The Dangers of Self-Care

Last night I was on a panel about self-care, talking about therapeutic writing.  Luckily two other smart, insightful people with useful things to say were on the panel too, because the idea of self-care seems like a big load of nonsense to me. I like the idea of being kind to ourselves, but take a good look around folks, and ask yourselves if what we could all stand is a tad more self-regulation.

What I am against in particular about the marketing of “self-care” is that it always seems to involve flowers and bathing in candlelight.  The message is that, done properly, “self-care” is supposed to magically make you happier, calmer, more comfortable, and most importantly, a better person.

The petty, small-minded reason I don’t like this message is that I already feel like I should be a better person; I don’t need a book on essential oils reinforcing this message.  The second, petty reason self-care bothers me is because I am not good at it and it scares me.  Activities like meditation that quiet the external chaos of your life only serve, at least initially, to heighten my internal chaos, and who wants that?  Not me, so much so that I spent a long time doing many things to drown out that internal chaos, and the results weren’t good.

The bigger, and more worthwhile reason that the prettified notion of self-care bugs me is that real self-care, the kind that means that you refuse to abandon yourself regardless of how disappointing you are to yourself, is hard, often uncomfortable, and requires a lot of patience and committment.  And no amount of wind-chimes, smooth, artfully arranged stones, or those annoying indoor water fountains is going to change that.

Writing is the practice that gives me a fighting chance at living my real life, not the life some parts of me think I should be living; for you that might be gardening, meditating, praying, running, or just about any discipline that creates a path to the you that you feel at home with.

The prettified version of self-care that we read about in magazines is like wanting the magic touch of Glinda the Good, without having to really sit down with yourself and pay attention to what it going on, without having to experience the big, sloppy, imperfect mess of you.  My friend John, who was on the panel talking about meditation said that his teacher used to tell him that in the beginning, meditating is like wading out into Lake Michigan—you are surrounded by trash, old tires, used syringes, and empty beer cans. But eventually the water clears and calms, and you get a broader view of the horizon, a more deeply-felt experience of being yourself.

Anne Lamott suggests that if you don’t believe in God, or if your version of God is “God as high school principal in a gray suit who never remembered your name but is always leafing unhappily through your files,” we might do well to remember this great line of Geneen Roth’s: “that awareness is learning to keep yourself company.  And then learn to be more compassionate company, as if you were somebody you are fond of and wish to encourage” (31).  One of the people at the panel discussion who is a therapist said that sometimes she has to remember to talk to herself the same way that she talks to her clients: with compassion and the awareness that most of the time, they are doing the best they can.  Anne Lamott echoes this exact sentiment when she writes, “I doubt that you would read a close friends early [writing] efforts and, in his or her presence, roll your eyes and snicker.  I doubt you would pantomime sticking your finger down your throat.  I think you might say something along the lines of, ‘Good for you.  We can work out some of the problems later, but for now, full steam ahead!'” (31).

Awareness is indeed about keeping yourself company, refusing to abandon yourself even when you don’t fit, aren’t happy, and feel things you (and probably other people) would prefer you not to feel.  So, with a shout out to John, who shared this poem last night over Mexican food, an exceptionally loud heating vent, and the unpredictable interruptions of the very industrious wait staff, here is today’s poem.  It is by the 13th-century mystic Rumi poet, and is called, “The Guest House.”

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


12 thoughts on “The Dangers of Self-Care

Add yours

  1. This is a great poem that I will read again and again. Your writing today reminds me of something I was advised by a wise person to remember—“To be patient and gentle with ourselves and to practice civility and kindness with others.” And I need to read more Anne Lamott.


  2. Of all the great poets of the world, Rumi is my absolute favorite. I go through periods when I read one Rumi piece a day until everything makes sense again. And “The Guest House” is truly one of the best.


  3. This is my first visit to your site, Leslie, and it was well worth my while. Your writing touched in a very personal way as I’ve been struggling with one of those unexpected, undesired visitors the past week or so. Thanks for the reminder to offer myself the same compassion and loving attention I would give an friend in similar circumstances. And the Rumi poem is a delight …


  4. My favorite poem so far! Love it.

    You, my friend, are someone that I am fond of and wish to encourage. Thanks for inviting me on this trip. I hope you don’t mean it when you say we’re only going for forty days…


  5. Hi Leslie,

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts these past several days. I felt compelled to comment tonight as I wanted to tell you what a privilege it was to be with you last evening on the “self-care” panel. I can’t imagine what our conversation would have been like without you. Your honesty and eloquence are inspiring.

    I’m eager to read how the next few weeks of lent unfold for you. Thank you for sharing your journey with all of us!


  6. I went back to this reading today, a day later, because it is still on my mind. One thing that won’t keep still in my head is the fact that self-care can only go so far. We are, in ways that can feel scary, dependent on being cared for and about by others. So, the flashy-magazine-style of self-care is not only wrong because it replaces discomfort with comfort, it is also wrong because it gives the illusion of un-dependence (not in-dependence, because I don’t think that independence is an illusion). I can smile at myself in the mirror all day and still not get the effect I get when someone else smiles at me. Most likely these two are connected: Having been smiled at increases my ability to care for myself and caring for myself increases the possibility of being smiled at (and the ability to receive being smiled at).


  7. I was at the panel too and I think it’s a testament to your gifts, Leslie, that despite the noise and interruptions (which I was embarrassed about since I’d asked you to come!), one of the things that stuck with me was what you said about not liking the “pretty” journals — the ones you can get at the book stores. I laughed when you talked about people buying those and then never writing in them because they didn’t want to mess them up!! I have several on my shelf – empty. A cheap, wire bound sketch pad with recycled paper gets the action from my pen.


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