When Self-Care Won’t Save You

Whatever we are trying to solve, we are trying to solve it solo.

Cali Yee / 11.30.22

This article was originally published in the Sleep issue of The Mockingbird magazine. 

On the crisp fall day of the 13th of October, 2011, NBC’s Parks and Recreation broadcast the most groundbreaking words of the 21st century: “treat yo’self.” What ensued was an abundance of memes and merchandise celebrating the importance of doing things just for you. To treat yo’self, you could purchase the dress you’d been eyeing for weeks before it went on sale. It meant you could go out on a random weekday to get brunch with friends and drink mimosas that were mostly champagne.

Today, “treat yo’self” is almost indistinguishable from “self-care,” a term that has consumed much of the dialogue on social media and the internet. The expression is materially defined by eucalyptus-scented lotions, sparkly bath bombs, and clay face masks — really anything that smells like the essential oils your mom buys from that one church friend, or that dips significantly into your end-of-the-month paycheck.

Globally, in 2021 health and wellness was reported by McKinsey & Company to be a $1.5 trillion industry. The market involved any consumer products or services pertaining to mindfulness, fitness, beauty, personal care, vitamins, and lifestyle tracking apps. Of the wellness spending, 70% went toward products. With the continued rise of social media influencers who post ads for rose quartz facial rollers and brands that promise glowing skin, the industry is bound to boom even more in the coming years. Comparably, in 2022 global health insurance was a $1.6 trillion industry. Digest (ha) that information as you will, but to me it is fascinating that the wellness market — with its Pelotons and athleisure — has risen to such heights that we consider it essential.

Less transactional, clickable, and floral-scented forms of self-care may include listening to your favorite album, napping in the middle of the day, calling your mom, watching baby otter videos, or taking your daily multivitamin. Because self-care is “self” care, there are really no parameters or rules you need to follow; it can be whatever you want it to be.

Its laissez-faire lack of rules makes it appear to be the antithesis of self-help. Where self-help seeks to fix our problems, self-care wants to console us and ease our anxieties. Where self-help is an attempt at self-improvement, self-care reminds us to love ourselves, with all our whims and quirks. Self-care is meant to be a solace for our sorrows, a recess from our restlessness. It’s supposed to go against the grain of society’s incessant edicts of self-improvement, and to move us further toward learning to love and accept who we are in the present.

And in truth, it is important that we take care of our physical, emotional, and mental health. After all, are we not worthy of being comforted when afflicted by worry? Are we not worthy of a love that surpasses our failures and fallouts? Moreover, it’s hard to care for other people (or about anything for that matter) when we don’t first take care of ourselves. Yet too often what we understand to be self-care becomes just another way we grasp for control.

The self-care solution to feeling lonely is to stay in your cozy apartment, click on a comfort movie, and light a candle (or two). If we’re feeling burnt out or overwhelmed, that’s nothing that Super Target, Chinese takeout, or a glass of red wine can’t fix, right? Binge-watching TV, listening to true crime podcasts, or lathering on an exfoliating body-scrub will supposedly help us find rest in the midst of stress. But even if we are bundled up like a burrito and horizontal on the couch, what we perceive as rest may really just be anxiety disguised as a weighted blanket. Self-care quickly reaches a point when it is more about isolation and emotional numbness, and less about caring for ourselves.

Candles, blankets, Netflix, and takeout are all good things; I love crab rangoons just as much as the next person. But this kind of self-care is like trying to put a Band-Aid over a flesh wound, or duct taping your broken side mirror to your car door, or consulting a magic 8 ball rather than a therapist. Perhaps it helps a little bit, but in the long term you’ll find that what you really need is a doctor, a mechanic, or a priest.

We all fall into the rabbit holes of health and wellness. We all make excuses — whether it’s canceling plans with a friend because you don’t want to get out of your pajamas or having DoorDash deliver your Chipotle when the restaurant is five minutes away — for the sake of “caring” for ourselves. But what does it mean to care for oneself? In her book An Ordinary Age, Rainesford Stauffer candidly reflects on the age of “treat yo’self”:

[Individualism] treats self-care like it should be the balm for everything…That fine line — between self-care, the fix, and self-care, the practice — gets trampled over when it is presented as something we should purchase without addressing who profits when we do, who has access, and why “care” in this manner ultimately seems to involve picking products yourself, paying with your dollars, and solving whatever it is solo.

The evolution of self-care into the billion-dollar industry of “wellness” indicates that our troubles cannot be solved with retail therapy — there is always more to buy. It’s sad to say, but spending hours on pampering will not magically bibiddi-bobbidi-boo away our issues, whether they be loneliness, anxiety, depression, or exhaustion. The new skincare product may help the bags under our eyes, but that doesn’t mean it will reduce any of our emotional baggage. Nevermind the fact that we may be spending money on things we cannot necessarily afford.

I have insisted upon doing many things in the name of self-care. Much of my free time is spent talking myself out of buying yet another basket from the Magnolia Home section at Target. (I’m somehow convinced that a wicker container will make me happier.) I fall for the marketing schemes that tell me I’m one step closer to wellness if I buy passionfruit metabolism-boosting gummies. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve canceled plans with people for the purpose of caring for myself (really, I just didn’t want to leave the warmth of my own home and its abundance of snacks and ambient lighting).

