When self-care becomes self-destructive

Noella Chye 19 January 2017

Self-care was the name of the game for me over the festive period. I had become so utterly exhausted by my first Michaelmas that I wholeheartedly abandoned my studies in favour of a life of relaxation. Though I began the holiday with abundant plans to catch-up with the ceaseless Michaelmas workload, choosing not to do this, and instead electing for respite, seemed like a better idea. Well, at the time, it did.

But right now, less than a week before term begins again, I can’t help but feel consumed with guilt over the lack of effort I displayed over the holiday. I did nothing over the past six weeks except lethargically patting the snooze button for the 82nd time; being apathetic towards my absorption into the sofa; and returning to the cocoon of blankets on my bed for yet another nap, whilst the mountain of unread Renaissance literature beside me continued to breathe down my neck. I would be lying if I claimed this period of relaxation wasn’t useful; it helped me rejuvenate for next term, which I’m perfectly aware I need – but I am now panicking about my lack of progress. I took rest in the name of self-care, because I thought I deserved it; now I think that I owed myself more.

Self-care is any action you take to improve your health; it can be a little act, or a big one: trying a new activity or focusing on the things you already love; something you do alone, or with others. Whatever the act may be, it should have an underlying goal of fostering positivity; indeed, we mostly hear this term said during discussions on how to improve our mental health. Yet, sometimes our choice of action, though taken in the name of self-care, can produce the opposite effect.

And self-care becomes even more difficult when complications with physical health are also thrown into the mix; one of my dearest friends, Georgia, suffers from the excruciating condition of chronic costochondritis, which has developed into nerve damage in the spine. She told me that her illness makes self-degradation too easy; she repeatedly criticises herself for her inability to cure her ailment, whilst also denigrating herself for her desire to stay in bed when the pain is too much to bear. But she acknowledges, that sometimes selfcare is about doing what your body tells you, regardless of the extent to which this might go against every sense of self-reproach you possess.

It is ironic that self-care can make you feel bad about yourself, but we must learn to accept that. She says you have to deal with what you can, when you can; self-care is ultimately about being kind to yourself, but this should take place at your own pace: you ought to do things when you are ready to, and remember not to push yourself if you are not.

But even so, self-care is notoriously difficult; so difficult, in fact, that most people struggle to practise it at all. I know that I am perpetually wondering whether my actions in this department are examples of me being gentle on my mental health, or simply being lazy; being aware of my needs, or just being selfish. Self-care really is a matter of trial and error – as Georgia rightly says, it all depends on the day in question. I am reminded here of the quotation: “Never regret anything, because at one time it was exactly what you wanted”; maybe we should treat our acts of nurture as isolated necessities, regardless of our later criticism of such deeds. Unfortunately, the dissection of our past actions, particularly when our mental health is concerned, is never simple.

It seems taking care of yourself, and putting yourself first, is a choice fraught with danger. But (and this is a big but) it doesn’t mean we should abandon doing this. I know that even if I had completed vast quantities of work over the break, I would still feel guilty – and this is precisely why I need self-care! Yes, sometimes we may look back at our actions with shame and disgust and horror; but, equally, we might look back with pride.

And it is that possibility that makes actions of self-care absolutely, undeniably, totally worthwhile. At the end of the day, it’s all about finding a balance, and constantly facing decisions about whether pushing on or taking a well-needed break will benefit ourselves more in the long run. There is a learning curve to self-care.