When does self-care become self-indulgence?
First of all, what do we mean by self-care? From what I’ve heard people say, it generally means something mostly physical, i.e. to do with physical health and well-being, perhaps in a sense that then is meant to positively affect mental health.
In this sense, self-care is brushing your teeth, eating a healthy, balanced diet, exercising regularly. It is keeping clean by showering frequently or, occasionally, by having a relaxing soak in the bath. It is spending time outdoors, preferably doing at least some gentle to moderate exercise, where you’ll get fresh air and sunlight. All of these things are good for your physical health and apparently improve your mental health, too. That’s what self-care is about, right?
But what about those days you want to stay curled up under the duvet? Or lounge around in your pyjamas? Or just eat chocolate? That’s not self-care, is it? That’s self-indulgence! And while self-care is important and good for us, self-indulgence is bad, dangerous, even (according to the voice in my head, anyway) evil!
Having a lie in, watching Netflix in our pyjamas, eating chocolate, biscuits or crisps, drinking sweet fizzy drinks or alcohol. These are indulgences most of us allow ourselves occasionally as special treats when we’ve achieved a goal, have something to celebrate or are feeling a bit under the weather. To do “too much” of them is self-indulgent. In fact to do “too much” of pretty much anything we enjoy is often considered self-indulgent – unless what we enjoy is something “virtuous” like working, exercising or dieting… except that dieting too much, of course, is called an eating disorder, at least assuming it makes you underweight (eating disorders, disordered eating and weight stigma are a whole other blog post)!
The problem with all of this is that, while actually those “indulgences” are actually part of self-care too when not indulged in “too much”, it seems to be society that sets the standard of what “too much” is. That’s the same society that has conditioned us to see self-indulgence as bad and wrong. And when we behave in ways that are considered self-indulgent, we experience all of the punishments society (or our internalised understanding of it) has to offer – shame, guilt, falls in self-esteem, perhaps even self-loathing and the like.
So how does this play out when our mental health is poor? I don’t know about you but when I’m feeling depressed or stressed, what I often feel I need is sleep and/or something comforting – perhaps something that gives me a hormonal boost like dopamine, serotonin or oxytocin. So I want to sleep in in the morning, eat some chocolate or carbs or snuggle on the sofa with a loved one in front of a Netflix. Self-indulgent, right? And fine if it’s just a little, once in a while.
Now imagine being deeply and chronically depressed (or perhaps, like me, you don’t need to imagine) or stressed, suffering from PTSD, a physical chronic illness, burnout or, if you’re autistic like me, autistic burnout. You might struggle to get out of bed at all. You might only feel able to eat certain foods, drink certain fluids. You might find the best you can do is crawl downstairs to the sofa and stick the TV on for a bit of escapism. Society has slowly accepted that some of these conditions warrant a bit more self-indulgence but now we are in territory where these things should qualify as self-care and it is society that needs to catch up.
For someone for whom getting out of bed and dressed before midday is an achievement, the line between self-care and self-indulgence is a problem. Their doctor might say they should try to do a little exercise, get outdoors, eat some healthier food – but those things might be unachievable. And the intrinsic shame and guilt over so-called self-indulgence and inability to achieve acceptable self-care will only lead to a worsening of mental health, including reduced self-esteem and yes, in some cases, genuine self-loathing.
So what should we be doing about that line – the one between self-care and self-indulgence? Should we be moving it a little? Making more allowance for those with poor mental health (and the numbers of people in that category are now extremely concerning)? Or perhaps we should eliminate that line altogether? Do away with the whole concept of self-indulgence with it’s associated stigma? Let people understand that whatever they need to do to maintain their mental health (assuming they’re not harming others) is actually okay? Even encourage and support people to find what works for them?
It’s an area that needs to be explored and debated, along with so much else relating to mental health.