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Beware of Self-Care Myths and Misperceptions

By J. Jay Miller, PhD, MSW, CSW, and Erlene Grise-Owens, EdD, LCSW, MSW, MRE

Self-care—it’s all the rage. Popular media extoll the importance of it. Social media feeds are replete with tips, guides, and resources for engaging in it. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lauds the positive impacts of self-care activities. Everyone seems in the market for self-care products. Seemingly, in this contemporary landscape, no one can get enough self-care.

Certainly, the subject deserves increased attention. The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic has fostered an environment of unease, uncertainty, and urgency. In addition to the widely covered medical crises, myriad undesirable social consequences and conditions—such as societal inequalities, unjust systems, and toxic environments—are magnified. These underlying consequences and conditions are layered with the daily stresses of rapidly deploying remote technology, working from home, and/or navigating a physical work environment where basic safety is imminently threatened. Normative protocols are modified or abandoned altogether.

For many, these crisis conditions are exacerbated by responsibilities associated with homeschooling, increased caretaking, or other roles. For some, their own compromised health or loved one’s illness—even death—take on even more stress during this crisis. Collectively, these factors constitute existential, societal, and practical crises in exponential proportions.

Lure of the Quick Fix
In these times, it’s even more tempting to look for a quick fix. The allure of a magic salve of “self-care” to make it disappear or, at least, temporarily obscure the overwhelming stress is tempting. And, as always, a consumeristic, sound-bite–oriented culture stands ready to fill that order—for momentary relief. But, be wary of the superficial selling of self-care.

The authors have been studying self-care for more than a decade, and wish to share two profound and parallel conclusions.

First, self-care can assuage the stressors associated with this pandemic crisis—deeply and effectively. Research indicates that self-care can be an effective strategy to address vicarious trauma, burnout, and stress, among other problematic conditions.

Second, a persistent—albeit, often subtle—array of misperceptions and myths restrict and even damage the potency of self-care. Countering those misunderstandings is necessary to access the full potential of self-care. Many widely held conceptions of self-care are limited, superficial, and sometimes simply wrong. Suggested practices can be overly simplistic to the point of drastically diminishing the essential nature of self-care. The overuse of self-care as a panacea product creates an obtuse understanding, which leads to ineffective activation.

The authors wish to empathetically refute some of the more common myths. Naming these misperceptions and providing counter conceptualizations is important for avoiding the faulty quick-fix products and simplistic strategies being offered during this crisis.

Myth #1: Self-care is a consumeristic, feel-good response.

Counter: Self-care is wholistic engagement in an array of integrated practices that foster well-being.

One of the biggest myths about self-care is that it’s a “product” to be purchased. Thus, it’s seen as a bubble bath for escaping. It’s advertised as a spa getaway or other “luxury.” Our consumeristic culture relentlessly promotes this simplistic understanding.

Some buy into this consumeristic self-care and, understandably, experience buyer’s remorse when it does not produce long-term results. Actually, it often compounds feelings of shame, confusion, and inadequacy. Thus, the cycle continues, as consumeristic marketing promises the next product will assuage those feelings. Others, ironically—rather than critically challenging the superficiality of this consumeristic framing—dismiss self-care altogether as a “privilege” or “treat.” To be clear, bubble baths and other such self-soothing strategies can be part of a self-care lifestyle, but they do not constitute the totality of wholistic self-care.

Myth #2: Self-care is a monolithic concept.

Counter: Self-care is individualized.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no one-size-fits-all self-care strategy or plan. Self-care is a personal, individualized endeavor. The very term “self” connotes a level of subjectivity. Of course, we all need to continually learn more about self-care; others, including experts, can offer insight, guidance, and support. But do not let anyone else, no matter their selling points or even expertise, define your self-care.

Self-care is not a template provided by an outside expert; self-care is an individualized, organic endeavor.

Myth #3: Self-care is simple.

Counter: Self-care is complex and multifaceted.

Embedded in many of the other myths is the oversimplification of self-care. In a consumeristic frame, self-care is portrayed as a simple “treat.” In our quick-fix culture, self-care is seen as an easy checklist: Want self-care? Buy this product. Check! Feeling burnt out? Take a bubble bath. Check!

In contrast, wholistic self-care, as a construct, is everything but simple. Wholistic self-care engages all aspects of our human existence: physical, social, emotional/mental, professional, practical, and myriad other dimensions. For instance, some include religion and/or spirituality as meaningful areas of their self-care. Others may include financial self-care as a specific category of attention. Others may include political activism, community building, or any range of spheres that interface with their values, perceptions, and lifestyles.

Self-care is not simply a checklist or product—self-care is a process.

Myth #4: Self-care is an emergency reaction, a crisis response.

Counter: Self-care is much more than a reaction or a temporary response in a crisis.

On a grand scale, this pandemic has exemplified what happens quite often on a micro level. Here’s a common statement: “I’m really stressed out; I need some self-care!” The COVID-19 crisis is amplifying that statement—exponentially. Self-care is seen as a crisis response.

A popular mask metaphor encapsulates that framing: “In a plane crash, you must put on your own mask, before you can help others.” This mask metaphor has particular resonance during the COVID-19 crisis. Although applicable, especially now, this metaphor is problematic in its limitation. It connotes self-care as a short-term response to an urgent situation.

In contrast, wholistic self-care is not just an emergency reaction; it is proactive prevention and sustainable intervention. In that frame, breath is a more apt metaphor: Self-care is what keeps us breathing most freely and fully; self-care is what sustains us. Certainly, in crises or toxic settings, we may need to don a “mask” as part of our self-care repertoire. But, long term, we need attention that is much more complex and continuous than a mask; we need to focus on breath.

Self-care is much more than a mask for crises; self-care is a tool of personal and professional sustainment.

Sadly, it took a pandemic to bring this much attention to self-care. The crisis is having terrible consequences and will have untold reverberations. The full magnitude and impact are yet to be determined. Given that, for the foreseeable future, everyone will need to be even more mindful of human (and planetary) well-being.

Yet, like many of the phenomena magnified during this COVID-19 pandemic, this crisis is also a juncture of opportunity. Let’s use this opportunity to access the fullest potential of wholistic self-care. Expecting to inaugurate “perfect” self-care during a pandemic is a setup for failure. At the same time, with the added attention, we can dispel these harmful and limiting self-care myths and misperceptions. We can begin to be intentional about individualized self-care as a process, not a product. We can embrace a lifestyle that integrates wholistic self-care as essential. This approach will sustain us during this crisis and generate exponential possibilities for systemic change.

— J. Jay Miller, PhD, MSW, CSW, is the dean, Dorothy A. Miller research professor in social work education, and director of the Self-Care Lab in the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky.

— Erlene Grise-Owens, EdD, LCSW, MSW, MRE, is a founding partner at The Wellness Group, ETC.