How Self‑Care Went From Scented Candles to Affirmations, and Why It Still Doesn’t Help
“Influencers ask you to ‘Live! Laugh! Love!’ but how do I do that in this economy?”
Picture a typical phone break. You scroll past images of babies, drone attacks, an overwrought hospital, a sunflower field, a distracted boyfriend meme about the latest political development.
Interspersed within these are Instagram accounts with handles a combination of words like boss, affirmations, success, healing, anxiety, tossed together with one line zingers that sound like profound wisdom and like nothing at all. “If you give up, you didn’t want it bad enough,” goes one.
An app reminds you to hydrate; another notification goes off, reminding you to exercise in 15 minutes. It might also show you how many steps you walked so far. Then, you might get a reminder from your mindfulness app about taking time to “just breathe.”
At the end of it all, an AI bot from yet another app might ask: “did you check in with yourself today?”
Increasingly, there is a disconnect between the self-care discourse the internet bombards us with and how our mental health responds. According to Farah Maneckshaw, a Mumbai-based therapist, some practices touted as self-care can be more harmful than healing. The dangerous thing about it all is that they appear benign, harmless. Tried and tested ways that “guarantee” peace. But even things like meditation and journaling can be traumatizing and anxiety-triggering for several people.
I think back to three years ago when I realized something was wrong with relying solely on journaling to cope with an abusive relationship. Rather than being cathartic as promised, it only imbued me with a greater sense of shame and self-blame for being in a situation I so clearly did not want to be in.
Cut to two years later. The morning after Covid19 test results returned positive for three people in my house, including me, I tried to calm an escalating panic with a meditation app. Instead, I was rewarded with a panic attack.
Eventually, I learned that you cannot meditate your way out of a storm. To preserve the self in a violent and unpredictable world, you need to work on getting out and finding unique things that can help you get there.
I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. Many accounts of self-care experiences gone wrong all point to one thing: a dangerous individualism in mental health discourse online, which puts the onus of mental health squarely on an individual.
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“I hate the word [self-care] because it acts as a reminder of something so important but so unachievable… but how do I do [self-care] if I don’t value myself? I think trauma does that to you,” says 24-year-old Simran.
Simran’s question is powerful but easy to lose sight of amid social media “affirmations” and disembodied reminders to take care of oneself. It isn’t easy to scroll through the internet for even a few moments without absently parsing through similar statements, stripped of all context and presented in neat, pleasant-looking templates.
Several critiques of self-care say that it’s consumerist because of all the products that promise rejuvenation, soothing, and healing. But with people’s growing disillusionment with scented candles and bubble baths, there seems to be less emphasis on buying things and more on abstract feelings like mindfulness, gratitude, and attentiveness. If you can’t buy them through apps, you can still consume them through social media accounts offering free tips and tricks to a healthier mind.
It is almost as if the internet sees your critique of self-care as elitist and unaffordable and says: you cannot afford the scented candles, but surely you can afford 15 minutes of centering techniques on a busy day?
But as Maneckshaw points out, not everyone has the same 24 hours. In an economy where time is currency, we can’t all “invest” in ourselves. Self-care “undermines the fact that people’s mental health and well-being is political and related to various intersections of their identity,” she says.
As Ipsita Chatterjee, founder of Thehraav: Unwind Your Mind, points out that writing down thoughts in a journal may help, but it cannot be the only thing one does. “In a collectivist culture, anxiety or depression is not an individual issue. They come from community-based issues- marginalization, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and if you [only] say meditate, you stop them from accessing care,” she says.
Take 28-year-old Damini, for instance. “It feels like a mockery of mental health when ‘mental health influencers’ — whatever that means — go ‘Live love laugh!’ I am trying! But how do I do that in this economy?” she asks. She feels a lot of pressure attached to the idea of self-care: having to take out time to “indulge” when she is just trying to get through a busy day makes her feel worse.
This guilt is not unfamiliar.
“It can be isolating, experiencing guilt in not enjoying these things… Unfortunately, social media polarizes a lot of things into helpful or not-helpful, but it isn’t so black and white,” explains Devika Kapoor, founder of InStrength Counselling. In other words, it can be profoundly alienating when you don’t find healing in the things that seem to help everyone else.
“It’s driving people away from one another. If you’re not doing enough self-care versus somebody who is, it creates a sense of competition and alienation,” says Sadaf Vidha, founder of Guftagu Counselling.
Kapoor and several other therapists explain that although the idea of self-care has its roots in community, somewhere along the way, the emphasis on community was lost. During the American Civil Rights movement, Black Panther activists emphasized the radicalness of caring for the self when the world doesn’t want you to exist. It was Audre Lorde who affirmed this when she said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
However, capitalism has taken over the term to signify particular lifestyle habits and inane practices that hardly help. The way the internet and social media package self-care is as a one-size-fits-all solution. What started as a tool of resistance for the marginalized is now restricted to able-bodied, upper class, upper caste individuals almost exclusively.
