In times of anxiety and insecurity, the ways in which we are encouraged to care for our emotional and mental health can become mere trends that come and go in waves, taking with them our money, time, and hope—and sometimes leaving us in a state which is at least as bad as what we were in originally.
Strategies for happiness are easily found online. Some are suggested in apps, while others can be “declassified”, for a hefty price, by some eternal happiness guru. But, as one after the other fails, we undoubtedly end up wondering if there really is a solution to this problem, or if this life, as problematic as it is now, has already crossed the boundary beyond which there is nothing good.
Behaviours which centre on the mere purpose of caring for oneself can be grouped together in the turbid #selfcare category, a hashtag with more than 13 million mentions on Instagram. In the last two years, this has led to the birth of a true industry. The most targeted group is young people, since they are the generation that is most active online, most receptive to new technologies, and the most anxious, as multiple studies have already shown. Since 2015, the numbers have shown that millennials are much more dedicated to the idea of self-improvement than previous generations. Young people today spend twice as much time as their parents on activities that are considered basic to physical and emotional health, such as diet and exercise plans, therapy and life coaching, as well as applications to remind them to smile during the day, drink water, look at the trees on the way home, or talk to someone if they need to.
One of the reasons the #selfcare movement has been raised to the rank of ‘essential aspect of a healthy life’ is, at least in the US, the rise in healthcare costs. Surveys show that millennials prioritise self-care activities over going to the doctor, and respond better to messages about self-care than to messages about caring for their physical health. It is no wonder that the market for self-care medical devices—such as pedometers, sleep monitors, blood pressure monitors, blood glucose monitors, temperature monitors, fertility kits and so on—is expected to reach $17 billion this year.
Some critics see the #selfcare trend as a Trojan horse used by big IT companies to sell apps and gadgets which, in some one way or another, “monitor” you in your most intimate moments. Others think of it as a cheap trick used by “neoliberal capitalist employers” who offer their employees free meals at work to trick them into working longer hours.
This trend has been criticised for the way it glorifies self-indulgence, and its excessive focus on physical comfort and laziness. #Selfcare has come to mean many things: from eating healthily to eating according to one’s desires, from exercising to taking a break from exercising. These criticisms generally come from conservative types, who lament the disappearance of the adult who understands how the American dream works—if you work hard and sacrifice enough, you will be rewarded accordingly.
Their accusations are partly legitimate. On the other hand, they are dangerous, or simply unjust, especially considering that the experience of many young Americans—at least since the financial crisis in 2008—has been the decay of the American dream into a mere myth. The scandal that recently hit several Ivy League American universities, after the media revealed that many rich parents bribed college admission administrators, fell like the last nail in the coffin of the American dream.
Returning to the essential idea of this analysis, it becomes obvious that any methods meant to reduce anxiety should be approached in a sensitive and cautious way. The idea of saying “no” to certain things and “yes” to others depending on momentary emotional needs is not only generally good practise in itself, but is also essential for leading a balanced life. There are, however, many ways for this to go wrong.
Self-care as an obsession
The truth is, all the health advice in the world could be summarised like this: eat less and eat better, move around, don’t smoke, don’t drink, and hope for the best. What we like, however, is to look for variations on the same theme, each with an increasingly unique set of instructions for solving the problems of health. Thanks to technological development, we can now measure our progress very accurately, which ironically creates a new need—it is no longer enough just to feel better; we need something to confirm that we are doing a good job. All of a sudden, our attention shifts from ourselves to data about ourselves, and we start to approach the problem of mental and emotional health with the same obsessive energy with which we pursue our careers, as American writer Charlotte Lieberman insightfully observes.
According to some studies, many Americans associate stress and the idea of always being busy with a certain social status and a certain level of prestige. This would explain why they derive so much satisfaction from measuring the success of a self-improvement routine. In this context, eliminating anxiety becomes just another box to check, which for some people simply means extra work and stress. A marketing study conducted in Great Britain on a group of 200 women wearing a Fitbit device (which tracks several data points, like sleep patterns, pulse, number of steps per day) showed that 80% of the women felt pressured to attain their daily targets and felt guilty when they could not do so. Furthermore, 59% of women confessed they felt “controlled” and 30% referred to the Fitbit as their “enemy”. Of course, such limited results cannot be generalised, but they show the potential emergence of new reasons for self-criticism when monitoring this type of “work”. In extreme cases, for people with perfectionistic tendencies, self-improvement can become an obsession.
