his summer, amid fresh reports of terrorist attacks and two volatile presidential conventions, the Huffington Post helpfully offered its readers “Six Things Obama Can Teach Us About Self-Care in Stressful Times”—like “block off time for the people you love” and “keep things in perspective.”
Evidently, in our overly anxious times, one of the obligations of the leader of the free world is to serve as a role model for our culture’s latest therapeutic panacea: “self-care.”
Self-care is less an organized industry than it is an emerging (and maddeningly vague) philosophy of life that is gaining ever larger numbers of devotees, especially online. Tumblr features many posts tagged “self-care” that include advice such as “You are valid” and “Fall deeply in love with yourself.” There are “self-care band-aid tattoos” on offer from a company called Motivational Tattoo that feature uplifting reminders such as “I am enough” and “Calm.”
Online you can also find countless self-care “check-in questionnaires” that encourage participants to pause throughout the day to ask themselves important questions on the order of “Do I need to cry?” and “Am I feeling safe?” A website called The Hairpin has a dedicated self-care column that proffers advice and interviews people about their elaborate self-care rituals. The TED empire has even curated a “playlist” of talks that encourage self-care, such as Guy Winch’s advice on “emotional first aid” and Kelly McGonigal on “How to Make Stress Your Friend.”
Building on the decades-long growth of the happiness industry, which has brought the world corporate “chief happiness officers” and on-site office napping pods, self-care has emerged as the perfectly soothing remedy for our new age of anxiety. It offers a conveniently flattering rationale for our growing feelings of powerlessness and the resulting desire to retreat inward. We’re not entitled, lazy, or merely misguided; we’re “struggling with self-care,” as one online questionnaire described it.
Self-care is not to be confused with that other cultural trend, mindfulness. In theory, mindfulness encourages its practitioners to notice what is happening around them so that they might more fully experience life; such noticing (along with practices such as mindfulness meditation) is also believed to help encourage the development of empathy. By contrast, the self-care ethos says that what matters most isn’t what’s going on around you but you and your feelings. Perhaps this is why self-care is popular on social media. Instagram is rife with #selfcare posts and @selfcaremantras that feature people relaxing in bubble baths and performing other rigorous acts of wellness.
If self-care remained the province of crystal-wielding healers and social-media celebrities, it would, like the craze for matcha tea, soon fade. But the ethos of self-care is finding its way into the broader culture, with disturbing results. Like the word “diversity,” the seemingly innocuous phrase “self-care” is politically freighted both because it is difficult to challenge—for after all, who could be against taking care of yourself?—and because it mistakes self-indulgence for self-reliance.
The self-care message is pernicious because it shifts responsibility away from what you can do for yourself and toward the supposedly terrible things the world is doing to you.
But the left’s criticism of self-care is as misguided as the philosophy itself. It implies that the ethos of hard work and rugged individualism that has formed the basis for much of America’s success is a con rather than a reality. As one self-care advocate wrote on Lifehacker, “Most of us grew up believing that the more you sacrifice, the bigger the reward.” That was, evidently, a lie. “It’s easy to take the ‘hard work pays off’ adage too far, to the point that it becomes counterproductive.” But “hard work pays off” isn’t an adage, it’s a value statement, and alas, it’s one whose power has faded in recent years.
In many ways both the self-care worldview and its critics on the left are the logical consequence of the navel-gazing therapy culture Christopher Lasch first identified in 1979’s The Culture of Narcissism. It’s logical that the new self-care industry would co-opt and define down the language of “recovery,” for example, just as the left has commandeered the word “victim.” For advocates of self-care, recovery doesn’t mean bouncing back from a serious drug addiction or major surgery. They’re recovering from having to navigate the realities of adulthood. Experiences that previous generations understood as part of life’s sometimes unpleasant facts, like having to save money, have become the subject of freak-show fascination today; this is why we have a reality television show called “Extreme Couponing.”
s one self-care Tumblr post advised, “Learn to say no to things and people that make you unhappy.” But much of what makes a person a functioning adult in society isn’t going to make anyone happy (such as paying your mortgage or your taxes). Another typical self-care questionnaire asks if you feel “dissociated, depersonalized, derealized” in everyday life, which sounds like a perfect description of the experience of going to the DMV, for example, or dealing with any form of bureaucracy, but hardly a rallying cry for a movement dedicated to strengthening the self.
The real question is why the modern person’s sense of self has become so fragile that it can’t cope with the mundane experience of unhappiness. Self-care doesn’t encourage the development of self in the sense that we have long understood it (such as David Hume’s notion of the self as a kind of commonwealth or David Riesman’s taxonomy of inner-directed and other-directed individuals). It isn’t part of a larger project of self-knowledge intended to make us better people; it just wants us to feel comfortable.
We are uneasy about the seductive quality of these ideas, and our unease is made clear by the allure of popular entertainment about extreme behavior, such as our love of shows like Naked and Afraid and fashionable social-science theories about “grit.” We tend to fetishize things only once they have begun to disappear.
For conservatives, the self-care message is pernicious because it shifts responsibility away from what you can do for yourself (undermining values such as self-reliance, individualism, service, and entrepreneurial spirit) and toward the supposedly terrible things the world is doing to you. Unhealthy? Must be the fault of the industrial food lobby that makes so much bad processed food. Stressed out? Definitely the fault of your employer, who should give you more paid personal days off. The self-care ethos elevates feelings over action and embraces the pursuit of self-satisfaction as an end in itself, encouraging a rather masturbatory approach to civic life. It traffics in the language of retreat rather than resilience; self-care advocates urge you to “protect” your schedule, “defend” your me-time.
Is it surprising that a generation being reared on a message of self-care rather than self-reliance would view “safe spaces” as an entitlement and the offensive, the odd, and the politically incorrect as tangibly threatening to their health? No, but such campaigns against singularity for the purposes of collective “self-care” will leave them unprepared to face reality. A nation of people whose reaction to stress is to self-care by journaling using their “feeling words” isn’t going to be prepared to handle the challenges of what is likely to be a long battle against global terrorism or economic and political upheaval.