We could read — all day, every day — about how consumerism has left society in shambles and the world to rot. But what strikes home are the last words that Stauffer writes, that whatever we are trying to solve we are trying to solve solo. This raises the questions: can our practices of self-care sometimes make us feel more lonely? Has self-care become a side hustle for self-reliance?

In a 2021 survey from Morning Consult, 58% of American adults consider themselves lonely. Of that population, 24% experience sleep disorders. Surprisingly, among lonely adults, disorders involving sleep were more prevalent than substance abuse and neurological disorders. People sleep better when they feel safe and protected. In this context, self-care lacks the ability to provide what’s really needed. It’s hard to feel cared for when you’re the only one looking out for you.

It makes sense that we would want to turn inward to ease our anxieties. Either we don’t want to burden others, we don’t think others will understand, or perhaps we just want to fix whatever is plaguing us on our own. And for a while, isolating in order to alleviate our angst might feel like the right thing to do, the thing that will allow us to heal, the thing that will be our saving grace. But this solitude simply leaves us alone with our problems. And to be alone without any voice but our own, with our penetrating, intrusive thoughts and debilitating doubts, is enough to keep anyone up at night.

A Glittery Veil, 2020, acrylic on canvas, by Ariel Dannielle. © the artist, byaridannielle.com.

In Zach Braff’s idiosyncratic indie film, Garden State, Andrew is depressed, estranged from his family, and grieving the recent death of his mother, whom he hadn’t seen in years. It’s safe to say he has a lot of issues to sort through and feelings to feel. But empathy and vulnerability aren’t in Andrew’s vocabulary — he’d much rather be alone, even if being alone leaves him feeling dazed and empty inside.

Enter: Sam (played by Natalie Portman — need I say more?). Sam is a compulsive liar, hamster owner, and original oddball. She isn’t afraid to ask blunt questions that poke at the hard exterior surrounding Andrew’s heart. After he’s been numb to the world for so long, their awkward and peculiar friendship is the thing that brings him out of his head. For the first time, he’s allowing someone to care for him. For the first time in what feels like eons, he feels safe.

At the end of the movie, Andrew makes the decision to say goodbye to his hometown, leave the girl behind, and get on a plane (gotta love clichés). He needs to figure himself out, he thinks, maybe find a new psychiatrist, and focus on his health and wellness. He’s convinced that the best thing for him, and for Sam, is to work through his problems solo before he commits to the relationship.

Alone on the airplane, he has no one to talk to, no one who cares about him, and no one who even knows his name. He’s stuck in his head again as the world hums along and the familiar numbness begins to sink in. Is this really all there is?

The camera cuts to Sam, heartbroken and sobbing, in a telephone booth. Her tears are interrupted by the opening of the glass door, revealing a breathless Andrew, who mutters:

Remember that idea I had about working stuff out on my own and then finding you once I figured stuff out? … It’s dumb. It’s dumb. It’s an awful idea. And I’m not gonna do it, okay? ’Cause like you said, this is it. This is life. And I’m in love with you, Samantha. I think that’s the only thing I’ve ever been really sure of in my entire life. And I’m really messed up right now, and I got a whole lot of stuff I gotta work out. But I don’t want to waste any more of my life without you in it, okay?

Perhaps our relationships with others are more invaluable when it comes to self-care than Epsom salts and massage chairs. Perhaps what’s more important than burrito blankets and hydrating facemasks is just allowing others to care for us as we care for them. We don’t have to do self-care before we free ourselves up to receive love.

When going into Gethsemane to pray, Jesus asked a few of his disciples to come with him. He was full of worry and sorrow, as the hour of his death drew closer. In his troubled spirit, Jesus wanted to be in the presence of friends — even friends he knew would later betray him.

Like Jesus, we too need the companionship of those we love. We need someone to grasp our hands and pull us out of the abyss of our weary minds. Someone who can free us from the voices in our head that spew the lie that we must figure out all our ish on our own; the myth that tells us we can buy our way out of despair; the tale that promises we could be happier if we had clearer skin, silkier hair, or thinner arms.

Comfort movies and heated blankets make you feel nice and warm, but there’s only so many times you can hear Fezzik offer his precious peanuts in The Princess Bride before you get too hot and have to turn up the A/C (metaphorically speaking). Unfortunately, no amount of wellness products, self-care routines, or self-reflections can save us from our sadness, nor from our insecurities.

And of course, other people can be just as unreliable as face serums and vision boards. We’re human, after all — and humans can hurt us, betray us, fail us, or leave us. This may be perhaps the biggest reason why the lonely “industry” of self-care exists in the first place. The fact is that people are just as incapable of loving us as we are them.

But it’s also true that there is One who is more than capable of caring for us. Even when we feel we are in the Garden alone (with our so-called companions who have fallen asleep on us) we are nevertheless there with a reliable friend. Someone who will never hurt us, betray us, fail us, nor leave us. And because he knows exactly what it’s like to feel lonely and lost, he can comfort us better than even a tray of one hundred crab rangoons.


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4 responses to “When Self-Care Won’t Save You”

  1. Nancy Schubbe says:

    Loved this article Cali!

  2. Jean says:

    Excellent article Cali

  3. I’m a recovery coach & spiritual director, so much of my work focuses on helping people figure out positive coping mechanisms. And, like you, I think self-care is important. And you hit the nail on the head as you illuminate the shadow side of it. Love this. Thank you!

  4. Paula Sevier says:

    I will NEVER leave you or forsake you.

    Thank You, God…for that promise…to which we cling.

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