I first purchased Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” at 6 a.m. from a vacant WHSmith book store at Birmingham Airport.
“Go and buy this book,” my brother told me over the phone.
It had been 30 minutes since I had said goodbye to my family, and I wasn’t in any state to question his advice. My eyes were viciously stinging from the river of tears they had shed, my head was throbbing from the wave of thoughts I was attempting to process, and my body was drowning in an uncomfortably familiar feeling of dread that was making its way from the tips of my toes to the depths of my chest. Buying a book didn’t seem like the best thing to do, but it also didn’t seem like the worst. Frankly, I don’t think there was a right thing to do, not when you’re about to start university on the other side of the world, anyway.
The cashier looked at me with pity and concern just as other travelers, cleaners, security personnel and attendants had.
“It will help,” my brother said as I wheeled my suitcase out of the store, tear stained tissue in one hand, New York Times bestseller in the other.
In that moment, as two flights across two continents stood before me, I made my way, one by one, through all the “coping mechanisms” that I had acquired over the last two years of therapy. Counting breaths, noticing the surroundings, checking in with my body and observing my thoughts were among those that I turned to. But had I been missing something all along? Were there better ways to deal with my anxiety that didn’t involve a Dialectical Behavior Therapy method, pills, or the limited time of a trained psychologist? Was it something that Manson, and his philosophy that life’s struggles generate meaning, as well as an entire culture of “self-care” could teach me?
According to Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi, when it comes to defining something as an act of self-care, there really are no set limits or rigid parameters:
“If an activity (or inactivity) makes you feel better, in body or mind, then it’s self-care,” Mahdawi explains in a recent article titled “Generation treat yo’ self: the problem with ‘self-care.’” “It could be yoga or cooking or simply turning off the news.”
While the hashtag version has expanded over the course of recent years, the very concept of self-care itself has existed long before the arrival of the guides or the Instagram accounts that promote it. Indeed, the idea of taking care of oneself was a central part of ancient Greek life as detailed by French Philosopher Michel Foucault. In fact, self-care was thought to foster a group of more honest and upstanding citizens. But what has prompted this sudden surge in self-care rhetoric within popular culture? Prior to the arrival of COVID-19, turbulent political transformations urged many to turn towards themselves, or rather consciously take time for themselves. Admittedly, I have always struggled with this before a global pandemic was in full force and before an outrageously outspoken president was leading one of the most powerful nations in the world. But these recent unsettling times have sent me and many others towards pretty much the only thing we can control: ourselves. Google searches for the term “self-care” peaked at a five-year high immediately after the presidential election of 2016, and according to a recent survey, 64% of Americans reported being focused on their mental health now more than ever, while 80% intend to regularly practice self-care after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The term itself, “self-care,” has rapidly evolved to represent an image to aspire to, an aesthetic to embody, and arguably an industry or product to sell. Manson’s “counter intuitive approach to living a good life” was among the first of its kind that I stumbled upon, but I have quickly grown to realize that self-care is not limited to words on a page. It is everywhere. It’s the bath bombs, the manicure kits, the superfood snacks, the “clean” juices in aesthetically pleasing mason jars, the planned exercise, the yoga workouts that appear on my social media feed, the indulgent and cozy nights in, and even the “self-care temporary tattoos” in the shape of Band-Aids offering encouragements such as “This too shall pass” and “I am enough.” The point is anything and everything can now be framed under the all-encompassing culture that is self-care, which for me is simultaneously reassuring and worrying.
Two years ago, looming A-Levels (final exams in U.K. high schools), mounting university application deadlines, and the pressure to have my life mapped out were weighing heavily on me. The only problem was, I didn’t notice. I was too busy, too stressed, and too distracted to even take the time to recognize what was happening to me, until I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I went to my mother first. It was one of those rare times where I didn’t quite know what to say to her or how to say it. All I knew was how I was feeling: overwhelmed by obligations, burdened by my self-imposed expectations, and consumed by a constant feeling of dread for the day that awaited me. But wasn’t exactly sure how to articulate these feelings.
