Most people agree that self-care is a necessary ingredient for good health, but the popular concept isn’t without critics. In this article, we’ll explore the self-care paradox and examine some of the contradictory perspectives surrounding it.
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The first time I saw a YouTube video poking fun at self-care, it shocked me a little. At the time I was dealing with a life-changing unraveling, and self-care had become a lifeline for me.
In the video, three women who were dressed in robes and seated in pedicure chairs sipped on flavored water as they took turns making sarcastic comments about self-care. They lamented that they should feel guilty because they were enjoying pedicures instead of doing more important things, like paying taxes and picking up their kids from school.
While the video was clearly meant to be a parody, it still made me wonder why something with so many positive benefits could attract so much negative energy. And that’s when I realized there are much deeper roots beneath the anti-self-care sentiments we still see today.
Toxic self-care, a self-destructive form of self-care, is often justified as a soothing activity: a glass of wine that turns into a bottle, veggie out on the couch for a 3-day binge-watching fest, or any other activity that leads to poor outcomes when it becomes a habit.
But what’s behind the negative view of self-care?
What is a Paradox?
First, let’s examine a few definitions of a paradox:
- Merriam-Webster defines it as “a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true.”
- Mark Nepo, a poet and spiritual adviser who appeared on one of Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations podcast episodes, describes it as when more than one thing is true.
- Put even simpler, it has also been described as something that doesn’t seem like it could be true, but it is, indeed, true.
No matter which definition you subscribe to, it’s safe to say that paradoxes are perplexing and elusive, and that’s also why they tend to stir up so many emotions and disagreements.
So, depending on how you view something, you may have a positive or negative response to it. Many things that are paradoxical begin with a difference in perspective – as is the self-care paradox.
The first potential source of this type of self-care cynicism involves perspective. One of my very favorite representations of perspective is the image of two people standing on either side of the number six.
But is it a six, or is it a nine?
The answer depends on where you’re standing.
Regardless of the topic being discussed, when two people arrive at different conclusions, it’s usually because they’re looking at the issue from different perspectives. That’s because we all experience things differently over the course of our lives, and those experiences shape our opinions and beliefs.
Self-care is no different.
The Self-Care Paradox
So, let’s dig in and explore this idea more closely. What is the self-care paradox? That self-care is both selfless and selfish.
How did you feel reading that? Did you have a visceral reaction? Did you strongly agree or disagree with that statement?
Even so, can you see how it’s possible to hold both of those perspectives at the same time? And can you also see that it’s possible for both perspectives to be true, depending on the situation?
On one hand, it makes perfect sense that tending to your own needs is selfless. I mean, when you’re well-rested, well-nourished, and operating at your best, you have a heck of a lot more to offer your family and community, right?
But on the other hand, tending to your own needs could be perceived as being selfish–especially if the person doing the perceiving is used to being put first.
Still with me?
You may still have some strong opinions on this, but the important thing right now is to at least be able to recognize that it’s possible to view self-care through different lenses.
Selfless vs Selfish
So, let’s revisit the question: is self-care selfless, selfish, or both? To answer that, we’ll need to take a closer look at these two labels.
Selfishness is something we’re taught to avoid. It’s bad news. And it ranks right up there with narcissism and individualism. In contrast, we’re taught that being selfless-sacrificing our needs for the needs of others-is something to be celebrated and commended.
Many of us have been taught that ignoring our own needs is necessary in order to be in service to others. We’re told that it’s noble, something to be revered and rewarded. And in many ways, we’ve been conditioned to believe that neglecting ourselves is deserving of praise and recognition.
If selflessness is noble, then what does selfishness look like?
Merriam-Webster defines selfishness as being “concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself; seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others.”
With this definition in mind, is it reasonable to assume that self-care is always selfish? And if it is, then does it also mean that taking time for yourself equates to a disregard for others?
I don’t think so.
The thing is, self-care doesn’t have to be exclusively self-focused, and it certainly doesn’t have to come at the expense of others. Unless, of course, you choose to.
In fact, LivingUpp’s 8 Dimensions of Self-Care framework demonstrates that self-care often involves others. It isn’t always a solo gig.
Let’s say you volunteer at a community garden with your friends. Not only does this activity involve others, but it almost certainly will benefit others as well. From a self-care standpoint, the very same activity also supports the systemic, emotive, relational, and environmental dimensions of your life. So, does that make volunteerism selfish?
