The Literature Is Instagram: On Self-Care, Not Self-Help

Sayonara self-help, hello self-care. From The New York Times Kate Carraway traces the evolution of […]

CJ Green / 8.13.19

Sayonara self-help, hello self-care. From The New York Times Kate Carraway traces the evolution of the more rules-based improvement movement into the newer, more feelings-based one. Whereas self-help “sought to categorize and instruct,” self-care now aims to “to soothe and calm.” Overall, the shift is positive: When you’re agitated, angry, or anxious, instead of imposing expectations, say, Self, what do you need? How can I care for you? With self-care, “wellness is softer, gentler, more forgiving than its self-flagellating forebear. Definitely more fun.”

Of course, how suspicious! Gentleness, forgiveness? Fun?! Yet maybe we’re right to raise an eyebrow…for a moment. After all, can we trust the “self” to know what it needs? And is it curious that self-care often looks like performance rather than, well, care? Carraway describes it this way:

On Instagram, the axis of millennial life, there are about two million posts tagged #selfhelp, while there are around 18 million for #selfcare. Those form a soft-focus sea of cups of tea, journals, hand-drawn quotations, bed-nests of blankets, books, cats and snacks — basically, anything that might make someone feel good. It’s far removed from the self-help-style wellness that emphasizes labor and self-denial: punishing exercise classes, cleanses, detoxes and restrictive diets. That all might feel increasingly irrelevant in the context of the low-wage, ultra-precarious and generally diminished economic circumstances that millennials have found themselves in, and in the context of the anxieties of this era. The self of established, self-improving, self-help seeks to conquer. The self of the newer, kinder, weirder self-care seeks nourishment instead.

Criticisms of self-care usually come from two directions: one, it is seen as a ploy for the purchase face creams, massages, smoothies, and meals out; two, self-care is seen as selfish, narcissistic. We think, no one should care too much for himself. To this point, however, experience shows that a cared-for person is better equipped to be caring, whereas a neglected, hungry person is more equipped to throw a tantrum, or rob a 7-11. On the other hand, the driving force of the “self-care movement” has been the internet: accompanied with hashtags and a cup of herbal tea. Note, the Web is not exactly a safe haven for self-image. So that’s a little weird. Further, why post “treat yo’self” when you could just…do it?

Writing for The Wall Street Journal last week, Daniel Henninger argued that frequent internet usage reflects both “an epidemic of self-obsession” and “a destructive, dehumanizing alt-reality” — a bizarre double-edged sword of humanism and dehumanization; self-promotion and self-surrender; expansion and illusion. Not such a surprise when you consider that self-obsession often grows out of self-effacement, the former over-compensating for the latter in the guise of promotion or celebration. You begin to suspect the missing piece is actual care. Back to Carraway — observe:

If self-help is about fixing something, self-care thinks you’re already great. […] If self-help is about how to do, self-care is about how to not do. Self-care, though, has no organizing rules, slogans or major, best-selling books — yet. Jenny Odell’s newish book, “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” and adrienne maree brown’s “Pleasure Activism” espouse some of self-care’s feel-good ideologies (as do the seemingly infinite journal-ish workbooks and coloring books on the market), but the literature of self-care-informed wellness lives much more iteratively and personally on Instagram, in (frequently misspelled and misattributed) inspirational quotations and super-long captions, and on lingering blogs.

And yes, much of the wellness content of the internet is performative, metaphorical or gestural. The small daily efforts of self-care — establishing boundaries, going to the doctor, taking three conscious breaths and just doing less — aren’t that clickable.

Self-help was mistaken in thinking that with books, programs, and willpower, one could force oneself out of crisis, into betterment. Yet there also existed the admission that one needed help, which is an important place to start. Self-care, meanwhile, sounds less desperate — our condition is, if anything, desperate. Self-care says you needn’t buy books, you needn’t a program, you needn’t, really, anything, because you are fine so long as you hold intervening forces at arms-length. Clear your schedule, tell your friends no, take time to yourself. To be sure, I often need all of those things. I also need more than them.

Thinking through all this, I was reminded of the following story, which I mainly share for anyone whose self-care has seemed insufficient. This past winter, I offered to look after a friend’s dog while they were away on vacation. To be honest, when it comes to domesticated beasts, my care is middling. Imagine a bitter-cold, lazy Saturday: I had done all kinds of self-care, had wrapped myself in cosy blankets, drunk plenty of tea, watched several comedy shows on Netflix, and had successfully ignored the dog altogether — and was also feeling especially crazy, as well as lost, anxious, etc. So I phoned a friend who encouraged me to walk the dog, because at some point that needed to happen. So I did. We went on a good, long walk, then I gave it a belly rub, then a treat. And, for a little while at least, I felt better.