I got to where I am now, in a place where I can both identify these feelings for what they are, and more often than not, overcome them, because I sought help that went far beyond my own capabilities. I talked through how I was feeling with my mum, then with a staff member at my high school, and eventually with a therapist. At each part of this, my understanding of these feelings grew, and I accumulated ways to manage them. Had I not attempted to source out external resources and had I not been fortunate enough to receive the support I did, would I be writing this from my college dorm room at the University, as the recipient of an incredible scholarship? I cannot answer that definitively.
Nonetheless, I am more or less certain that my mental health would be considerably worse off, a possibility I do not even wish to entertain.
Of course, my mother, my friends, a therapist and a mediation app that I would integrate into my everyday life wasn’t, and isn’t, enough to maintain a person’s mental well-being. Health and fitness is a huge part of my life. I relieve a lot of my anxiety in what are now socially distanced gyms, and I use writing as a creative and therapeutic outlet. There is no doubt that taking time for myself to eat some cheesecake, spend time with my boyfriend, cook for myself and others, or binge watch the entirety of Netflix were among the ways I began to deafen or at least soften the feelings I was experiencing.
I am sure that large parts of Manson’s book gave me food for thought, encouraging me to consider where I allocate my fucks and if redistributing them or holding on to less of them was essential to improving both my mental and physical health. I’m not suggesting otherwise, nor am I categorically condemning a movement which in its essence emphasizes the need to be kinder to ourselves, there is really no better time than now to embrace this practice. I do, however, suggest that we cannot reduce mental health treatments or support to a product that an inherently consumerist market wishes to sell me. If I had been under the impression that having a bubble bath or purchasing a temporary tattoo would entirely alleviate the anxiety I was beginning to understand, I would have been left disappointed and possibly more confused when I didn’t get the relief I was looking for.
“Why don’t I feel any better? Is there something more that I should be doing or what is wrong with me?” are the kind of thoughts I imagine would have flooded and darkened my already muddled mind.
Moreover, I challenge the assumption that mental health problems, which go much deeper than the healing powers of a facial or a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, can be remedied without sufficient, structured, and specialized mental health care. I believe that the onus of responsibility a person bears to initiate recovery does not solely lie with them, nor should a constant stream of social media posts from self-care influencers, or anyone else for that matter, drive people like me to feel as if they aren’t doing enough to begin their recovery when the feelings simply do not go away. I still sometimes find myself feeling overwhelmed as I scroll through Instagram; I see the kinds of self-care other people are doing and am instantly reminded of the self-care I am not doing. Even if I have meditated that day or taken what I think is time for myself, it’s as if my self-care is being put in competition with another person’s self-care, and more often than not, they appear to be winning.
I strongly agree with those who have suggested that this influx of self-care may be masking a multitude of problems demanding our attention—first of all, the shortcomings of systems which fail to meet the physical and mental health needs of its people. Indeed, almost 30 million adults and children living with mental health conditions in the United States go without any treatment. There is also the overriding sense of privilege which permeates this narrative of self-help culture: What happens when I can’t afford to splurge on a mani-pedi, what if I don’t have access to a space where I can exercise, or what if I can’t simply bring myself to practice self-care? What then? I don’t have all the answers to these questions. What I do know is that when it comes to looking after my own mental health, there are things that work and others that don’t. We cannot have a blanket, one-size-fits-all, band-aid approach. To do so would suggest that my anxiety is the same as someone else’s, that how I navigate these feelings is the same as someone else.
I’m glad that my brother convinced me to buy Manson’s book that late August morning. I keep it on my shelf in my dorm room as I make my way through my third semester of college. I never know when I might want to turn to it for a new way of thinking about how I perceive what is happening in my life or about how I deal with those things. I also never know when I might want to turn to a friend for a listening ear, a boyfriend for encouragement, or a trained professional for concrete advice and solutions. One of the “delights” of having anxiety is that I never really know when it might rear its ugly head again. But I’m not as worried about that as I used to be because I am not ashamed to admit that I can’t always face it by myself. The alternative would be to rest my recovery and mental well-being on what is at times a dangerously materialistic culture: one that I might not be able to afford, one that may feed into the stigma associated with reaching out for professional mental health support, and one that may actually exacerbate my feelings more than it eases them.
Tiah Shepherd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.