Screw Balance to Improve Happiness

It's time to call for self-care reform

Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

I saw it on Twitter first, obviously. Ann Lamott—whose book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, improbably changed my life in university—tweeted something about “self-care.” (It was likely this one: “All I did today was practice prone yoga & radical self-care.”) Although the term sounded both suspiciously medical and even more suspiciously New Agey, I was into it. After coming across it repeatedly in other tweets and blog posts, particularly about self-care as a way of healing, post-trauma, as it relates to therapists, doctors and activists, whose emotions are unusually burdened; and also as a routine response to stress and overwhelm, I eventually found out that self-care doesn’t have a singular definition or doctrine, or good branding or a celebrity spokesperson. (Anne Lamott notwithstanding, who more recently tweeted “It’s radical self-care to steal an hour or 2 for your own self and soul.”) What it generally means, though, is putting yourself first, in various ways, to oppose the constant busy-ness, inherent stress and unhealthy habits that often (always?) come with a full, complicated life. It’s cleaning your house so you can really relax; it’s lying still for an hour with your current jam on repeat; it’s spending more time on grocery shopping and cooking than on bad TV; it’s not going to a party if you don’t feel like it, and not being consumed by the attendant guilt. I’ve always been impressed by my best friend’s refusal to go for brunch—she wants her mornings to herself—and her ability to say no, even to me; I started thinking of that as self-care, too.

Cheryl Richardson, a Massachusetts-based certified life coach who wrote the bestselling book, The Art of Extreme Self-Care, agrees with my definition, adding that the concept is about “making choices on a daily basis that honour one’s soul.” Gabrielle Bernstein, the New York–based spiritual guru, agrees: her most recent book, May Cause Miracles, focuses on making subtle changes toward self-care. “Rather than trying to keep up with overarching goals on a moment-to-moment basis,” she says, “take those smaller actions to create positive change in a very simple way.” Practising self-care, then, has two components: making self-oriented choices—and reforming your relationships in the process—and doing things solely because you like to do them. (Richardson suggests doing two or three things every day for pleasure, noting that “for a lot of young women, that feels like an outrageous expectation.” She also insists that sleeping for eight hours a night is essential, and on being in nature: “Busy women tend to be so disconnected from the natural world.”) What I like the most about the idea is that it isn’t code for what I think of as the fallacy of “balance,” which makes women feel that happiness would totally be available if they just got better at updating iCal, and maybe lit a candle. Sometimes, focusing on what truly makes you happy—and, as a result, letting other aspects of your life slide, or fall away—is the only solution.

The concept of self-care isn’t anything new: The term was originally used in the health care industry in relation to avoiding the burnout that comes from professional caregiving. Rosita Hall, a Hamilton, Ont.–based motivational speaker and former social worker, recalls using it decades ago in its original context; these days, speaking to public and private sector employees about teamwork and leadership, she says self-care is “all I hear.” Grace Soyao, the founder of a Toronto-based patient-oriented health research company called Self Care Catalysts, agrees that it’s become a buzzword—which she thinks is due to the fact that people are increasingly likely to do what they can to prevent illness and enhance their health on their own. Not having a single, specific definition (and being widely and variably intelligible) has probably helped the phrase spread from the health-care community outward, especially lately, as the idea of managing stress and finding self-fulfillment becomes more and more important, socially and individually.

If self-care is being accepted and promoted by women, it’s because we need it. “A lack of self- care is at the root of so many life challenges,” says Richardson. The mostly female habit of considering the wants and needs of everyone else before ourselves, as well as the obligations and expectations we feel, and their potential outcomes—some of them particularly dark and scary, from lost opportunities to low self-esteem to unfair domestic labour to unwanted sex—indicate that “self-care” is especially important.