It’s also become light and easy when it was never meant to be in the first place. “Self-care is [meant to be] hard work; it’s making yourself survive in an extremely complex world. It’s not a mental health day from work. It’s a lot more than that. Self-care is not a privilege; it’s a necessity of survival,” says Chatterjee.
Exercise and yoga, for instance, are touted as easy fixes, and there is a guilting, shaming approach underlying the tone that people use while recommending them. But many influencers and narratives fail to acknowledge that disabled people or people struggling to survive cannot and do not have easy access to such lifestyle changes.
“Every time I indulge in self-care activities, especially the ones that require money, I need to work double to cover that up. For me, self-care has been more about being able to meet my basic needs,” says Vandana, 23, putting Chatterjee’s point into perspective.
“It can mean different things to different people. If it’s not contextualized that way, eventually, ableism will kick in in therapy. You cannot tell a survivor of violence to do self-care,” adds Chatterjee.
As a result, the cottage industry of affirmative language is intensely self-obsessed and apolitical. Draw all the boundaries, it seems to say. You don’t owe anyone your time. Put yourself first. You are not obligated to anyone.
When self-care is predominantly understood and expressed in this way, there is sometimes a distinct lack of self-reflection. “If I’m having a tough day and if someone is reaching out to me, I can say no because of boundaries. But there are complexities involved: how do your social locations differ?” asks Maneckshaw while speaking about a tendency in which people tend to “switch off” from one another.
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She reiterates that drawing boundaries can be powerful in a culture where we are taught not to have them. But somewhere along the line, this has led to people proclaiming all boundaries as the ultimate way to care for the self. It doesn’t look out for others who may need it more. Further, it doesn’t acknowledge that drawing boundaries involves a lot more than simply drawing a line; of saying no.
As Fiona Ward says, this form of self-care can sometimes cross over into what Jessica Pan calls “self-coddling,” which can be self-sabotage.
“If [self-care] is not implemented or understood properly, a flawed understanding can lead to people cutting off anything and anyone that conflicts with their beliefs in the name of self-care. That can lead to detachment. I have seen that happening around a lot,” says Vandana, who speaks to the alienation at the heart of self-care.
This inability to simultaneously look out for others as a community and ourselves “clearly shows how deficient we are in terms of responding to emotional needs of each other as well, structurally,” adds Kapoor.
To cope with a broken system, we are offered self-care as a stopgap solution that rarely ever helps in the long term. It keeps the broken system intact. Worse, it keeps us siloed and distant from one another.
Not only that, but the idea also takes away the onus of care and compassion from systems and societies to which an individual belongs. A recent tweet by the mindfulness app Calm asked people what employers could do for their employees’ self-care. The overwhelming response was telling: fewer self-care tips and workshops, better leave policies, higher salaries, more rest.
Therefore, even for the most privileged, it is clear that self-care, as it is currently touted, can be harmful. “In a capitalist society, there is an emphasis on what the person is doing incorrectly and why the person is not fulfilling their full potential. Then you also hear self-care in the context of ‘take care of yourself so you can perform better,’ which can be incredibly damaging,” says Kapoor.
When self-care is self-optimization, is there a self that is being cared for at all? It makes self-care less about the self, more about furthering the system that makes us seek care in the first place.
“Self-care could also be seen as a cheap replacement for social care. Already many governments around the world are starting to focus their resources on promoting self-care in the medical world,” writes André Spicer from the University of London, for The Guardian.
Maneckshaw points to notions of community care as a way to potentially move forward from the self-care discourse. It would mean complicating our notions of boundaries, she says. It would also mean that mental health would be far more complex than “go to therapy” — it would look at that we don’t heal in isolation, and healing is not an individual project but more of a collective project. “We heal through relationships,” she says.
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Sadaf Vidha also points out the need for many levels of care: community support, barefoot counselors, specialist care. “There is self-work that can be done to heal from trauma which can continue, but there are other layers of work and support. Putting people in touch with disability benefits, opportunities, and support groups are some ways,” she says.
In other words, self-care without “communities of care” is capitalist and individualistic and doesn’t get to the heart of the issues that keep people in perpetual pain.
But even individually, finding ways to take pleasure in things and be peaceful doesn’t have to be standardized. It can look like different things to different people, as mental health practitioners reiterate. Perhaps, finding ways back to each other — and to ourselves — is what we need to resist a culture that tells us we are responsible for fighting our battles alone.
Rohitha Naraharisetty is a Senior Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She writes about the intersection of gender, caste, social movements, and pop culture. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.