What we gain from self-improvement is the illusion that we have more control over our lives than we actually do, and that we thus have total power to change it. However, the quantification of self-improvement processes—through reports of steps, hours slept, and calories burned, which are always at hand—encourages us to atomise our expectations regarding our lives and get bogged down in the smallest of failures. Things will not change if the values that make us obsessed with work are the same that encourage us to “optimize” ourselves through these metrics, Lieberman believes. After all, what are we really interested in: becoming happier and healthier, or for the world to see us always working?
Self-care for everyone to see
The question is a logical one, given that social media platforms pressure us to publicly “perform” and to share our personal victories with everyone, victories that can even turn into personal marketing opportunities. This is probably the most serious critique of the idea of self-improvement: the fact that it no longer deals with self-discipline or moral virtues. It has become a symbol of a type of cultural success.
The reality is that the movement quickly migrated into the marketplace. Many #selfcare posts are actually posts sponsored by various companies who take advantage of the fact that anything can go by hashtag ‘selfcare’, from a papaya facial mask to taking one’s dog out for a walk. Marketing opportunities are endless.
But #selfcare is not for everyone. As Amy Larocca writes in the New York Magazine, in the world of luxury meditation studios, Ayurvedic detoxes, and beauty parlours with skin care treatments in ten steps, costing thousands of dollars, #selfcare is only available to those who have the time and the money. With 10 dollar green juices and spinning classes for over 35 dollars, the majority of the activities that are advertised as upgrades to a new level of living are inaccessible to most people. This shows, once more, that the movement has actually turned into the ambition to access a superior lifestyle, and has nothing to do with our true selves, but rather with our image in society. The only problem is that this yearning for things we cannot have feeds into feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, and self-criticism.
Jordan Kisner writes in The New Yorker that America has a special history when it comes to the idea of people’s capacity to improve themselves, which has always been the prerogative of a certain class—namely white, educated and rich men—and a reason to subdue minorities. In documents from the 1850s, slavery is justified by the fact that a so-called “debasement of mind” had rendered the African slaves “unable to take care of themselves”, while immigrants coming from southern and eastern Europe to America at the end of the 19th century were deemed “unfit citizens” because they were perceived to lack “ideas and attitudes which befit men to take up…the problem of self-care and self-government”. One could thus say the #selfcare movement in America has always involved a degree of public performance, in the sense that a person did not only have to be able to take care of themselves, but was also supposed to be able to prove it to society, Kisner notes.
Today, we might say that a ‘superior’ class is lecturing an ‘inferior’ one on #selfcare, boasting about diets, plans, and protocols no one has the time or money for. This proves that there is a lack of consideration which exposes the #selfcare movement as nothing more than an obsession with one’s own self. It is crucial to understand that anxiety is not treated by a visit to the spa (or with the low-cost version thereof, like a bubble bath at home), and the assumption that it can be treated in this way is dangerous.
“Self-care is fine for people who are experiencing some degree of mild stress, or are simply looking to it as a way of improving their satisfaction with life. But if people are actually experiencing symptoms of a mental disorder for which effective treatments are available, to ask, expect, or encourage them to take care of themselves in that circumstance is to shift the burden of the condition from the system that should be addressing it to the individual. For many people, getting help from someone else is essential to recovery”, says Paul Appelbaum, psychiatry professor at the University in Colombia and former president of the American Psychiatric Association.
Self-care as a sign of the times
The explosion in self-care advice and strategies has not happened in a vacuum but in a world where caring for others is undergoing a true crisis. Some analysts, like Carl Cederström and André Spicer, the authors of the book The Wellness Syndrome, blame the collapse of the social contract on the modern obsession with clean eating, clean thinking, and radical love. These objectives are not bad in and of themselves. But they show that, even as things seem to worsen in the world, and mental health services are shown to be deeply deficient even in developed countries, the public conversation tends to focus on personal fulfilment in a desperate attempt to feel that we have some control over our lives.
