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by Kaitlin McManus | July 30, 2019

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Careers are getting “greedier” and being a competitive student has become more important than ever before. We’re told constantly that, to get ahead, we have to work harder than everyone else. So it’s no surprise that “burnout” has been a buzzword for the last several years and, naturally, so has its supposed cure: “self-care.” We’ve been bandying around the word “self-care” so much that it seems to have lost its meaning. Does self-care mean going to the gym every day, or going on a juice cleanse, or meditating? Well, that kind of depends. One thing is for sure: Self-care is a personal process. Despite this, there’s a tendency to discuss it quite generally—and as such, there are plenty of myths that have cropped up around it. I’m here to debunk them.

Self-Care Is Feminine.

For whatever reason, self-care has been largely filed under “for ladies only.” Seriously—Google “self-care for women” and “self-care for men.” The first search mostly produces advice articles on how women can incorporate self-care into their busy lives. On the search for “self-care for men,” the first result is a joke article from The New Yorker detailing made-up, “manly” self-care products. The article is so mean-spirited in suggesting that men can’t/won’t participate in self-care unless hyper-masculine products are available that I thought the article must be several years old, thus explaining its tone-deafness—the joke’s on me, because it was published yesterday (July 29, 2019).

Self-care is not for women. It’s for everyone. People of all gender identities, ages, races, sexualities, and socioeconomic statuses can be overworked and overstressed. Which means that every human being on this planet, from student to CEO, needs to take the time to take care of themselves and their mental health. End of story. Guys, I’m sorry that your needs for self-care have been made into a joke, and that the self-care market doesn’t cater to you. But, this actually brings me to my next myth.

Self-Care Is Something You Can Buy.

The reason the New Yorker article exists in the first place is because self-care isn’t just a practice anymore—it’s a $10 billion industry. There are self-care stores and apps, and even subscription boxes out there that will deliver self-care goods right to your door (usually in the form of bath salts, candles, and other things that smell nice). But the flagship product for self-care is the face mask. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good face mask. But its presence in the self-care market is so ubiquitous, it’s a meme. Right up there with it are bath bombs and essential oils. The common theme? These are all items that you buy, and often at a steep cost. Lush’s ever-popular bath bombs are $6-$15 a pop, and face masks can be priced similarly or, for luxury brands, for hundreds of dollars—keep in mind, these are single-use items. A 15ml bottle of lavender essential oil, depending on the company, can be from about $4 to over $30. I don’t know about you guys, but dropping all that cash so I can have a nice-smelling bath and a softer skin for a day actually stresses me out.

The fact of the matter is that self-care is a human behavior. There is no product that we can purchase that will take our burnout or anxiety away. So-called self-care products might be a nice splurge every now and again, but the reality is that self-care has become a commercial endeavor, and businesses are far more concerned with making money than with the health of an individual, so buyer beware. Wallet-friendly options for self-care can include, depending on your needs: taking a walk outside; calling up a friend or family member to talk; or pursuing a creative project that brings you fulfillment.

Self-Care Is Whatever Makes You Feel Better.

This is where many self-care listicles would tell you that, just because a donut seems like it would make you happy in the moment, real self-care is eating healthy. I’m not here to judge your food choices. You’re an adult: If you want to eat a donut, then eat a donut. I’m talking about much bigger issues. It’s no secret that some things that people find enjoyable or cathartic aren’t good for them. Many people deal with anxiety and stress with smoking and/or drinking. This is not self-care. Taking your frustrations out on the people around you, whether it’s in anger or sarcasm or apathy, is not self-care. These behaviors and others like them are self-destructive. Again, I’m not here to shame you—after a long day at work, sometimes I go home and crack open a bottle of wine. I’m an adult, that is a choice I can make. But relying on things that are objectively harmful to your health or relationships in order to deal with life’s stresses is unhealthy. If unhealthy or harmful habits are things that you rely on to get through your day, it’s time to reassess and find a healthier outlet. We’re after self-care, not necessarily self-indulgence.

You Need Self-Care Because Something Is Wrong with You.

I know, dear reader, that I don’t actually know you. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say: There’s probably nothing wrong with you. Any anxiety you suffer from isn’t because you’re living your life wrong, stress and burnout don’t come from you not being “tough enough,” and needing time to take care of your mental health doesn’t mean that you’re somehow defective. Sometimes when things like work or school bring us down and burn us out, we feel like the problem lies is us. It’s not. And it can be very easy to look at the people around us (or, god forbid, at their curated social media lives) and assume that everyone but you is perfectly well adjusted and coasting through life on a cloud of their own competence and confidence. Not so. Everyone struggles—and a lot more often than you might think. Even that girl on Instagram whose life looks so infuriatingly perfect is likely dealing with some tough stuff. It’s time to stop feeling guilty for acknowledging that we need to take time for ourselves; the negative side-effects of a hectic life are as natural as they are real. So disabuse yourself of the notion that self-care is for people who are “weak” and “can’t tough it out.” It’s a necessary part of life. Make sure that you assess yourself and your situation regularly, and take time to maintain your mental health in a positive, constructive, and enjoyable way.

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