Richardson uses body-image issues as an example of the necessity of self-care. “A woman doesn’t gain weight just because she likes cookies,” she says. “She usually gains weight because she can’t express her anger or she can’t tell the truth, so she turns to food for a temporary source of comfort or restraint.” Learning to differentiate between what is self-care and what is just selfish—if it can ever be clearly delineated—is probably the hardest part of the practice. This is especially true when it comes friendship (and its demands), which is threatened by its principles. In the interest of self-care, Richardson advises avoiding gossip, complaining and drama, but those are complicated, sometimes necessary-ish aspects of female friendship: toxic, but bonding. “It’s not a loving act to listen to your girlfriend complain for the fifteenth time about her husband,” she says. “You actually are inviting her to not do anything about it, because she keeps getting to release the pressure with you, and then she goes back into the same old situation.” So, for me to say, “I won’t read those mean texts he sent you, because I think you are too cool for that stuff,” is self-care, and ultimately good for my friendships (listening, bored and irritated, is neither). This also goes for partners. “Empower them to take care of themselves,” says Richardson—which includes letting them do certain things, even if you know you could do them better. My new self-care regime includes telling guys that they can choose the restaurant and make the reservation, or buy the hostess gift; being selfish would be doing it myself all the time and resenting them, or assuming that they don’t have the wherewithal to make a good choice. “It’s very hard to move away from that feeling of ‘If I do this for myself I’m being selfish,’ as opposed to ‘If I do this for myself, it’s part of taking care of myself,’” notes Leslee Kagan, a nurse practitioner and director of women’s health at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine in Boston.

It’s best to wait out the guilt that comes with redefining a relationship, says Richardson, and trust that self-care can only make a good friendship better. That said, she notes that you are inevitably going to disappoint some people. But, and this is the truest maxim ever, “When you change how you behave in a relationship, the relationship has to change.”

Saying no, straight up, is where the divide between self-care and selfish is most apparent. I’m cool with saying no, but often contend with the negative feelings around it by following it with, “I can’t, it’s just so crazy this week, and I’m so dumb! Sorry!” My self-care strategy involves trying to better predict what I can and can’t do so I have to apologize less often—it’s working—and to be honest instead of making excuses. What I had been trying to do was “balance,” but what I need to do is reject any outside influence or any time spent that doesn’t contribute positively and productively to my life, or even my day. Now I just say, “I can’t. Thank you, though.” I won’t avoid a birthday party, or an event that’s especially meaningful to someone I care about—that’s selfish—but when I’m saying yes to something I don’t realistically have time for or interest in, I’m not being good or kind to myself, or to anyone else. “Unfortunately we end up doing things out of guilt and obligation, whether we actually do something for someone else or we keep our mouth shut when we should actually speak up and say something,” says Richardson. “And so, as you grow up you realize that if you’re in a relationship with someone who really bothers you, or doesn’t really respect your needs and wishes or appreciate you, and you don’t say anything about it, what you have is an arrangement. You don’t have a relationship.”

At some point, though, “good selfish” has the potential to become “bad selfish,” when self-care is used as rationale to avoid anything that sucks, or hurts, or bores. Privileging comfort over anxiety and engagement both overprotects and isolates; pain—vulnerability, really—is ultimately necessary for success, stability, community, fun and love. Too much self-care threatens that state of “eustress,” or good stress, which motivates us to do things. Soyao offers an idea of “good stress” as “something that takes you to another level that is more positive; where you become more productive or creative or motivated,” and bad stress as “[leading] people to a situation where they are almost near illness-level, meaning they change their behaviour, they’re not able to do the things that they normally do.” Bernstein, on the other hand, rejects the notion of “good” or “bad” stress altogether. “You don’t want to be feeling like you can only accomplish things from a stressful place,” she says. “You can get a lot done without being stressed.”

Knowing what kind of self-care (and how much self-care) to practise is difficult, but done right, valuable. “Wherever you have an opportunity, wherever you’re investing your time, there is always a price to pay,” says Hall. “The question is, How much are you willing to pay? It’s really about decision-making. This is the situation that you’re in: Do you like it?”

For some people, self-care will include more—not less—community involvement. Bernstein separates self-care from rejecting social interactions. “Stress will come up,” she says, “and it’s your job to learn how to handle it and how to manage it and navigate it.” Solving that equation of time alone and time with other people—and how that time is best spent—can’t be prescribed, which is why self-care can’t ever be a singular, commodifiable entity.

Since I became aware of it, self-care has become a mantra. I say “no” more often, and I do it better. Lately, I’ve been playing tennis instead of going to the gym—I hate the gym; it’s basically a sweaty office. Tennis costs more and requires organization and equipment, but the sound and feeling of a good serve is a rare and worth-it moment of athletic grandeur. I go to toy stores. I take a Diet Coke to the park and lie in the grass. All things I used to think about, until I started doing them.