Illustration by Jessica Khauv

Are you practicing selfcare or just avoiding your problems? Here’s the difference


With more than 24 million Instagram posts tagged #selfcare and the plethora of media content centered around it, you’ve probably stumbled upon the term before. Do a quick Google search and you will learn that the term “self-care” actually has deep medical roots. Coined in the 1950s to describe activities that allowed institutionalized patients to preserve some physical independence, simple tasks that helped nurture a sense of self-worth, such as exercising and personal hygiene, were encouraged.

By the 1960s, as academics began taking a more serious interest in post-traumatic stress disorder, self-care was recommended for people in careers that involve repeated exposure to pain or trauma, such as firefighters, war veterans and health-care providers. The advice at the time addressed both physical and emotional needs such as eating nutritional foods, getting adequate sleep, doing activities such as journaling and meditation.

Fast-forward to the 1970s, and the concept of self-care soared in North America, when the Black Panther Party began promoting it as a necessity for all Black citizens, especially as a means of staying resilient in the face of repeated systemic injustice, as well as interpersonal and medical racism. This led to several authors and activists, most notably Audre Lorde, a Black lesbian, building on this momentum and discussing self-care in many essays and journal entries, especially through the 80’s.

Clearly, the concept of self-care is nothing new, and has always been an important one. In its truest form, self-care is about taking the time to check in with one’s self and to remember that we all have our limits. Learning to say “no” to tasks that may lead to exhaustion, taking time to go for a walk or reading a book, or simply taking that much needed nap can all be forms of self-care and can be great sources of inspiration, relaxation, creativity, and introspection. But sadly, for many of us, self-care has gradually become a tool for avoidance or mere distraction.

Increasingly, people have begun to wonder whether the individual focus of wellness culture is in fact doing more harm than good. While highlighting some of her own experiences, a New York- based writer recently penned an interesting piece about how modern day self-care prioritizes individual wellness over communal wellness, which in turn, negatively affects our relationships. Another stimulating article touches on the dangers of self-care trends that promote individual pampering as a way to deal with complex mental health issues.

Our visual culture and voracious consumption of mass media makes it easy to practice what seems like self-care by living vicariously through other people. In an interconnected world such as this, where headlines are read as news summaries, many of us have tricked ourselves into thinking we have done our research (or even challenging innerwork) simply by absorbing other people’s work. Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that so many believe that the sole purpose of self-care is to relax and thus, becomes a way to numb out, ignore, or escape a task, problem, or difficult emotion.

Starting something next Monday after “forgetting” to start the last three Mondays is now self-care. Eating a large quantity of junk food when upset or binge watching countless episodes of a series on Netflix is self-care. Instead of using the practice to take some time to engage in thoughtful activities meant to be restorative, we turn to self-care every time we experience stress, discomfort or even the slightest hint of anxiety.

As a result of living in a world where we are constantly told to “do more now” while simultaneously being told that we are never doing enough, many of us have spent years pushing ourselves too hard, and as such “not doing” can, indeed, feel very liberating (like that feeling you get when you take off your shoes or your bra after a long day at work.) However, on closer inspection, many of us are obsessed with self-care only when it means not relying on ourselves to do better. In other words, we’re teaching our bodies and minds to escape rather than to cope.

Don’t bury your head in the sand

How to purposefully practice Self-Care

According to a New York-based licensed clinical psychologist, Dr Lara Friedrich, “the crucial difference between self-care and avoidance is intention. Both are coping mechanisms, but their outcomes are vastly different.” If we mistake our avoidant behaviours for acts of self-care, we risk aggravating the very stress we are trying to avoid. Catching ourselves when we slip into those moments of mindless consumption and avoidance can bring about more clarity about who we are and who we want to become. These expert-backed tips can help us do that:

Taking intentional Self-Care Breaks

Taking breaks is both healthy and necessary, especially when you feel overwhelmed. The trick, though, is striking a balance between taking breaks that are effective enough to get you back to feeling calm and neutral, then returning to whatever it is you were doing or are supposed to do.

Watch your Intentions

To really figure out whether you’re practicing self-care or simply avoidance, you need to pay attention to your intentions. For example, you might be the type who likes to stay in on a Saturday night. In this case, the intention seems innocent enough: perhaps you are just tired or do not like crowded spaces or nightlife. However, for the sake of self-improvement, one should strive tto check one’s motives. Could the real reason you stay home be because the thought of meeting new people makes you feel anxious? Or does isolating yourself feel a little comforting? When the answers to these questions lean more towards yes than no, then that may be a good indication that you’re slipping into avoidance.

Align your Self-Care Rituals with specific goals

Ideally, your self-care ritual should move you closer to your goals, rather than keep you stuck. It’s important to learn to check your own emotional and mental pulse while also being honest with yourself about your intentions. That way, you’re able to notice when you’re doing something that feels truly good for the self, versus when you’re doing something that is actually counterproductive.

Choose a Mix of Different Self-Care Rituals

Research shows that Self-care rituals can be organized into two different groups: “doing” (active self-care) and “not doing” (restorative). Active self-care is doing something now that will make your life easier in the future, like maybe working earlier in the week so as to make your weekend a little less stressful, or taking a mid-day nap because it will leave you feeling refreshed and able to work. Meanwhile, restorative self-care is stepping back from a cycle of doing, and engaging in a behaviour (or taking a break from one) because it feels good. But remember, the feeling good should not be used as an excuse to postpone something you need to do. It’s all about balance. If you’re engaging in restorative self-care, are you balancing it with active self-care?

Illustration by Paru Ramesh

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The truth is that while avoidance can protect us from difficult things in the short term, it can make those difficult things seem even more difficult in the long term. Simply put, avoidance breeds avoidance; the longer you put off addressing a stressful emotion or situation, the worse it’ll appear in your head. If we continuously avoid the difficult parts of our lives, we deny ourselves the opportunity to address, accept and grow from them. Recognizing when you’re taking care of yourself and when you’re actually avoiding something requires paying careful attention to your intentions and prioritizing long-term growth over short-term escapism. Once you understand this difference, you open yourself up to living a fuller, more disciplined life.

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