Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Why Self-Care Gets Such a Bad Rep

Recently, I had the opportunity to go hear someone speak on the topic of managing change. What it turned out to be was a sermon on self-care. It started off fine: "Let go of the things over which you have no control."

And then, it got ugly. 

If the presenter hadn't been so patronizing, and so obviously skewed to promoting her own agenda, I might have enjoyed the content of the presentation. However, having learned through experience and therapy to do the very things I heard this person talking about, I found the way it was put forth to be an insult to my intelligence. It cheapened all the valuable lessons I had learned in my healing process and reduced them to pithy little platitudes that implied that the reason why people were having a difficult time with change was that they had a bad attitude. She was, in essence, blaming the victim.

See the glass half-full." I couldn't believe my ears. "Choose to be happy. Smile. Be an optimist. Embrace change."

Excuse me? Even if change is ushered in at the hands of brutal people who care nothing about my situation but more about their career advancement, their political futures or their fat pensions? 

If I've learned anything in the last four years in recovery, it's that it is okay, and yes, even appropriate, to respond to injustice ... with anger. Anger motivates; anger - if harnessed properly - can produce positive change.  Need proof? The suffragettes, the Boston Tea Party, the American Revolutionary War, the Human Rights Declaration ... the list goes on.

The kind of change management proposed by this individual was the "lay down and accept change to the point of letting the machinery chew you up and spit you out." 

This is partly what gives self-care proponents a bad reputation. (The other side, equally extreme, is the "I'm going to take care of my self and the rest of you people don't matter, so just go jump in the lake" attitude - just as damaging.) 

The photo "Mirror" courtesy of Arvind Balaraman
The extreme that these folks go to, though, is passivity - something that the ancient Greeks called stoicism. It's a "Hakuna Matata" mentality - bad things happen and there's nothing you can do about it, so just throw up your hands and give up; tell yourself that it's not so terrible, and spout positive confessions that fly in the face of the truth. Never mind that it's wrong. Never mind that people are getting hurt. No, it's not your responsibility. Just sit down by the river, take deep breaths, and strum Kum Ba Yah. And don't forget to smile.

Even if your heart is breaking. 

The allure of this kind of thinking is that it perpetuates the illusion that all is well, and that you have some control over what is happening by denying its existence. Stick your head in the sand. Pretend there's no problem. 


The problem is that there IS a problem. Denying it - whatever it is - is not going to make it go away. 

As a matter of fact, it's lying - to the self. And the body takes a really dim view of that kind of deception. It will exact payment: stress-related illnesses, for example. Cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, ulcers, chronic fatigue syndrome, migraines, high blood pressure, heart disease ... the list goes on.

Self-care involves letting go, yes. However, it also involves setting boundaries ... and enforcing them. It is about choosing to be happy, but it doesn't ignore or suppress emotions as they occur, and it is not ashamed to show them. There is a balance between the two extremes; that balance is self-care, and the extremes ... aren't. Self-care requires honesty with oneself, openness to explore new things, and willingness to do whatever it takes (even if it's hard) to be free. 

Why self-care gets such a bad reputation is that self-care is portrayed - and pursued - in a one-sided manner. When it's balanced, healing can take place. 

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