I’ve got the classic Calgon lady in the featured image because “Calgon, take me away!” was the TV-commercial version of self-care I remember growing up. I’ve only learned very recently that the bubble bath variety of self-care is part of the reason why conversations about self-care so frequently left me feeling awful.
I would walk away from conversations about self-care feeling guilty, shameful, and down on myself. As if I were somehow a less-good person because of my obvious failures at bubble baths.
In reality, it comes down to a few key things: First, the cultural myth of the effectiveness of the grand gesture, instead of the day to day small bits of attention. Second, the definition of how, when and where self-care actually occurs in women’s lives – writ large – and my life in particular.
I’ve journaled about this a lot, and I’m writing this in the hope that it can help someone else stop feeling ashamed of bubble-bath failures and instead see true self-care emerge.
The Cultural Myth of the Grand Gesture
The best metaphor I have for this is a romantic one. Imagine a romantic partner, who on the brink of being dumped, shows up with the big giant flourishing romantic gesture after six months of never holding hands or hearing how your day was or washing the dishes. The gesture is enough for you to know they care. They really don’t want you to leave, right?
Our movies, television and pop culture like to pretend that standing outside with a boom box level gestures are enough to get the girl back. They like to say that these huge, climactic, grandiose things are the way we keep and stay in love. When all of the science says otherwise. In reality, the big gestures are only helpful as flourishes to already-healthy relationships.
Our cultural myth applies this exact same theory to self-care.
(Read: If I give myself a dozen me-time-roses and a pair of earrings, I will be all better.)
Now, I’m not knocking the afternoon in the sun by myself. Nor am I knocking my husband giving me flowers and jewelry. The problem comes in when that is the only demonstration of love and care that is given. Carving out me-time after dinner doesn’t cut it.
You see, I thought that self-care had to happen in the form of the grand gesture. It had to be an act of doing. I would carefully list out all of the the things I could do to take care of myself. It was a long list. It included everything from dieting to bubble baths to taking days off to just lay in bed. It was a growing list that felt like it was becoming increasingly inadequate at taking care of anything I really needed.
It was around this point in time that I realized I was stressing myself out about being stressed out. I was not doing adequate self-care, because my list of self-care items was overwhelming, and I couldn’t get to any of them. I went to my therapist and burst into tears, telling her that I failed at taking care of myself.
Obviously, we’ve spent several sessions on this topic since then.
The cultural myth of self-care is that it’s something you carve out time to do – that it’s something you can put on a to-do list at all.
When, How, and Where Self-Care Actually Happens
My mini-epiphany came when I realized that the self-care items on my to-do list were all “too little, too late,” and that I needed to short-circuit the need for the to-do list to really achieve any sense of inner peace of mind.
Self-care happens in the moment. It happens when we decide whether to speak our truths or bottle emotions. It happens when we breathe through pain and let it work its way through us instead of pushing it away. It happens when we try to figure out ways to honor our needs in the day-to-day rush of life and be true to our authentic selves.
For me, self-care happens when I put on my headphones more at my desk. It happens when I carve out a few hours a week at work to be free from interruptions to get a few things knocked off my to-do list so I don’t freak out about not getting things done. It happens when I say no to social engagements when I’m overstimulated, or on the verge of being so. It happens when I spend a lunch hour alone in the sun.
Self-care is taking care of myself, respecting myself, and honoring myself in each moment of the day – not just during down time after dinner. I need to give my Self the small, constant, consistent gestures of love and respect that build a solid long-term relationship.
Why I’m Writing This
Frankly, I’m a little embarrassed to be writing this. My husband, when I told him all of this, said “I just assumed you were doing all of that already.”
But I wasn’t. So I figured there had to be other people out there like me, who might need to read this blog. I figured I couldn’t be the only one blundering along, trying to get by on grand gestures of self-care and feeling like I was failing at it. I figure I can’t be the only one feeling like it got all turned around. A vicious cycle of stress and exhaustion that ultimately made it all my fault that I was stressed and exhausted because I just wasn’t good at taking care of myself.
I wrote this in case there’s someone else who needs to read it.
I also want to put this out into the larger conversation, because I think there’s another question to add to the mix: How much of the myth of the grand gesture of self-care is to turn women’s stress and exhaustion back on ourselves? To make it our problem? To shame us for being stressed and tired?
We are working full-time jobs, parenting, running ourselves ragged, and being superwomen. We’re still doing it, patriarchy be damned. We’ve given up on the myth of work/life balance and we’d really just like the knot between our shoulder blades to relax. If old Calgon can’t do that, isn’t that our fault?
I don’t have any answers to that question. But I thought I’d ask it. It’s rolling around in my head, and I feel like it’s worth asking.