Some people fill their social media feeds with pictures of self-care activities. They proudly preach the necessities of self-care. (“Some people” includes me.) Yet, self-care is more than an act to be observed, it is an internal art to witness. Without understanding the art of self-care, we face the risks of self-abandonment and self-harm There is a dark side to the concept of self-care. You may be reading this and wondering, “Self-care has a dark side?” Let’s explore.

As a parent and a psychotherapist, I hear many personal and professional calls to practice self-care. Essentially, self-care refers to the act (and art) of taking care of one’s (whole) self. You have likely heard the common recommendation to put on your own air mask before tending to others. I agree with the concept in general. I also suggest that not all air masks look the same. Not all air masks supply the oxygen we are needing.

There are a few myths I want to bust as we explore the dark side of self-care.

Myth One: Self-care is pleasant.

In my experience, self-care doesn’t always feel good. Sometimes, self-care requires that we bury our losses and water them with our tears. Self-care can mean a good ugly cry. In fact, if a “self-care” act serves as a distraction from our feelings, it may be the opposite of what we are needing to take care of ourselves.

Darkside: The risk here is that we use the concept of self-care to push us further away from what we are needing to grow and heal.

Example: Daily trips to a bakery to buy treats as a distraction from feeling sadness and grief related to the loss of a dear friend.

Option: Spend time in a place and/or with people with whom it feels safe to cry and mourn the loss. It is ok to nurture ourselves through difficult feelings. We need to also be aware of what hinders feeling difficult feelings so we can tend to and resolve them.

Truth: Self-care is the art of tending to our whole self, which includes making space for feeling all of our feelings, even the unpleasant ones. The more we avoid tending to and feeling these emotions, the louder they scream.

Myth Two: Self-care is nurturing.

Self-care can involve nurturing. It can also involve structure. Nurture and structure balance each other. Both are necessary for healthy growth and development. Sometimes, caring for ourselves means putting in place boundaries that feel safe and protective.

Darkside: The risk here is saying yes to something that looks like self-care but is really self- or even soul-harm.

Example: Colleagues invite you to the spa, but you don’t like their tendency to spend time together laughing and putting down others.

Option: Knowing that you don’t like the way you feel around this group of people, say no thank you. Spend time alone. Or spend it with friends who lift you up without putting other people down.

Another Option: If this sort of thing does feel like self-care, dig deeper. Find out what you might be avoiding inside of you by putting others down.

Truth: There are many ways to take care of ourselves. Nurture and structure and equally important. The structure and boundary provided in the word no are as important as the nurturing that comes with the word yes. Saying no is as important as saying yes. The art of self-care involves saying no sometimes to ourselves and sometimes to others. 

Myth Three: Self-care is up to me alone.

Ultimately, our self-care is our responsibility. And we can find friends, partners, workplaces, communities, etc., that are supportive. We don’t have to do it alone and, in my experience, we can’t do it alone.

This was the essence of a viral Facebook post by Nakita Valerio that read, “Shouting ‘self-care’ at people who actually need ‘community care’ is how we fail people.”

Darkside: The risk here is discounting our essential human need for each other and community. We can also discount our responsibility to one another and to create a fair and just world for all. We neglect our own interlocking needs with the community.

Example: Living in a reality that requires you to work two jobs to make ends meet and forces you to choose between putting food on the table and healthcare for your child.

Option: To me, this option is for the rest of us. Let’s see ourselves in each others’ eyes. Let’s know that we are in this together. Let’s reach out to one another.

Truth: We can actualize our natural propensity to be caring, loving, and connected by building a world that is better for all — that tends to everyone’s needs. It is not fair to tell people to take care of themselves while cocreating an unjust overburdensome world. 

Myth Four: Self-care is about me.

It seems intuitive that self-care is all about me and tending to my needs. In reality, I have found that one of the best things I can do for myself is to help others. Belonging and acts of service tend to our fundamental human needs for connection and safety.

Darkside: The risk in thinking that self-care is all about me is missing out on the benefits of feeling part of something bigger.

Example: Saving all your money for something that you really want for yourself.

Option: Spending the saved money to help others instead. Read this story about a little boy who used his saved money to buy hotdogs for people fleeing a hurricane.

Truth: The feeling of belonging to something greater than we are–such as community–is an ultimate self-care experience.

In Summary

These are just a few myths that have come up as I’ve explored the dark side of self-care. I hope that I have prompted you to think about the role of care and self-care in your life. I hope that I have helped you to view yourself as belonging to something bigger and greater than you are. You are not in this alone. We are in this together. Let’s take care of each other and build a life and world from which nobody feels the need to escape.

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