9 min read
I have come a long way along the path towards self-care and self-love. To avoid being that trickster though, who hooks you in with a controversial title and then does a complete U-turn halfway through, I’ll do it now instead and say: Sure, self-love, self-care and self-compassion are vital to self-esteem and good mental health. There is no way to be truly mentally well without decent sense of self-worth, and being able to provide basic care for yourself in any circumstance. But what if you can’t?
There is a burgeoning awareness, especially (to my notice) in women’s conversations, about the benefits and necessity of self-love and self-care. It goes by many names, and so in that sense it clearly belongs equally to many male spiritual or mental-health advisers and practitioners from all corners of the globe and all aeons. It certainly should never be overly ridiculed as an outgrowth of individualism and excessive selfishness, or, heaven forbid, compared with narcissism. But amongst women, the patient but insistent voices calling on us to ask deep and complicated questions about whether we truly love ourselves enough (for example, enough to be mentally healthy in a hetero relationship where we may have to grapple daily with unconscious expectations that our needs matter less), have gradually morphed into loud, proud, ubiquitous voices proclaiming self-care and self-love as the panacea for everything from loneliness and depression to period pain and chronic ailment.
Enough. I can see, from both sides of my own (in)ability to love myself, how essential it is. I am also beginning to realise that I only became able to develop self-loving feelings, and stagger drunkenly down the path of ‘lifestyle changes’ that might incrementally amount to ‘proper self-care’, as a direct result of first discovering a large group of people who were enthusiastically reminding me on a regular basis that I could, should and deserved to, be loved and cared for to this extent, including by myself, or, starting with myself. People have been telling me that it was normal, right, not immoral or selfish, to meet my own needs – first no less! – even if other people might still want or need something from me in that minute, day, month.
Before I get carried away backwards into a blind alley let me clarify, for both our sakes, that I do not believe that we need a community to tell us to keep ourselves nice and cared-for so we can go out looking (and being) our best and hook a good man. That’s not the trajectory our fourth-wave feminist grandkids have written for themselves, so shame on us if we think it’s our only option either.
What I’m saying is that self-care has a double edge, like everything, and that using it as a mantra for well-being risks disguising the many important ways in which we are interdependent, intertwined even. And dare I say it – we are sometimes actually dependent. We need to depend on other people. On the one hand, I could not have created the particular pattern of self-esteem I’m currently running with, without much help from women with similar life experiences to mine, corroborating those experiences and sharing tools for recovery. On the other hand, it’s delusional to imagine that I/we/one will never have needs that simply must be met by another human being, or more. Not only care when we are sick, injured, in delirium, trapped at sea on a lilo, or very very old or young; visits in prison. But also basic anti-loneliness needs like chatting, hugging, comparing notes on day-to-day experiences and difficult people, and having an audience, be it of one or one million, for the more extreme events we run into which need expressing sooner or later as a form of hygiene for the psyche.
As usual, it’s a game of words when you strip it back. Take ‘anti-loneliness’ which I just trotted out. What a revolting alternative to ‘healthy’ or ‘normal’. While choosing words carefully we can also define self-love, self-care and self-compassion in ways that marry with our need to build and maintain strong self-esteem and good mental health. We can also find ourselves slipping down the slope towards feeling shit about ourselves for not being more ‘resilient’ emotionally, because we’re so far failing to be good enough at self-care and self-love, not realising that these feelings won’t come from nowhere, especially when we have many scripts running that counter them. In this case they will only come on the back of consistent mutual support, even if that has to come in the first instance from books, or groups or services or the internet. For me it was crucially the Red Tent, a global network of women’s groups that are free to attend.
Having ploughed the lonely furrow of searching for how to love myself better than this proper dodgy scriptwriter in my head, I found, when I met a guy and fell for him, that I was actually in conflict with myself simply over enjoying and accepting being loved. Naturally, there was the time-honoured badge-of-past-hurts which kept me from unreservedly feeling the love that was being offered. And (no shit) there were other obstacles. But the self-love-achievement endgame reveals that building greater self-esteem (fake it till you make it) has been utterly intertwined with that particular healing process that is receiving loving-care from a real person … these are not two separate, parallel types of allowing-in of love. If I was rendered single again (somehow without a major personal-identity crisis/self-esteem nosedive), my current self-love level would set me in good stead compared with past cycles. But I would mobilise it with gusto to attract warm, open, committed and loyal people into my life; people with whom I could continuously give and receive care and attention, in a variety of forms.
I think maybe inner-love would be a safer term. Where there is weak inner-love, there is vulnerability to accepting disrespectful treatment from others. That includes accepting inadequate care, either from individuals in roles close to us, from professionals paid to provide care services, or from society at large. Specifically not accepting a lack of adequate care provision for such challenges as chronic illness or disability is a crucial marker of strong self-esteem.
To clarify, it has been through the loving care of both a nurturing partner who takes the same pleasure from looking after me when I am exhausted, sick or down, that I take in looking after him, and the consistent mutual support of women coming together to remind one another that we must value ourselves properly if we want to be well, that I have been able to develop a sense of self-worth which can stand up – most of the time – to unjust, internalised, ‘inner’ criticism. This inner voice is a particularly vicious foe for those who work too hard and burn out – expecting more than most from themselves, and suddenly being able to do none of it. It can be psychologically crippling, and in our atomised society, they/we make up just one of the many groups for whom even basic daily needs are scarcely met … a bubble bath just isn’t going to cut it.
Self-worth is an essential aspect of a healthy human self, and self-care as a concept is a vital deterrent to being a doormat, or a laundry-and-dinner-machine, one which women in particular and parents in general need reminding of frequently. But in spite of its name it cannot thrive in isolation, and wherever loneliness is probable due to a lack of real community, ‘self-care’ can double as yet another aspiration to manage on your lonesome: to believe that all that is needed – not only to flourish in your relationship with yourself, but also in order to be shiny enough to deserve company – is a lot of willpower to make you feel like you like yourself a lot. Do me a favour.
All hail the true hermit whose solitude is merely an outward manifestation of his/her bottomless well of loving connection to some flavour of God, aka the living presence within themselves; and who is really not in any way avoiding the hurly-burly of everyday life. Find them on the third mountain to the East, second left after the unicorns.