist theory divorced from its roots. Self-care is about mental and physical restoration, not indulgence, and there’s a reason Audre Lorde called it an act of political warfare. And I appreciate that you distinguished between “self-care” and “internet self-care” but this still very much feels like the dustup that happened when white women discovered the term “basic,” gave it a brand new, inaccurate definition, and then decided they no longer liked being called “basic” so they then decried it as misogynistic hate speech. I mean… I think a better approach might be clarifying what self-care IS rather than what it’s not. Because self-care is important, and it’s going to be even more needed in the next four years.