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You Aren’t Failing at Self-Care

You want a change in your self-care routine, but you have no idea where to start. Maybe you plan an occasional self-care day or weekend and you’re like, “I’m gonna hydrate and eat healthy and exercise and clean my house, then rest, and I’ll feel so much better,” but you keep finding yourself binging Friends for the 17th time and polishing off a whole package of Double Stuf Oreos. Rather than feel fulfilled, you feel guilty, thinking, “I’m failing. I should get outside. I should workout. I shouldn’t eat all of these.” Now, the Sunday Scaries are upon you, and you’ve wondered yet again why you can’t get your shit together.

I hear you saying, “Yeah, but how in the world is binging on Friends and cookies truly self-care?!” I note your objections. You’re likely thinking you were lazy, gluttonous, and failing at adulting. Let me offer you a kinder perspective that isn’t based on outdated expectations based on Protestant work ethic2 and other impersonal patriarchal ideals:

You were being you. In fact, sociology says you were simply acting as you do back stage. Briefly, 20th Century sociologist Ervin Goffman borrowed theater terminology to explain how our behavior varies based on the setting. The way we act in front of and among others is called the front stage. However, the way we behave when we’re alone is called the back stage. What you did during your self-care weekend was simply do what you do back stage, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that!

Put it this way: Beyond the role of the self, we play countless other roles in life–child, employee, sibling, consumer, etc. Because those roles involve interacting with other people, each role demands from us certain behaviors like following rules, working hard, not giving purple nurples, and buying stuff. No matter what you do, you can’t simultaneously fulfill all the expectations of every role all the time. Your Friends and Oreos weekend might’ve been a disappointment to a personal trainer, but Netflix and Oreo loved you. So, when folks say you can’t please everyone, that’s why! But how you made others happy is not what self-care asks.

The impact of external influences on the self makes life fucking hard. Think about the battle for work-life balance. One study says, “94% of workers in the professional service industry work over 50 hours a week.”1 There are only 168 hours in a week, which means a chunk of us spend 30% of our waking week hours focusing on our profession. And that’s just the hours we actually work. It doesn’t account for how many hours we spend thinking about work or commuting. How can anyone successfully separate their work-related front-stage behaviors from their back-stage selves when capitalism demands that much of us? Unless we’re fantastic at boundary setting and compartmentalizing, front-stage influences sneak into our back stage far too often. (Hey, get out of there!) Thus, when we’re on our own, hearing ourselves over the noise of the front stage is a bigger challenge than we realize. And we need to give ourselves grace.

Those sneaky front stage demands are what I call Shitty Shoulds. They’re the barrier between us and effective, honest self-care. Because the question self-care asks is this:

Despite what Shitty Shoulds says, there’s nothing wrong with watching re-watching Friends or anything else countless times. Unless you have a medical condition that requires otherwise, there’s nothing wrong with eating a lot of cookies over a weekend. If you’re like, “Yeah, but . . .” Take a moment to ask where your objections originated. You certainly weren’t born thinking Friends and Oreos were bad things. So, who taught you that? What did they stand to gain by making you doubt your joy? And how much guilt can you save by rejecting their demands?

It’s not to say self-care is only about indulgence, which it’s popularly misconstrued to promote thanks to weird-ass patriarchal rules about being kind to ourselves. But if indulgence brings us joy and we aren’t maliciously hurting ourselves or anyone else, it’s OK to enjoy yourself.



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