Friday, January 5, 2024

Self-Care: Sometimes Helpful, Sometimes a Tool of Oppression

This is an article I've been dreading and putting off for a while. Within my work on mad justice, this is one of the most pushed back on discussion areas. And I'll state up front, this is meant to be nuanced. This about real people sharing real stories of their own harm. Not an attack on your life story. But yes, an attack on what advice and expectations others are frequently offered and judged upon.

So, self-care then. Are you anxious? Distressed? Have you heard about self-care! Try self-care! Self-care is great! Live-laugh-self-care! 

I know I'm mocking a bit, but this is the climate at present when one reaches out for help. It's everywhere across mental health understanding. And that's .... a huge problem. Because it's basically never explained (and I've read literal hundreds of posts and seminars and books about the matter) about the limits and even dangers of this sometimes helpful tool and concept.

The main issue is how this tool places the onus of responsibility for management of distress on the individual and nowhere else. Abusive work environment? Self-care! Widespread economic collapse? Try self-care! Going through a famine? Self-care!

Note what's not there. Instead, think about this alternative framing. Abusive work environment? Yes, it makes sense to be suffering. That's a natural response. The response might likely stay until something ends the abuse. That something should not necessarily be your responsibility. Not even partially. The problem here is the abuser, not your inability to not tolerate abuse. 

Now, this isn't some binary. There's room for nuance. There's room for a mix of accountability. But across the vast majority of mental health discussion, nothing like that last paragraph, nothing even remotely close, in anywhere to be found. Our modern culture loves, to an oppressive, human-right violating, abusive level, assigning blame at the individual level instead of on abusive others / systems. That's why the current self-care craze is a problem. It faults individuals for things beyond their control, while simultaneously having those other factors avoid accountability entirely. As such, self-care goes from an actual resource and instead becomes a form of victim-blaming and an act of accountability avoiding oppression.

Why fix harsh working conditions when we can instead demand that abused workers work harder to take deep breaths and do some yoga at home. How about constantly, over and over, never mentioning that any other option or solution exists. How about moralizing failure to get better as "lack of effort pursuing self-care" instead of "self-care was never going to fix the pain of ongoing abuse". That's the problem. And no, self-care advocates never take responsibility for discussing this properly. They deny or downplay their role in this over-promotion. They reply with "of course we know it doesn't fix anything" instead of taking self-responsibility for noting "you're right, we didn't discuss or emphasize the limits. We didn't discuss placing partial or even full accountability at the hands of the root cause external stressor itself". They, like everyone else, want to say the problem wasn't them for not communicating clear, but instead blame you for not giving them a break or misunderstanding their point. Oh the irony in that. Or just, perhaps, expected? For them to never take on their own self-accountability while promoting advice that encourages you to never think of yourself as a disempowered victim of abuse, even as they too directly abuse you.

So, that's a first draft at attempting to explain this issue. Still a work in progress. For more on this, below are among the rare few articles I've found trying to also illustrate this point. This article is, itself, a work in progress. This is unfunded work. I've been harassed, berated, and banned from numerous social spaces for trying to make this point. Again, to the caveat at the top, I have never once faulted or questioned someone if self-help worked for them. But when I question pushing the advice on others, all hell breaks loose. Why? That's a whole topic to explore. One common answer is that you may feel these realities encourage hopelessness. I, and others in peer groups I've worked with, find it to be just the opposite. As Bernice King said...

“Being truthful about the state of our nation and world does not equal losing hope. Hope sees truth and still believes in better. That which dismisses or does not seek truth, but grins, saying "It will be okay," is naiveté, not hope.”

— Bernice King

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---- Further Reading on This Topic ----

1) We need to move on from self-care to something that cannot be captured by capitalism

"While looking after yourself is great, self-care is still an idea rooted in a neoliberal tradition of looking out for ourselves, rather than seeing ourselves, our health and our fates as inextricably linked to our fellow human beings. Wouldn’t it be great if this decade we took the self out of self-care and strived instead for communal care?"

2) We Need To Talk About Self-Care

"Refuse to settle for an environment that demands we each shoulder all our burdens in isolation. Insist on relationship, connection, undiminished interdependence as the way things are supposed to be."

3) From Self Care to Collective Caring

"Like many survivors, I can isolate myself while engaging in the stereotypes of self-care. I may look brave or even enlightened as I take up yoga or running, write glowing reviews of books on self-acceptance, and channel my emotions into elaborate art projects and self-revealing blog posts. This form of self-care can feel less like liberation and more like solitary confinement. Sometimes what I actually need is someone to show up at my house with take-out, sit there while I pick at my food, stay with me until I’m falling asleep sitting up on the couch, and then send me to bed and tuck the blankets around me."

1 comment:

  1. This reminds me of something that recently blew my mind. I was at a Master's of Social Work advising session regarding identifying, responding to, and providing clinical services for people experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV). So many people ask survivors, "why don't you just leave (the aggressor)?" instead of asking "Why doesn't (the aggressor) stop being abusive?" The initial question places some level of blame on the survivor for staying in an abusive relationship but does not recognize that they are NOT the one that necessarily needs to change. Sure, they could leave the environment and be out of the situation (sometimes, depending on circumstances. Most don't recognize that when people prepare to leave is the MOST DANGEROUS time and when most people experiencing IPV are killed). However, that does not treat the underlying issue of the aggressor's actions and the environmental response. People try to be supportive, but until the source can be addressed, people struggling with these issues will not have adequate emotionally validating support.

    At the same time, I think self-care can help in many circumstances. For example, my workplace is not abusive, but it is highly stressful and demanding due to the population served. There's not much more I can think of to make it a better environment. At the same time, it is CRITICAL for the staff to either practice self-care to make it through the difficult times or find a new field. Human services industries will always be demanding regardless of how great the management and company are because we're serving underserved (and frequently traumatized) people who have been marginalized, dehumanized, and mistreated by others for ages before they make it to us. I love this job and self-care is what helps me continue to stay here. Even still, we all experience burnout when no amount of self-care other than taking a break can help.

    That being said, I have worked in an abusive environment within the human services industry. I practiced all the self-care that I could and still regularly wished I'd get into a car accident on the way to work so I wouldn't have to go in. Their system was corrupted and broken, so they had an INCREDIBLY high turnover until they cut out the toxic management (who were clearly the common denominators when over 15 staff left or were fired within a 15-month period). I see and agree that sometimes the system needs to be addressed rather than hammering in the idea that self-care should magically fix everything and that we should stick with abuse just because we can push ourselves to make it through.