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Self-care isn’t always great advice

Tyler Vu

It’s that time again where we often dwell on how we “suck” at life and school and how we’re concentrated balls of stress and spite. This is also when The Observer does an obligatory mental health check-in as we grind for midterms and complete a boatload of assignments before fall break.

In order to trudge through these trying times, we’re frequently told to practice “self-care.” It’s a trendy term that society has latched onto in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and has been shoved down our throats by administrative wellness programs and well-intentioned individuals.

But what does this term mean?

Unfortunately, self-care does not mean binge-eating several scoops of Mitchell’s ice cream for dinner; rather, it involves a set of activities you do that results in better physical, mental and emotional health for yourself.

While people commonly think of recreational tasks such as journaling as self-care, it also includes essential routines: maintaining personal hygiene, eating nutritious meals, sleeping enough, staying active, doing laundry and cleaning your living space.

However, this version of self-care is only great when everything goes smoothly—which is rare in college. It’s mostly unhelpful advice.

Let me set the scene: You are stressed juggling coursework, jobs, extracurriculars and a social life. And don’t forget you have to boost your career prospects by applying for internships and polishing your LinkedIn profile!

Sounds exhausting already! These self-care tasks seem simple, but they require you to make lots of little decisions and plan them around everything else. Consider laundry: You have to think about how much detergent is left, when to do laundry, how much you need to wash, what to do if the machines break down and so on.

The sheer mental strain of tackling these care tasks when you are already stretched thin results in decision fatigue, which can leave you too drained to do anything. But most of us contend with far worse problems—mental illness, homesickness, past trauma and executive dysfunction to name a few. During those times, self-care doesn’t help when just getting through the day is hard enough.

Additionally, we often put value in societal expectations regarding self-care that are thrust upon us by Instagram and wellness programs. For instance, we are told to make and eat nutritious meals and are given “great” ways to tidy-up our living space. Oftentimes, these expectations aren’t realistic due to limited time and finances, but we abide by them anyways. Compared to these standards, our version of self-care is never “good enough.”

When we consider all of these aspects, self-care becomes an additional burden that we don’t have the capacity or time to handle. Rather than making our working conditions less stressful, society shifts the onus on us to better ourselves when we’re already struggling. As a result, when we understandably can’t manage it all, we feel immense shame and failure. That’s not what self-care should be.

Personally, the idea of self-care frustrated me because I have often lacked the will or energy to carry out these care tasks. I wondered what was wrong with me if I couldn’t do something as simple as self-care.

Then I watched a revolutionary TED Talk by licensed therapist KC Davis called “How to do laundry when you’re depressed.” I rarely give much value to TED talks, but she helped me realize that the current concept of self-care was faulty for many others, too—as she puts it, “hundreds of thousands of people in my comment sections [were] telling me that these daily care tasks were a major pain point in their life.”

In response, Davis introduces a more practical, compassionate version of self-care known as “struggle care,” born out of her struggle to simultaneously manage her household and family during the pandemic.

One tenet of struggle care is that “care tasks are morally neutral.” What she means is that self-care tasks don’t define your worth as a person. Struggling to do them isn’t shameful and doesn’t make you a failure. Practicing self-care is a terrible metric of your self-worth.

Be kind to yourself—no matter how much you’re currently struggling, you still deserve to eat, stay clean and live the best life you can at the very least. But how do we put that into action?

As Davis says, “throw away what you think care tasks ‘should’ look like and work towards a way of doing them that works for YOU.” This could mean “showering” with wet paper towels, using disposable plates and utensils instead of real dishes and heating a frozen meal or ordering out for dinner. Allow yourself to do the bare minimum to care for yourself because that is usually good enough.

Likewise, if you’re currently unable to manage all of your academic and extracurricular commitments, taking a step back is also “morally neutral”; it’s not a reflection of weakness or failure on your end.

At the end of the day, our well-being is a fragile entity that requires constant upkeep. While it can be challenging in a taxing environment like Case Western Reserve University, we can approach self-care in a way that is far easier on the mind and body, because that’s how it should be.

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About the Contributor
Tyler Vu
Tyler Vu, Graphic Designer
Tyler Vu (he/him) is a second-year majoring in mechanical and aerospace engineering. He spends his free time driving around Cleveland to find cool places to eat, going to the gym, losing to the elderly in pickleball or bothering his friends.

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