WTF?! We Need to Talk about How We Talk about Self-Care
Can we just stop ish-ing self-care?
Erlene Grise-Owens & Jay Miller
On a popular podcast, the authors of a new book on burnout discussed strategies for addressing burnout. The host and guests talked about the ubiquity of stress and crisis of burnout. Listening to the podcast, we noted that these “experts” consistently discussed basic elements of what was clearly self-care.
So, you can imagine that it was quite troubling (though, regrettably, not surprising) when they explicitly declared they were NOT talking about self-care. Oh no, they emphasized, we need “community care.” Self-care, they profoundly proclaimed, is the “fallout shelter we build in our basement.”
What?! Self-care is a “fallout shelter”? WTF? What the Fallacy is that?
Now, we like a clever-sounding analogy as much as the next word-nerd, but that one is simply inaccurate. And, it promotes a false conceptualization of self-care. This fallacy is not merely innocuously ridiculous. It is harmful.
This way of talking about self-care conveys that self-care is an emergency response. It’s a “fallout shelter” to be used in a rare, urgent circumstance. This fallacious framing connotes that self-care is separate from community care. It conveys that self-care is what we can do when we “fall out” from exhaustion, emergency, or some other urgent care mode. This faulty framing certainly doesn’t consider self-care a wholistic way of life — that it’s more analogous to a roof, foundation, or electrical system necessary for a functional living space.
Out of professional courtesy, we won’t specify the podcast or book authors who declared that self-care is a “fallout” option. And, furthermore, this example is by no means an anomaly. It’s merely a prominent example that illustrates the prevalent, persistent way self-care is characterized — even by “experts.”
Here’s the thing. The authors’ litany of strategies to cope with stress? They were ALL self-care. With a bit of humor (a self-care strategy, after all), here are the coping strategies they enumerated, with our critical correctives.
1. Have a good cry. When I cry, tears come out of my eyes. You or others may cry with me. But, you cannot cry for me. I am crying. Oftentimes, I cry alone. Having a good cry is me, myself, I. Ergo, SELF-care.
2. Go for a walk. I just got back from a long walk. You weren’t with me. But, even if you had been, I was walking my body. NOT you. Me, myself, I go for a walk. Ergo, SELF-care.
3. Do something creative. My favorite form of creativity is writing. And, though I might sometimes co-write or attend writing retreats with others, I write. Art, crafts, cooking, and so on. Yes, I might do those things in a group; but, even then, I am doing those activities. Me, myself, I am creative. Ergo, SELF-care.
4. Breathe. Ok. Do we need to explain this one? Unless I’m on oxygen or receiving CPR, I am breathing. Me, myself, I am breathing. Ergo, SELF-care.
5. Laugh. Humor is a personal dimension. Whilst oftentimes, laughter is shared communally and can even be contagious, I laugh. I can (and do) laugh alone, when reading a funny story or watching a funny show or recalling a humorous memory. Even when shared, Me, Myself, and I laugh. Ergo: SELF-Care.
6. Connect with another human — such as, personal affection or social interactions. Aha! One might say, “THAT one isn’t self-care!” But, think about it critically for a second. A connection implies at least two entities. Guess who plays the most pivotal role in that connection? Me, myself, I. And, here’s another important reminder: Healthy relationships have a balance of connection and boundary. In a relationship, who decides about my boundaries? I do. I decide with whom I will interact and relate. I bring my SELF to any relationship — including community care. Therefore, connections and community care are inextricably and crucially related to my own well-being. Who connects and comprises community? Me, Myself, and I. Ergo: SELF-Care.
Why Can’t we even call SELF-Care What it is?
Seriously. Why did these “experts” — after talking at length about how to care for oneself — feel so compelled to emphatically eschew self-care? To get a sense of why: When you hear the word SELF, what is your visceral reaction? What is an immediate word association?
You probably — even unconsciously — thought “selfish.” For a variety of reasons, in our culture, we’re conditioned to respond to even the word self by adding an “ish.” Often automatically, without even questioning it, we associate attention to our selves as selfish.
We ish our self-care. We put it in the “fall-out” category. We can only care for ourselves when we’re about ready to “fall-out,” — because to do otherwise is selfish. The opposite of selfish is self-LESS. Thus, we can only practice self-care when we have depleted, exhausted our-selves until we are so LESS that we (sometimes, literally!) end up needing urgent care.
This “fall out” framing feeds the fallacy of either we’re practicing self-care or we’re engaging in community care. The typically unquestioned assumption is that community care is somehow devoid of self. In actuality, community care is simply a bunch of selves brought together. So, healthy, sustained attention to one’s self is an ongoing prerequisite for effective, sustainable community.
Definitively, self-care is not simply a “fall out shelter” that we earn through self-less exhaustion. Self-care is an ongoing process of giving wholistic attention to one’s well-being.
Stop Ish-ing Self-Care
Give Your SELF permission to take Care of your SELF. When someone (including your own voice) tells you otherwise, tell them to stop ish-ing you.
Be prepared. The ish-ing of self-care is ubiquitous. When even “experts” in burnout describe self-care as a “fallout” option, we know the problem is insidious. Emphatically, the experts we mentioned above are all too common amongst even the professionals who talk about topics such as burnout. Too often, they downplay or outright ignore self-care as a serious consideration.
The ish-ing must stop. Treating self-care as a selfish luxury, crisis response, or other “fallout” ish just isn’t accurate. And, dichotomizing self-care OR community care is part of that fallacious framing. We must talk about it. We must challenge the “experts” who promote this unproductive dissonance and dangerous dilution of self-care. And, we must clearly communicate the value, benefits, and necessity of self-care.
You don’t have to be an “expert” to realize that self-care is a basic requirement for human well-being — which ultimately creates better community. But, you — or, maybe more accurately I — do have to drop the ish and, instead, self care.
Dr. Jay Miller is the Dean, Director of The Self-Care Lab, and Dorothy A. Miller Research Professor in Social Work Education in the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Erlene Grise-Owens is the Founding Partner at The Wellness Group, ETC.