Most people agree that self-care is essential for good health, but some have argued that toxic self-care may be undermining efforts to make self-care more mainstream. In this article, we’ll explore the self-care paradox and examine some of the conflicting perspectives surrounding it.
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The first time I watched a YouTube video poking fun at self-care, it shocked me. At the time, my life was unraveling and self-care had become a lifeline for me. I didn’t understand why it was getting so much criticism.
In the video, three women dressed in robes sat in pedicure chairs drinking wine and making snarky comments about self-care. In full sarcasm mode, they lamented how they should feel guilty because they were enjoying pedicures instead of doing more important things, like filing their taxes and picking up their kids from school.
While the video was clearly meant to be a parody, it still made me wonder why self-care was garnering so much negative energy. And that’s when I realized there are much deeper roots lurking 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, an occasional donut that turns into a 13-donut binge, vegging out on the couch and watching a 3-day marathon series, or any other activity that tips the self-care scale to the unhealthy extreme.
What’s behind this negative self-care sentiment?
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 more simply, a paradox is 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 self-care paradox begins with personal perspectives. 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. This is how two people can arrive at very different conclusions, and it’s usually because they’re looking at the issue from different perspectives.
In fact, we all experience things differently. And those experiences not only influence our perspectives, but also our opinions and beliefs.
The Self-Care Paradox
So, let’s dig in and explore this idea more closely. The self-care paradox is that self-care can be both selfless and selfish.
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. For example, you can give more to your family and community when you’re well-rested, well-nourished, and operating at your best.
On the other hand, someone may judge you as selfish for putting your own needs first, especially if they’re used to you putting them first.
Selfishness and the Self-Care Paradox
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.
We’re taught to avoid being selfish. It’s bad, and it ranks right up there with narcissism. In contrast, we’re taught that being selfless and sacrificing our needs for the needs of others is something to be celebrated and commended.
In turn, many of us believe that ignoring our own needs is unavoidable to serve others. We’re told that it’s noble, something to be revered and rewarded. And in many ways, we may have even 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.
Ironically, self-care isn’t solely about caring for the self. The Relational and Environmental dimensions of self-care clearly involve others. In no way does self-care have to come at the expense of others. It isn’t always a solo gig.
Now let’s look at the opposite of selfishness: selflessness.
Selflessness is when we regard the well-being of others as more important than our own. For many, selflessness is 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.
Whether you are selfish or selfless depends on a lot of factors, including how your choices affect other people, how others perceive your choices, and how you perceive your own choices.
But there’s yet another layer to consider 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’re inundated with messages about putting on our own oxygen masks first, and we’re exposed to countless social media memes insisting that self-care isn’t selfish. Yet, because of the self-care paradox, many of us still struggle to believe we deserve it.
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 to care for your health.
How you define self-care will ultimately determine if (and when and how often) you practice it. 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.
Self-Care is Personal
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.)
The people who who weave self-care into their daily lives are some of the most giving people I know. So if self-care is selfish, then so be it. I can live with that.
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 and isn’t for you. Regardless of your perspective of the self-care paradox, the good news is you don’t need anyone’s approval or validation to invest in taking care of yourself.
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.