If you search for the term “self care” on your average engine, it will yield an almost comical variety of results. From “self care for Libras” to “10/30/298,305 ways to practice self care” and every possible topic in between, the amount of content relating to this nebulous term is overwhelming, to say the least.
By now, I think it’s fair to say that self care is more than a trend. In fact, this two-word phrase is an absolute universe of things for the interested person.
I’ll name a few of those things, just to prove a point. Self care is: a philosophy, a lifestyle, a health practice, a routine, a need, a marketing tool, a product category, a hobby, an obsession, a mood, a stereotype, and my personal favorite, a lens through which one views their world.
For those who know that they definitely want to explore this glittering, promise-laden term in their personal lives, it is helpful to have a starting point – a map to the self-care universe.
Well, I am here to be your guide. My first piece of advice? Forget the trends and embrace the radical.
Self Care: A Radical Tradition
Picture, if you will, a woman from the last century. Then, a woman from the century before that. And before that one, too. Imagine a man from those periods of time. Construct an archetype, a basic sketch.
What did they look like? What were the prevailing expectations for these people, for their roles in life? A woman, historically, was typecast from birth: a future wife, a future mother. A caretaker in the realm of private life.
A man was – from the moment he joined adult society – a provider. Someone who led things, defended values, and bore the burdens of career and power. A caretaker in the realm of public life. The front-facing edifice of a family, tribe, or community.
In most societies, the caretaker of the self was not a concept average people conceived of.
To choose the self above social norms – duty, religious dogma, social class – was to be radical. For men it meant that you were generally radically wealthy or powerful, and therefore above the norm. For women, embracing the act of self care was almost always synonymous with being radical in a sexual sense.
Self care as we know it is centered around the fulfillment of self focused desires or goals. Even when those goals are acts of service toward a cause, they are open ended and wholly dependent on the free choices of the person engaging in them.
This, in short, was scandalous for most of history. You would be labeled a sensual, God forbid! You were a dandy, a courtesan, an aesthete! To place the self in any sense above the enforced roles and standards of ones time was a deeply subversive act. In many places, it still is.
The journey toward self care therefore begins from a place of rebellion against the priorities and roles expected of you. This first step opens up a wealth of new ideas and opportunities that place you – imagine that – at the center of your life.
Daring to Question Your Self
Now that the first step has been taken, let us return to visualization, shall we? Picture yourself – it doesn’t have to be literally. You can use a symbol or a word to represent yourself if you like. You are in the center of a large, empty circle, and this circle is divided around you to form even sectors.
This circle is your life-space, the parameters by which you exist as a unique individual, and each sector is an area of that space. Different people will have different labels for these sectors. Wealth, faith, romance, home, style, art, hobby, education… You may have as many sectors as you like.
Keep that image somewhere in the back of your mind. At the forefront, begin to imagine your ideal day. What fills the hours? Now, the ideal week. If you had no limitations besides the basics – mortality, human bodily functions, etc. – what would that week look like? Continue onward, picturing greater increments of time, all the way through to your ideal life.
Begin to fill those sectors with the components of life. Some sectors will become bigger to accommodate more things, others may become small, with just one or two items inside. These items are things that bring you joy, purpose, confidence. They are the beams of light that illuminate your world and make it tangible.
These are the things that make you. They are the ingredients of your self.
Each one is deserving of exploration and attention. Each one comes with an open ended query, daring to ask that perennial question: Who are you, and what brings you to life?
Questioning ourselves on this level is not something we tend to do naturally. It’s difficult to observe ourselves, invested as we are in the day-to-day dramas of our lives, but it is something you must do if you are serious about self care in all of its forms and emanations.
Questioning the self is an exercise rooted in love – radical, sensual, freeing love. It is why artists make art and philosophers philosophize. The questions we ask of our selves become manifestos and faiths, lifelong dreams and the wildest hopes.
So, dare to ask. Dare to imagine that life in intimate, profound detail. Do it over the course of days or weeks – in fact, never stop doing it. This is your second step on the journey.
‘Shallow’ is Just a Word
Before you know somebody’s name, there are two things you already know about them. They are human, and they have opinions.
Most of the time, they have a lot of them. And it is for this reason that, eventually, you will disagree on something. They will attempt to convince you of their point of view with words or examples, they may criticize you openly or in private, and even when they give up on changing your mind, they’ll usually make sure you remain aware of their all-important opinions.
“Don’t judge a man by his opinions, but by what his opinions have made of him.”– Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
It’s incredible how often we let those outside opinions lead us. You may reject this concept on a surface level, but can anyone honestly say they haven’t dimmed their style or subtly adapted their manner of speaking in order to appease another person?
When lots of people with reasonably similar opinions get together, they tend to form expectations. Societies. Norms. And somehow, before you even realize it, you are living within the parameters set by everyone but yourself!
Engaging in self care – at least at the deeper level we’re talking about here – brings a lot of opinions out into the open. “You spend too much time on this or that,” one person says. “Shouldn’t you focus on something more useful?” quips another. “What, you don’t want to do x, y, or z? Well!” exclaims an offended acquaintance.
And, of course, there is that one insidious, unspoken opinion that hovers around us day in and day out. It is positively immortal. To the casual observer, its incarnations may seem like separate beings altogether, but upon looking closely one sees that they all share a suspicious resemblance.
“I don’t understand women who are so obsessed with makeup – they must be so vain.” “Ugh, she needs to spend that time with her kids, not out doing [insert activity].” “He spends way too much money on x passion, he should be using that to take his family on a vacation or something.”
It all boils down to that age old insult, an adjective at the very core of why so many people feel downright guilt-ridden about self care: selfish.
Now, you may say, things are changing, it’s not like that anymore! Our societies are based on individualism!
My response is this. You are ‘allowed’ self care now, yes – to a certain point. Once that invisible line is crossed, once you do something really radical, you are shoved back in the same category as concubines and playboys.
The word selfish is, by dictionary definition, the excessive consideration of ones own desires at the expense of other people’s comfort or needs. These are fairly generous boundaries for the average person. And yet it often seems that the practical definition of selfish has shifted to mean anything that overtly prioritizes, celebrates, or raises the individual self.
We are told early on what our hierarchy of needs ought to look like, what our tolerances should be for the different expectations placed on us. Certain identities are assumed to ‘cancel out’ others. Motherhood cancels out artist. Employee cancels out world traveler. The rankings were decided long before we opened our eyes for the first time – they are assumed, like the sun or the sky.
Well, you know what they say about assumptions.
To truly embrace the philosophy, lifestyle, or what-have-you of self care, you will have to accept the label of selfish from time to time. Accept it gracefully, with amusement! If people would like to define caring for the self as caring only about the self, well, that’s not your problem, is it?
If prioritizing your priorities makes you selfish, maybe it’s time to ask about the way we’ve been defining that word. If living life with radical self-love and with radical joy is shallow, perhaps the pool has been unrealistically designed.
Beginning the Beginning
I’ve enjoyed sharing this map with you, but in the end it is merely a drawing – an outline – of the journey you are undertaking. I have shown you the lay of the land, a few of the landmarks, and I have given you some well-meant advice about the people and experiences you might see sooner or later.
This is where I send you off to fill in the blank spots on the atlas. Your path will cross many others, and you may get lost here and there as you go, but I am confident that self care will soon become the compass by which you navigate your life. This blog is here to be your supportive friend throughout that journey.
And, of course, I look forward to sharing a few adventures along the way.
Until then, think radical, stay classy, and be bougie!
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