Is ‘self-care’ just another way to say ‘selfish’?

Zoya Patel 22 December 2020 15

Self-care is a concept that is only really possible in the context of first-world, middle-class privilege. Photo: File.

The term ‘self-care’ could be considered a defining feature of millennial identity.

The notion that putting yourself and your wellbeing first, and actively protecting yourself from the strains and drains of modern life, is one that many of my generation have embraced with gusto.

Self-care can look like any number of things. Taking a bath after a long day of work. Eating healthy food OR eating unhealthy food, because you’re choosing to absolve yourself of the negative feelings of guilt or shame usually associated with it, as an act of self-care. Deciding to forego a social outing in favour of self-care, which could mean sitting in bed with a cheeseburger and Netflix instead. Or doing yoga every morning, meditating before bed, exercising regularly.

Ultimately, the concept of ‘self-care’ is based on prioritising your needs and wellbeing, actively and unapologetically.

I wouldn’t be the first commentator to point out that self-care is a concept that is only really possible in the context of first-world, middle-class privilege.

My parents have no notion of self-care because they’re both immigrants who grew up in a developing country in circumstances of poverty, where basic necessities were scarce. So the luxury of caring for oneself at the expense of working for money or productively contributing to the household was unheard of.

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Similarly, for many Australians who aren’t privileged with free time and spare income, the idea of choosing themselves over their obligations to things like work, study, and other people’s expectations, is probably absurd.

And in the way the term has come to be interpreted in contemporary contexts, it really is about choosing oneself over others.

I have friends who have taken sick days as an act of ‘self-care’ because, by their justification, the frustration of covering their work that will fall to the rest of their team is justified in their quest for peace and respite when they’re feeling a bit ‘burnt out’. They’re taking care of themselves. It’s completely valid and, in fact, should be applauded. It’s not an act of laziness, but an act of empowerment.

Similarly, a friend who has been frankly terrible when it comes to communication, empathy and being available to her networks all year has advised that this was because her work and (optional) extracurriculars were so demanding, she was exercising self-care in choosing not to reply to messages or be actively present in her friends’ lives.

To me, both of the above acts aren’t about self-care, they’re about self-indulgence.

Taking unwarranted time off work with no notice when you’re not genuinely ill or incapacitated is selfish and impacts your colleagues. Yes, mental health is vital and a very valid reason to use personal leave allowances. But in this friend’s case, she was hungover and tired from a weekend of voluntary travel. I’m sure most of us would prefer a day off to heading into work on occasion, but we show up because we know that reliability is important to workplaces and it’s the right thing to do.

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Similarly, we all have to take time away from our friends and relationships when other priorities impose on our time. But dressing it up as ‘self-care’ is a smug way of saying that you just care more about yourself than the friends you neglected – which is a choice people can make, but they shouldn’t expect to be validated for it.

Ultimately, it’s a free country and people can choose to exercise self-care however they please. I understand this, and that for some people the way they do that will have negative impacts on others, which they simply won’t care about.

It’s more the tone of self-righteousness around the self-care rhetoric that annoys me. It reinforces the idea that the most important thing in society is the individual, not community, and that we should be prioritising our own needs without regard for others. In fact, putting ourselves first is a generous act of caring (if only for yourself) that should be applauded.

I’m calling self-care out for what it is – another way to pathologise and justify a selfish, entitled approach to wellbeing that places empathy and compassion below satisfying our own needs.

It could be argued that one of the driving forces behind economic and social inequality is a tendency to put ourselves first and over others. The only way to counterbalance this is to question this cult of the individual and promote a community approach to wellbeing in its place.

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15 Responses to Is ‘self-care’ just another way to say ‘selfish’?
Tracy Robinson Tracy Robinson 7:46 pm 26 Dec 20

I must be extremely selfish then. I walk and do yoga. I take baths. I meditate.

Never mind that I also go to work and wash and clean and iron and pay the bills etc etc...

But taking time for my self is indulgent and selfish?

Yeah nup...

I gave and give enough of myself to others.

I’m not going to work myself to death for a golden box in the ground.

Lloyd Judd Lloyd Judd 8:12 pm 25 Dec 20

The authors anecdote about her parents, could be interpreted as glorifying poverty. This is one of the tensions in our society that goes back to our judaeo-Christian texts and is also evident in socialism- That being wealthy is somehow immoral.
I recall from my uni days 30 years ago that my business lecturer said that one of the key differences between western and Asian societies was the primacy given to the rights of the individual over the collective, whether that be clan, community or nation. He seemed to think that on balance it was a positive. I thought his perspective was especially interesting as he was himself an immigrant from India. I wonder if this may have had something to do with the author’s parents decision to immigrate to Australia?

Russell Nankervis Russell Nankervis 7:29 am 25 Dec 20

Considering we live in a world where work can follow you home via E-mails and texts and we have to work harder to earn a living wage it makes sense to try and look after ourselves. Our bosses sure as hell won't unless it makes them money. It is a privileged position to be in to take time off work but taking time to do stuff for yourself is not wrong. Taking time to help others is not frowned upon either.

Pari Gilmour Pari Gilmour 5:20 pm 24 Dec 20

totally agree. Glad this is being brought into the open. There is self care and ‘self-care’. And ‘self-care’ dependency. That is the one to watch out for! 😂

Lauryn Roberts Lauryn Roberts 12:39 pm 24 Dec 20

Wow. Depends what level of self care I guess...

but consider some people still don’t have food or clean water or toilets... then consider what self care should cover...

Jo Cooper Jo Cooper 11:46 am 24 Dec 20

The examples given in the article are not self-care but self-ish

Jane Rosewarne Jane Rosewarne 11:43 am 24 Dec 20

Tone of self-righteousness throughout this article. At this time of year when so many woman are putting their own needs aside to cook, shop, clean and do most of the drudgery associated with Christmas, to conflate self care with selfishness is just wrong.

    Jill Lee Bee Jill Lee Bee 7:10 am 25 Dec 20

    Agree, most women could do with being more 'selfish'.

Lori J Tas Lori J Tas 11:33 am 24 Dec 20

Sometimes, it depends on how individuals are using the term

Barbara Nell Barbara Nell 9:12 am 24 Dec 20

You have brought up many issues surrounding the term self care. It will depend on the individual circumstances, but self balance might be a softer, gentler way to view your own needs and those of others. We are all guided by our own compass . Merry Christmas.

Jenny Bolin Jenny Bolin 8:50 am 24 Dec 20

No, self care means looking after your own physical and mental well being so you can continue to look after others and do your job. It’s a path to staying sane! And sometimes you have to do it for yourself because no one else can do it for you!

chewy14 chewy14 7:36 am 24 Dec 20

What a strange article. I’m sure there was meant to be some logical reasoning in there but it just seemed to go from A to B to Z really fast.

“It could be argued that one of the driving forces behind economic and social inequality is a tendency to put ourselves first and over others”

I’m sure it “could” be argued but why did it take until the last paragraph to mention?

Seems like a predetermined narrative in search of rationalisation.

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