Now let’s look at the opposite of selfishness: selflessness.
Selflessness has been described as “a tendency to regard the well-being of others as more important than one’s own well-being.”
For many, it’s the pinnacle of human kindness, a karma magnet, a get-into-heaven-free card. But there are a few holes in the swiss cheese. Selflessness can become an addiction.
Sometimes good deeds can turn into codependency, where you abandon your own life to fix or manage someone else’s. It can show up in marriages, parent-child relationships, and even friendships.
And when it becomes part of your identity, it can show up as self-righteousness, especially if you constantly seek recognition for your selflessness.
Again, whether you are selfish or selfless depends on a lot of factors, including how your choices affect other people, how your choices are perceived by others, and how you perceive your own choices.
But there’s yet another layer that needs to be considered when it comes to the negativity surrounding self-care. It’s possible that on a cultural level we’re experiencing some self-care fatigue.
We’ve been inundated with messages about putting on our own oxygen masks first. We’ve been exposed to millions of social media memes insisting that self-care isn’t selfish. And we’re constantly encouraged to “treat yo’self” to products that promise to make our lives happier and healthier.
Even as someone who wholeheartedly believes in and supports self-care, I sometimes tire of the monotony.
So, it seems plausible that some of the cynicism and negativity could be simply a product of overexposure.
Self-Care vs Prevention
But what I find most interesting is that self-care has become the target of criticism while prevention has not. For years, medical professionals have encouraged preventive health practices (all of which require some level of self-care), yet there isn’t the same degree of negative energy surrounding the topic of prevention.
Why is that?
Could terminology have something to do with it?
The term “self” has historically been associated with a whole lot of negative terms, like self-centeredness, self-absorption, and selfishness. So, perhaps there are some underlying perceptions that we don’t even realize we hold about self-care.
So perhaps the term self-care is difficult for our brains to separate from similar terms with different contexts.
Your Definition of Self-Care
One reason self-care may be so misunderstood is that there’s not a universally accepted definition of it. That would explain the differing perspectives and opinions.
LivingUpp defines self-care as a preventive health strategy involving actions and behaviors that improve, restore, or maintain good health. Essentially, self-care is everything you do between doctor’s appointments, and it’s been estimated that 80% of all health-related care is, indeed, self-care.
But the truth is, how you define self-care will ultimately determine if, when, and how often you practice it. At an individual level, self-care is deeply connected to your core values and beliefs, which is why it can feel so paradoxical at times.
In your search for answers about how to define self-care for yourself, you’ll no doubt encounter articles that address “real” self-care and “true” self-care and the “right way” to practice self-care.
Just remember that self-care is personal, and the only definition that matters is yours. You get to choose what is or isn’t right for you because you are the ultimate decision-maker when it comes to your well-being.
For some, self-care does include spending time at the spa, even if others vehemently disagree that these kinds of activities are true acts of self-care. (Sorry, but my monthly massages are non-negotiable.)
Self-care is multi-dimensional and it involve your unique values, beliefs, norms, family traditions, perspectives, personal experiences, and many other factors.
That said, all choices come with consequences.
If you choose to eat 13 donuts for breakfast every day for a year, you’ll probably end up wondering if that was such a good idea at some point. But it’s your decision to make, nonetheless.
The purpose of this article isn’t to judge or criticize your opinion of self-care. It’s to encourage you to examine what self-care is or isn’t for you, so you can consciously make decisions about how to best care for yourself.
You don’t need anyone’s approval or validation to invest in self-care.
Have You Experienced the Self-Care Paradox?
So, let’s revisit this paradox surrounding self-care. Is it selfish, selfless, or both?
The only answer that matters is yours. If you’re not a fan of self-care, then you get to choose not to invest your time and energy into it. But just because someone else chooses to invest in self-care doesn’t mean they lack empathy or have disregard for others.
From my perspective, those who integrate self-care into their daily lives are some of the most giving people I know. So if tending to my health is judged as selfish, then so be it. I can live with that.
To me, self-care isn’t just a right, it’s a responsibility. I’ve been gifted this one life and I’m going to do my best to live it fully and beautifully.
What’s your take? Share in the comments below.
Information on this website should not be interpreted as providing or replacing medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. All content is intended for adults over the age of 18. LivingUpp is a participant in affiliate programs, which means we may earn a small commission from qualifying purchases on links to Amazon and other sites at no additional cost to you.