The Self-Care Lie (and How to Untangle It)

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“I sometimes feel like a parody of a therapist,” says Annie, a therapist of four years, who works mainly with patients who struggle with chemical dependency. She began to notice this insecurity in the past year or two, after she’d started running group therapy sessions with greater frequency. She found herself pausing before using certain key terms in her profession, like “self-care” and “mindfulness.” “It feels like I’m in a movie, like I’m saying what a therapist is supposed to say, if that make sense.”

She suspects social media might be to blame. As she continues to introduce and teach these topics in her practice, she’s observed a dulling in both her patients and herself. “It’s started to feel like the social media version of mindfulness and self-care is watering down the kinds of discussions I’m trying to facilitate with my patients. The overuse of these terms seems to be causing a bit of tuning out, because it’s just not interesting to talk about anymore.”

She hasn’t always felt this way about the internet’s influence on therapy. When she first started seeing self-care bandied about on social media, she thought, Oh this is great! The acceptance of mental healthcare and the democratization of its terminology seemed like a boon to an industry that’s traditionally been heavily stigmatized.

But given her recent realization, she feels there’s reason for pause, too. On one hand, she “loves that these important therapeutic techniques are being brought to light, [and that] people feel comfortable talking about something that’s usually brought up in therapy,” but on the other, there is an issue around misuse of terminology and the effects that may have on her patients’ care and impression of therapy. Who needs to pay for therapy when you’ve got your pick of wellness influencers for free online?

While the terms self-care and mindfulness are in no way “owned” by the psychology field, they are cornerstones in the practice. Self-care was originally employed by physicians, then shifted to a treatment for the those who held deep trauma, finally becoming co-opted by those in the activist community as a way to manage the difficulties associated with the vocation. Mindfulness sprang into popular consciousness in the late 1800s from the Buddhist tradition, then was eventually parlayed into modern therapy techniques.

When placed within the context of social media, the most recent iterations of these terms have begun to take on a different focus than their clinical counterparts. Even with her training, Annie has observed a shift in her own thinking. The term self-care conjures an image for her of “a girl on Instagram in a bubble bath with a glass of wine.” When playing association with the term myself, I almost always pair it with some kind of indulgence, like chocolate or expensive skincare products, which Annie reminds me “is obviously not healthy for many of my clients.”

This terminology has historically been a prescription for patients to take ownership over their health and recovery, whether that be learning to properly dress a healing wound or, in the case of many of Annie’s clients, activities like “following through on your commitments, pulling yourself off the couch and showering even if you don’t want to, or setting boundaries with family members.” When Annie’s list of self-care action items is contrasted with the social media version, it’s easy to spot the difference. One is centered on setting goals and boundaries for one’s self improvement, while the other is rooted in self-indulgence, often the kind the costs money. Self-care 2.0: Capitalism take the wheel.

This is not to say that people shouldn’t indulge when appropriate. Rather, there may be value in drawing a distinction between the two. The act of taking a term like self-care and manipulating it to prop up bad habits or over-indulgences will only serve to relabel those as good or healthy. This shouldn’t only be a concern for individuals with addiction issues: Using consumerism as a way to escape stress or sorrow is something we all do.

Self-care, within the context that Annie teaches it, is tailored to the individual. “That’s the frustrating thing about social media. That’s not the message that’s being put out there. I think there’s a tendency to turn our personal experience into expert advice when what might be helpful for one person could actually be harmful for another. There’s no personalized care.” Annie often wonders if the veneer of social media, particularly Instagram, is difficult for her clients to reconcile with the therapy they receive. “It’s not sexy for them to post about going to AA. Their self-care is not an aesthetic. It’s hard work.”

There are plenty of IG accounts that subscribe to the “good vibes only” philosophy. These kinds of influencers might encourage their followers to practice the same style of self-care that works for them (and, in some cases, their colorway), when in fact it may not be sound advice. If taken at their word, these people are working to make the world a positive and, dare I say it, more glowy place. But their messages can negate the reality that a more difficult kind of self-care may actually be needed. One devoid of mushroom teas and CBD chocolates.

Understanding what self-care should or could mean is valuable for everyone, especially when framed as a worthy challenge rather than an easy indulgence. For example, if I’m feeling stressed, maybe I should buck up and go for a run instead of pairing a glass of wine with mindless scrolling. Better yet, maybe self-care could be confronting the source of that stress. If my financial situation is causing me anxiety, then maybe self-care looks like finally tackling my budget or brainstorming free or less expensive ways to live my life. If the news is making me feel hopeless, then maybe self-care looks like volunteering for candidates whose platforms I want to see reflected in my government.

The democratization of therapy through social media may have its pitfalls, but Annie points out that it can be helpful, too. “There are a lot of IG accounts where people can discuss their struggles openly. I’ve seen miscarriage accounts and different mental health accounts and it’s not people who are trying to be trendy or cool, it’s people who are laying bare their raw emotions in order to help others. I know that for me, when someone shares a struggle that they went through that is similar to my own, it has helped me feel like I’m not alone.”

While social media has itself succumbed to capitalism, this sentiment brings us back to the root mission of many of these platforms: helping people feel less alone. Fortunately, those little corners of Instagram and other social media sites still exist. It may just be a journey through triteness to find what we’re searching for — whether that be connection, commiseration or a real human through the wires.

Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.

Rachel Siemens

Rachel Siemens is a writer living in Portland, OR.

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