In my personal and professional networks, it’s not uncommon to hear people talk about the need for “self-care.” In personal contexts, this is usually in reference to bubble baths, wine, and trips to the beach. In professional contexts, it means taking a day off work after a long week of meetings or going to happy hour at 5:01pm.

I absolutely support this. I am a proponent of low bank account balances for the sake of participating in the human experience in the present moment and being unapologetic about it. After all, ya can’t take it with ya, amirite?

But (of course there was going to be a but), my observation is that these methods of self-care are small blips on the overall span of many peoples’ treatment of themselves. For example…

  • a person will scold themselves for days about their weight or resistance to going to the gym, then eat their brains out in the name of “self-care” but completely ignore all the negative self-talk they endured beforehand (and probably repeat this cycle again); *speaking from personal experience*
  • a person will take an extended vacation in response to being chronically overworked (or choosing to stay at work more than they are paid without the promise of overtime payment…hmm…) in the name of “self-care,” only to return to work, feel guilt and shame for missing so much, and overwork themselves yet again despite the lesson they learned on vacation: “Time for myself is needed”;
  • a person will spend a quiet Sunday connecting with a guided meditation, writing in a journal, lighting incense, and taking a therapeutic walk outside, likely gaining valuable insight about their personal circumstances and worldviews, yet abandon this insight when they snap back to reality and must actually do the work to align themselves with these new discoveries.

I’m not trying to be shady–really. I have done all these things at a point or two in my life, and when I reflected about it with startling honesty, I realized: Damn, this kind of self-care is unsustainable. Self-care that serves as the exception, not the rule, in someone’s life may point to the fact that:

  • they are using self-care to perpetuate their own victim mentality, using self-care to justify making poor choices that deflect responsibility and ownership;
  • they are using self-care for attention, caring more about being seen engaging in self-care and talking about it rather than doing it intrinsically;
  • they do it so scarcely because they genuinely believe they aren’t deserving of care–from themselves or from anyone else.

Here’s where it gets interesting, folks. Do you realize that most of us–maybe including you–have been programmed throughout our lives to not care for ourselves? Like most socializations, the microchip of deflecting our own care, comfort, and self-worth are embedded deeply and covertly into our ways of being–and it’s been there since since birth. Think about it:

You were taught that being kind meant giving compliments to other people. But were you ever taught how to give a compliment to yourself? Or was that considered self-indulgent?

You were taught that sharing = caring and learned to share with other people. But did you ever learn how to ask people to share with you? Or was that considered selfish?

You were taught to celebrate the victories of others because they deserve love and support. But were you taught how to celebrate your own victories and be proud of yourself? Or was that considered arrogant?

You were taught (especially if you attended Catholic school like moi) that bodies were sinful, sex was bad, and “God” didn’t like it when you kissed boys or masturbated. So then I know you weren’t taught that your body is yours and you can do anything you fucking want with it.

**

I believe that we, generally speaking, have made humility the enemy of something much more powerful and sustainable than “self-care”:

Self-love.

In our attempt to have good manners, be polite, and not be considered rude or competitive, many of us have sacrificed the ability to do for ourselves what we so freely, authentically, and consistently do for others: be kind, give praise, overwhelmingly affirm and support, and love. You may be cringing at this idea, which alone is evidence to support your mind’s resistance to treating yourself well.

As someone who works with university community engagement programs, I spend a lot of time with women in their late teens and early twenties. These are wildly talented, intelligent, capable women, yet their number one barrier to success as student leaders and community engagers is their depletion of self-worth. These are the same students who will write pages of notes of affirmation for their peers–even verbally offer praise and love to their peers with immense vulnerability. But when I ask them why they feel uncomfortable doing the same for themselves, they say, “I don’t want to sound cocky.”

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This emoji is not my anger toward them. It is toward the socialization that created such a self-defeating response–a system we are all socialized into and unconsciously participate in and perpetuate. This system has created generations of people who will begin sentences with “I don’t deserve to be so lucky to have had _____” or, especially among religious individuals, sentences like “I am not worthy of _____; God is “too good to me.”

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A few things:

Our universe wants to give us everything; there are no limitations to its abundance. We can be grateful for what we have without rejecting our worthiness of it. When we deflect our capacity to receive and be happy by saying, “I don’t deserve this,” the universe sassily says, “Would you just accept the fucking gift already?!” The truth is that I deserve all of it. You deserve all of it. We deserve all of it. (You deserve the cheesecake). One of my tensions with organized religions is the idea that everything we do, accomplish, or love is for a deity. The infinitely abundant universe I believe in does not grant me abundance because I credit all of my love and success to it. It grants me abundance because I am thankful for what I’ve worked for in tandem with the universe. We are partners in co-creating my beautiful reality, and we both enjoy the bliss that follows.

Confidence is not arrogance. I will never forget when my current supervisor gave me feedback after my interview/before I was hired and said that during my presentation, people couldn’t figure out if I was confident or arrogant. I accepted this feedback gracefully with an internal chuckle, knowing that my now-colleagues probably didn’t know what to do with someone who showed up with confidence. I believed I was qualified for this job and would do it well, and I wasn’t about to make self-depreciating comments about my candidacy just for the sake of buying into the socialization of false humility. Did I believe I was a perfect human being? Of course not. Were there parts of the role I knew would challenge me? Of course. But these were merely questions of professional capacity. While I held some nervousness about interviewing, the person who showed up absolutely loved himself, and it showed.

Self-love is not elitism. Just because we love ourselves — love our competence, our bodies, our talents, our skills, our home, our relationships — does not mean we think we are better than other people. In our American cultural value of competition, we are trained to sniff out any potential threat while keeping our own cards hidden, so to speak, as to not reveal our strengths and risk being “beaten.” I think this is bullshit. Earlier this summer, halfway through the week at a leadership program I facilitated at, I told my facilitator peers during debrief that I thought I was fucking killing it with my group, then snapped to myself! The room screamed, “Yass!!!” and nobody accused me of thinking I was better than anyone else in the room because they knew I didn’t think that. They praised me for being so honest about my self-love, unapologetically. I wish more people could do this freely.

Accepting compliments is not narcissistic. Also, if you really accept the compliment genuinely, don’t immediately compliment the other person back. Not only is that compliment likely to be insincere (well-intentioned, but insincere), but more importantly you are deflecting the attention on yourself. Bask in the moment, honey! A teaching colleague once told me to not be afraid of stepping in the spotlight because I deserve to be there. Yo, we all deserve to be there. Accept positive affirmations and affirming energy with grace and gratitude. Pay it forward one day soon.

Loving yourself with such abandon only seems audacious until you’re used to it. If you think I’ve been walking this talk all my life, you’re wrong. My self-love was in the gutter as much as anyone else’s (for years and years; what do you expect from a closeted gay, obese teenager with divorced parents?) until I made the choice to audaciously flip the script. It takes time, to be sure, but there are things you gotta do if you really believe it, like…

Tell yourself you look hot in the mirror every morning. Tell your best friend you got an A on your paper because you’re proud of yourself. Have sex if you wanna. Eat that chocolate budge brownie if you wanna. Take a vacation to Europe if you wanna! Ask for help when you don’t understand something and suspend the judgment on yourself when you do–this opportunity to learn does not define you as a deficient person. Be nice to other people and accept when they are nice to you. Be vulnerable and tell people when you’re feeling shitty, and be honest with them and tell them when you feel like you’re on fucking fire.

Let self-care be a byproduct of self-love, not a vacation to it.

After all, henny:

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