When Self-Care Hurts

I’m a big believer in self-care. Not in its form as an extravagant counter-point to our culture’s fetishization of extreme self-discipline, self-denial, and self-sacrifice, and certainly not in the unhealthy form it takes as a band-aid solution / release valve for the stress and anxiety that results from that same spartan lifestyle. Rather, I believe that self-care is valuable as a form of sub-conscious mediation about what we value. When we spend time with people we love, take time to ourselves, pamper and indulge ourselves, we are reminding ourselves that life can be beautiful. More importantly, we remind ourselves that we are responsible for bringing that beauty into the world, and that we are worthy of that beauty and of the effort necessary to achieve it.

But beauty doesn’t always take the form that we expect. I think of the months that I needed to use a cane when the arthritis in my knee flared up. I was worried about how the cane would affect the public’s perception of me, my employers’ perception of me, and even my perception of myself. I had to decide that I was going to prioritize my health. Sometimes self-care is taking on some debt to go back to school, asking for help to get away from an abusive relationship, telling your doctor about an embarrassing or frightening symptom, and then following through on the challenges that ensue. Self-care doesn’t always feel like a bubble bath. Sometimes it feels like the suffering of preventive surgery, the fear of risking your job to assert your boundaries, the heartbreak of admitting that a relationship just isn’t working, or the upset of going to rehab.

As always, self-care is a privilege, and giving one’s self permission to reprioritize and reallocate resources – even to an unpleasant enterprise – is premised on having sufficient control over sufficient resources. But it’s important to be cognizant that, to the extent that we have power, our responsibility to ourselves is not limited to a glass [bottle] of wine. We owe ourselves risk, pain, and embarrassment, because we owe ourselves hope, health, and happiness.

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