Chronic disease taught Nicole Singh that looking after herself was serious business.
When you think of the term “self-care” chances are, a clear portrait starts to paint itself in your mind. Its vogue-ish appeal often manifests into ideas of overflowing bubble baths and an expensive glass of pinot noir.
And while there is nothing inherently wrong with an indulgent moment to ourselves, the conversations dominating the current self-care movement seem to only focus on how we look, and what we need to purchase in order to reach a stress-free nirvana. And maybe — especially as a generation plagued by symptoms of burn out — it’s time we started having more realistic conversations about self-care.
The school of self-care in its simplest form asks us to listen to the needs of our body and mind with the goal of finding balance. Though it’s been touted as a millennial mantra, French philosopher, Michel Foucault, believed that it originates as far back to ancient Greek civilisations. Since, it’s taken many iterations, forming as a core tenant for feminist movements in the ’70s, and was then quickly adapted into the neon-clad wellness movements of the ’80s and ’90s.
Today, a quick scroll through the #selfcare hashtag on Instagram shows us that the global $4.2 trillion wellness industry has successfully tapped into our desire for respite and interweaved the notion of self-healing with products that promise soothe.
But when it comes to navigating the less-glamorous notions of self-care — whether it’s battling a chronic illness or overcoming financial struggle — these resources are harder to find. Suddenly, the latest crystal-infused water can feel out of reach and irrelevant.
Chances are, you follow someone on social media who embodies the holistic lifestyle you desire. Whether it’s their public dedication to yoga in the latest activewear or a new detoxifying find, there’s something almost calming about those who have curated a life that is self-care first, and the rest of life, second.
However, Lysn psychologist, Tahnee Schulz, stresses the importance of undocumented self-care when it comes to truly switching off from stress. “Practicing self-care without documenting it on Instagram might at first feel like a foreign concept but try to do it when completely switched off. If you can, turn your phone off and just focus on being completely in the moment. Outside distractions like social media can turn your energy to another place, so get into the zone with no distractions.”
I first questioned my own definition of self-care when I got diagnosed with the autoimmune condition, Crohn’s Disease. I thought I was ticking all the health boxes. Regular gym classes, healthy lunches, and top-shelf probiotics. However, what became my undoing — aside from my genetics — was chronic stress.
Part of my journey to remission looked like making consistently tough decisions in the name of health. At that moment looking after myself was more mundane and nuanced. I was forced to take an audit of my time and change my behaviour and thought patterns.
One of the hardest decisions was to leave my job as a full-time journalist in order to find a profession that could pay me more in order to support my growing medical bills, and allow for a more balanced lifestyle. It also looked like meal preparation on weekends, asking for flexible working options with my new employer, and allowing toxic friendships to dissipate.
Self-care became an act of preservation, more closely aligned to a sentiment Audre Lorde writes about in her book, A Burst of Light, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation.”
Another noticeable challenge that comes with the idea of wellness is its intrinsic attachment to positivity. In our attempt to bind self-care with a perpetual state of bliss, there can be a tendency to shy away from the darker parts of our lives that require long-term attention and maintenance. In truth, self-care may not always feel good.
When my own idea of wellness was challenged, it was tempting to repress the feelings that came with an untreatable disease and go into damage control. My religious mindfulness and obsession with gut-healing vitamins quickly became a performative act of self-healing. I was looking for quick answers as opposed to incremental growth. At that moment, what was more beneficial was taking my medications every day and regular sessions with a psychologist.
Shulz also emphasises the necessity of this type of self-care, “[it’s important to] schedule time out in your calendar to seek help from professionals. You may have been putting off seeing a doctor for that cough that has lingered, or even thought about seeing a nutritionist but just never found the time…the same goes for your mental health. Our mental health is just like our physical health — it needs constant work to keep it on track.”
While there is no denying the healing powers of a glass of wine after a long work week, there is also power in making space for the parts of self-care that require time, deeper self-work and can’t be promoted on an Instagram grid.
When we talk about self-care it’s important to consider that it’s only a small part of a holistic health journey. Whether it’s going to the doctor for a mental health care plan, not going to the gym, finding supportive friendship circles, or in fact indulging in a face mask, the crux of self-care is that it can look vastly different at different stages of life.
It’s not always a quick fix, and ultimately involves more work than snapping the perfect #shelfie.