We all have the basic human need to develop and become better, but the #selfcare movement is not about this, believes Cederström, professor at Stockholm University. “There are also reasons to reflect on the reasons why something like that has become so popular today. It’s partly a reflection of the society in which we live, which is fragmented, and where solidarity is greatly under threat. There is a very strong individualised rhetoric behind self-care, which I think is popular for a lot of people today, especially for government and states who would find it rather convenient to outsource public healthcare,” the professor says. He urges us to ask ourselves whether this movement is a symbol of a generation that sincerely wants us to take care of ourselves, or whether it is a symbol of a society that has failed to take care of its citizens.
Jennifer Silva, sociologist and author of the book Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, believes neoliberalism is the cause that radically transformed the way we think of ourselves. What the authors call an “assault” on the working class and the living standards of workers automatically led to young adults adopting a profoundly individualistic and therapeutic view of the world and personal development. The young people she interviewed for her book had no confidence in politics or collective actions to solve their problems, or find their meaning in life. In the words of sociologist C. Wright Mills, they lacked a sociological imagination which would have allowed them to connect their personal problems to public ones.
Whether we are talking about the collapse of the social contract and health systems problems, or about the decline of the working class, the authors of the aforementioned two books agree on the fact that the obsessive ritualization of self-improvement is done to the detriment of collective commitment, turning any social problem into a personal search for a better life. “Wellness has become an ideology”, Cederström and Spicer say, and “the problems of our time will be solved by our collective capacity to change the world, not self-therapy”, Silva adds.
Self-care as a religion
The argument of these authors is frequently overturned by the following premise: To be able to take care of the people and things I love, I must first love and care for myself. Even the golden rule of Christianity is brought into the discussion: Love your neighbour as yourself. If I do not first love myself, how will I love my neighbour? The problem with this reasoning is that it shows how we understand love in a uni-dimensional way, as infatuation—a snowball of positive emotions triggered by looking in the mirror with our rose-tinted glasses on and only seeing how special and perfect we are. This self-love, which conditions loving one’s neighbour, is not the love Jesus refers to in this passage. When we say that self-love precedes loving our neighbour, we practically say self-love is the second greatest commandment, after loving God, and we therefore create three fundamental commandments instead of two.
So, what does it mean to love your neighbour as yourself? In the Bible it is assumed that people love themselves, not in the sense of being infatuated with one’s own self, but that deep down, even beneath multiple layers of self-hatred or self-contempt, we are still self-focused and want what is best for ourselves. This is what Paul refers to when he says: “After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church.”
When Jesus tells us to love our neighbour as ourselves, He is simply emphasising how important it is for us to really care about other people’s wellbeing, and He gave a practical example of what this love looks like in the parable of the Good Samaritan. From this story, we should understand that we ought not to bypass people because we are too absorbed by our own problems, but to pay attention to those around us and their needs. Furthermore, passages like: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves…” should counterbalance any idea that loving others is conditioned by self-love.
Is it therefore absolutely wrong to love yourself? No. It is normal and desirable to be able to affirm that you love yourself because God created you and because God loves you. The problem is that the secular self-love philosophy starts from the premise that people are fundamentally good and, thus, worthy of love, and that if we cannot see this, it means we have a problem we need to solve.
Scripture shows something different: our value comes from the fact that we are created beings, but that our goodness and ability to love and be loved strictly depend on Jesus’ sacrifice, who covered all our sins and restored us in order to be able to be loved completely.
When we think that the antidote to the hard times we live in can be found internally, through self-love, we should remember Paul’s warning: “There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves…” This warning clearly shows that there is a self-love which is different from what God wants us to feel. It is a selfish love, an infatuation which usurps the rightful place God should have in our hearts.
True self-love is accepting ourselves as redeemed people, not redeemed by our own merits, but despite all that we are. And this self-love has its place. However, as beings created in God’s image, whose main quality is unselfish love, we are the happiest when we focus not on our needs and wellbeing, but on other people’s needs and their wellbeing. The fact that we are so far away from what our own nature actually is shows how much we have distanced ourselves from the source of Love itself—God.