One of the most interesting phenomena to arise in the last 20 or 30 years is the concept of self-care as a widely accepted thing that people should integrate into their life. Spending time and resources to do the things you need to do to feel like a healthy, centered, and rested person is something that hasn’t really become a fully mainstream concept until recently.
The thing is, self-care isn’t really a new concept at all. You can find encouragement of self-care in the writings of ancient Greek philosophers, who encourage people to put aside time for thoughtful leisure and rest as a method of making yourself into a better and stronger person. Self-care is actually a sensible and smart idea with a long history before it became popular in mainstream culture.
However, the idea of self-care really easily lends itself to overspending and overindulgence.
A recent article by Ester Bloom at The Atlantic, entitled How ‘Treat Yourself’ Became a Capitalist Command, covers exactly how the idea of self-care is something that marketers love to manipulate in an effort to convince you to spend money on unnecessary things.
She starts by pointing to the strong philosophical basis for self-care:
In a 1982 lecture that went on to be published as an essay called “Technologies of the Self,” the French philosopher Michel Foucault argues that looking after oneself, rather than being a form of navel-gazing or narcissism, is a kind of “vigilance” that dates back to antiquity. For Socrates, Plato, and their ilk, Foucault writes, “taking care of yourself eventually became absorbed into knowing yourself.” As the thinking went, only with the proper amount of time set aside for the “active leisure” of reading, studying, and ruminating could a person come to grips with the profound nature of the universe and his own mortality.
In other words, self-care, particularly in terms of active leisure, is something that’s a healthy and productive part of human life. The core idea of self-care is a good thing.
Of course, the idea of caring for yourself and treating yourself well is easily bent into buying things.
American culture, with its typical anything-worth-doing-is-worth-overdoing attitude, has reduced self-care to buying stuff and, even more counter-intuitively, to trying to become a more productive employee. In other words, active self-care was originally considered necessary to be a philosopher, typically for elite white men who had the luxury to sit and think. Now, America has democratized it by making it seemingly available to all—at least, for a price.
The advertising industry has nudged self-care away from introspection and towards reflexive consumerism. According to copywriters, you “deserve” everything from “a break today” (at McDonald’s) to “brighter eyes” (with new make-up) from “a decent sandwich” (from Milio’s) to, simply, “the best” (in the form of Beats By Dre). The implication is clear: Consumers who fail to purchase such treats are depriving themselves, failing to meet their own needs.
The interesting part of all of this is that much of the rise of self-care as a modern concept is due to the fact that, as a society, we feel extremely overworked and overbooked, and that can lead to a lesser sense of personal value, that we don’t exist as much beyond being a cog in a machine.
As always, the solution that companies would give to us is to spend money.
The kind of self-care being peddled to the 21st-century American white-collar worker is a cure for a quintessentially 21st-century American problem: that jobs demand ever-increasing amounts of time, energy, and creativity. Capitalism, faced with a problem it created, is itself trying to provide a solution. Little wonder, then, that the suggested fix isn’t to convince workers to actually take their vacation days or to go back to a more humane schedule of 40 hours a week, both of which would help employees to prioritize their own well-being. Instead, to avoid burnout, people are encouraged to spend more and exercise harder.
The real truth is peeking out, right there. The most effective form of self-care is taking time for yourself. Self-care gives your body time to heal and to grow stronger and your mind time to refresh and rest and to absorb new ideas. Self-care enables you to do things that bring you joy and to build relationships that can bring continued value into your life.
Guess what? Those things don’t involve buying products. Those things don’t involve spending money. The best forms of self-care – the best forms of “treating yourself” – don’t involve throwing money at the problem.
Instead, we find ourselves often so overbooked that we don’t take time for self-care, and due to a deep realization that we need self-care, we look for an easy solution. Guess what? There’s always an easy solution for any problem, provided you’re willing to throw money at it!
The idea of buying something to “treat yourself” doesn’t actually solve the problem of self-care at all. While those products that you buy might bring a burst of pleasure, they don’t help alleviate any of the things that are actually causing us to feel devalued or to need self-care in the first place.
The true solution to the problem of self-care is time, and time is hard to come by when you’re overcommitted.
That’s right in line with Bloom’s conclusion:
Self-care may never have been easy, but it was once simple and certainly not expensive. It required little more than the ability and wherewithal for introspection. Foucault’s “active leisure,” the time “to study, to read,” is not impossible to carve out time for. Workers and employers alike only have to recognize that determining and meeting one’s needs has value, regardless if it can produce any profit.
So, what’s the real solution? The real solution is to de-commit. If you’ve put yourself in a position where there is no time left for any form of actual self-care – because the actual effective forms of self care, such as genuine leisure and rest and reading, involve spending time – then you’re overcommitted and you’re ensuring that you’re not able to give your best to the things you’re committed to. You’re like a rechargeable flashlight that’s slowly growing dimmer because you’re never recharging, you’re just hoping to squeeze a little bit more from the batteries.
Another solution is to realize that the act of splurging on a product that really isn’t in line with what you most care about isn’t really any kind of self-care at all. Instead, it’s just this little burst of short-term pleasure that, when it fades, leaves you feeling just as exhausted and just as uncared-for as you did before. You can’t buy the things that you need to refill the tank of your soul. That can only be refilled with quality time.
So, the next time you hear an advertisement talking about how you need to “treat yourself” or how you “deserve” something good and it’s followed immediately by something you should spend money on, recognize that trick for what it is. It’s merely preying on your internal sense that you really do deserve self-care, but it’s trying to route it in a way that involves you spending your hard-earned money on their product.
If you find that such ads really work well on you and you’re constantly wanting things, then that’s a sure sign that you need to find time in your life for real self-care – genuine rest, thoughtful leisure time, time spent on hobbies that matter to you, simple and nutritious foods, and so on. Find that time. In the long run, it will cost you far less to find time for self-care than it will cost you to stay on the treadmill of “treating yourself” and continuing to run yourself ragged.