Many people arrive in therapy in what could be described as a state of emotional (self-)neglect. Perhaps they’re in the habit of being overly self-critical, frequently tolerate disrespect or never ask for help. As a consequence, I have been teaching people to care for (or love) themselves for more than a decade now.
In explaining the concept of self-care, I invariably invoke the notion of an ordinary, good parent, one who cares and protects without being either authoritarian or permissive. Someone who recognises and responds to an immediate need but balances it against future risks: ‘You can stay up a bit later, but you will have to do your homework first.’
In short, self-care is about making life better for your future self. This means that incredibly mundane tasks, such as opening post or responding to text messages, can be important acts of self-care if they help you stay on top of your bills or maintain your relationships, for example. And this is why I am troubled by a new brand of selfish self-care that is in ascendance.
Quotes on social media such as ‘Don’t feel bad for making decisions that upset other people. You’re not responsible for their happiness.’ Or, ‘I hope you know you don’t have to apologise for anything that means you’re putting yourself first.’ Or, ‘Sometimes self-care is cancelling plans, saying no or changing your mind without apology or lengthy explanation.’ This one I reposted to my Instagram page and ran a poll, asking whether people agreed or not – 92 per cent of respondents agreed, explaining, ‘It’s taking care of yourself first and focusing on yourself rather than what others expect of you,’ and saying, ‘Explaining myself can be exhausting – also, do I have to justify every decision I make?’
Their responses seemed to indicate that one’s own needs were in conflict with those of other people. Friends and plans made with them were depicted as a drain on one’s reserves, a threat to wellbeing that had to be defended. Not a single person commented on the impact on the other person of being cancelled on without apology. Because feeling guilty is ‘bad’ (rather than, say, a sign of having a healthy conscience) and unnecessary in a world where you’re not responsible for other people’s feelings.
Curiously, not apologising, renouncing responsibility for the impact of their words or actions on others, and being unreliable are oft-quoted qualities of ‘toxic people’ – the kind of individual you should limit contact with in your life, again in the name of self-care. So we have an inherent double standard: when I cancel without apology it’s self-care, but when you do it it’s toxic.
But beyond this contradiction, the rebranding of selfishness as self-care actively undermines the very thing that all the evidence tells us is most important for our long-term mental health: strong relationships. Like it or not, we need other people for our emotional wellbeing.
You might have all the self-love in the world, but what is it worth if you have no one to share it with?
Photographs: Getty Images and supplied by Kimberley Wilson