How the Media Made Me “Misuse” Self-Care – and Why We Should Talk About It

When one is shown the term “self-care” – they immediately get an image of a woman in a bubble bath, probably using expensive products for her skin, and a glass of wine. In other words, indulgence. Somewhere along the way of the path of mental health in the media, the idea of “self-care” has become a materialized void of face masks, massages, and Netflix binges. While all these things are great to tap in every once in a while, it wasn’t till I hit rock bottom with my mental health that I learned these things aren’t what was going to pick me back up from my mental strain.

Paul Gionfriddo, the CEO of Mental Health America, told VICE that in an anonymous online screening program for a range of conditions like depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and more. Based off the results, of those who were screened, about 2/3 were under 25, and 1/3 were 11-17 years old. He continued off this to Vice, “What we have is a large, help-seeking, undiagnosed, largely young population.”

 It’s simple – how one, especially a young person, can fall into the illusion of self-care. The media has taught you that, once you’ve spent a week burning yourself out to the pulp – Sunday is for self-care, thus for the hashtag #SelfCareSunday, which currently holds 484,000 and counting posts on Instagram. My past interpretation of it taught me to battle periods of stress, I were to flick an old episode of How I Met Your Mother or put on a sheet mask from Sephora.

 When I spoke to Clinical Social Worker/Therapist Sania Rashid, LCSW, she said these temporary solutions are often chosen, because of the easy access.  “People tend to resort to temporary self-care because it’s easy. Although, those may help in relaxing per the moment, there are usually underlying issues that need to be resolved through therapy. There are certain behaviors that we tend to repeat due to our past experiences.”

She went on to explain the difficulties in facing your own behaviors. “It’s hard to analyze one’s self because the reality is, no one wants to accept their weaknesses. It’s extremely hard to feel vulnerable. Throughout the years, we develop defense mechanisms to protect ourselves. When in therapy, it’s hard to lift those defense mechanisms and face the harsh reality that our weaknesses are what have us caught up in self-sabotaging cycles.”

 I found myself going through the same sabotaging cycles through college. I remember one of my first panic attacks. It was freshman year, and I was working, interning, and attending school. I remember the morning alarm rang, and I couldn’t feel my body. I felt a heavy weight on my chest. I felt the inability to breathe. I turned over and waited till the feeling passed. It didn’t. I skipped class that day. Everyone needs a mental health day, right? But that one day became two, and then three. And within those days, I filled the void with indulgences that I thought was “treating myself.” – because that’s what the media was feeding me. Instead of facing on my anxiety, and the possible reasoning for it, I ignored it. I felt like I was relaxed, so therefore, my “self-care” was working.

 Initially, I thought I was changing my life for the better. I thought I was taking charge of my anxiety. But as I delved into these short-term band-aids for my stress, the anxiety grew, and I found myself in a hole deeper than I initially started in.

 There were way too many times where I confused self-care with unhealthy indulgences that took me away from my livelihood. Skipping your homework to take a bath? Self-care. Feeling like absolute crap so you go on an online shopping spree for hours? Self-care. Anxiety so crippling that your body genuinely aches? Get a massage and call it self-care.

 I’m not here to tell you that you can’t indulge, ever. There are appropriate times for everything. I’m here to tell you that I confused indulgence for taking care of myself, when there should be a clear distinction between the two. Using consumerism as a way to escape our inner stresses is something everyone is drawn to, (cue all the “Shopping is my Therapy t-shirts sold at Forever21) but it shouldn’t be taught to be the “way out” – especially to those battling with severe mental stressors, like I was.

 That’s when I realized – self- care isn’t an aesthetic, or something pretty for my Instagram feed. It’s can be hard work. The problem is, people want an easy solution. A one fits all plan that will cure them magically. After all, why pay for therapy when you can have wellness products delivered to your doorstep? Why chuck out all your emotions to a stranger when you can get an hour long massage?

 Taking care of your mind and body is good, and encouraged. But when these “self-care” practices solely become for marketing and aesthetic purposes, is that actually taking care of ourselves, or has the media morphed it into something else? Sometimes self-care is the challenge, not the one-stop fix. Sometimes, taking care of yourself can be actually confronting the source, head on. For example, If you’re feeling anxious – you should build up the confidence to talk to the therapist you’ve been avoiding for months, instead of jumping into a bath. If your classwork is stressing you the hell out, then maybe “self-care” should be working to fixate a schedule and planning system to manage your time efficiently. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, a solution can be to digitally unplug for a few days to give yourself the breathing room.

Of course, not everything in the media is unhelpful. In the corners of the media world, there are social media accounts and websites where people have the opportunity to express their struggles. While the social media world of mental health may have possibly succumbed itself to capitalism, there’s hope for it. While there may be “wrong” conversations on the ideas of mental health, the mere presence of it can turn to the positive encounters – if we choose to talk about it and make that change. What the self care phenomenon is failing to realize, is that the media needs to be catering more conversions on assessing your mental battles, not solely on the wellness trends. We need to acknowledge that self-care isn’t always pretty.

Self-care is work.

Self-care is asking for help.

Self-care is acknowledging what you have to work on - and so many things in between.

It’s no secret that society has done a poor job on handling people with behavioral issues – so it’s time we face these topics head on, and talk about it.  

Yusra Siddiqui