Andre Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at the Cass Business School and journalist for The Guardian, writes a lot of opinion articles that I can get behind. From calling out the constant quest for excellence as damaging and suggesting we embrace being good enough, to championing a 4 day week and flexible working patterns as a more effective way to tackle not only climate chaos, but over-consumption and poor sleep patterns.

Yet, his recent article “Self Care: how a radical feminist idea was stripped of politics for the mass market” raised a few points that got my back up! As anyone who has spent much time analysing themselves will know, that probably means something touched a nerve. For me, it seems clear why. I am not an advocate of commercialism or profiting from the things we need that are freely available. I do strongly advocate self-care; to the people I counsel, to fellow counsellors and therapists, to friends, family and colleagues. In fact, anyone and everyone! Spicer’s article (particularly the title)challenges my values and behaviour as being contradictory, thus triggering a psychological anxiety.

I have learnt that my own growth comes from identifying and exploring areas of psychological conflict and so, I was drawn to reflect on my own relationship with, and beliefs about self-care.

What does self-care really mean and why is it so valuable? Is self-care still a radical act?

Spicer affirms a point made by journalist Fiona Ward – when self-care is interpreted solely as an act of self-soothing and comfort, it can actually limit a person’s growth and fulfillment. If we avoid any situation that challenges us, we risk avoiding opportunities for personal growth. [To be clear, I believe that it is a person’s own choice as to whether to seek and open themselves up to personal growth. I don’t believe it is “wrong” or a poor choice to avoid doing so if that is what the individual wants. For some, a life of comfort and avoidance of new experiences may be their preference.]

The value of self-care

Whilst I don’t disagree with the main point raised in the article, understanding the process and meaning of self-care seems necessary when considering it’s value. The key to beneficial self-care is self-awareness. Being aware of feeling stressed or anxious and choosing an activity that soothes or eases those feelings might be just what you need to help you cope in the short term, but it may have limited long term benefits. The psychological equivalent of going for a cigarette break at work during another stressful day, rather than arranging a supervision to plan a more manageable ongoing workload.

Understanding what is causing the stress or anxiety is more likely to set the foundations for choosing effective means of self care. To do that, confronting those feelings, sitting with them and exploring where they come from is where psychological growth and change can occur. Taking the time to reflect can be an act of self-care in itself. It enables greater choice and freedom from learnt behaviours and beliefs that may no longer serve us. Self-care with self-awareness is more informed, more personalised and therefore more likely to have the desired effect. Self-care may mean stepping out of your comfort zone – of course, everyone’s comfort zone is different – or it might mean making time to just “be” rather than continually achieving. It might mean giving yourself a break even though part of you believes you should keep going. It might mean reaching out to a friend you know will listen to you and understand how you feel, even though you might feel you should be able to manage on your own. Self-care is about challenging the “shoulds” and the “can’ts”, and making choices based on what you actually need based on a good understanding of yourself.

Self-care is about challenging the “shoulds” and the “can’ts”, and making choices based on what you actually need.

The communal value of self -care

Which brings me to another of Spicer’s points – “What was supposed to be an invitation to collective survival becomes yet another form of individualism…. If we spend all our time caring for ourselves, it is likely we will have no time and energy to challenge ourselves.”

I strongly believe that humans are, with some exceptions, in need of human connection. To survive in the populations we do, communities rely on cooperation and shared rules / stories / belief systems (Yuval Harari makes some interesting observations on this in his book Sapiens). Therefore, it seems unlikely to me that becoming more individually self-aware and self-caring will result in a less cohesive and communal society. Indeed, with greater awareness of our own needs and an openness to learning more about ourselves, we also gain a greater understanding of how we interact with others and how we may communicate more authentically. Kindness and giving to others are acts that many find deeply rewarding and fulfilling. When done in a way that we do not neglect ourselves in the process (and this is where self-awareness comes in), they can be acts of self-care as they provide connection and meaning.

Alongside that deeper nurturing that self-care can provide, I still see a need and a place for the self-soothing and giving ourselves some respite at times of pain, anxiety and exhaustion – being human is HARD sometimes!

Is self-care still a radical act?

If you’ve read Spicer’s article (and I suggest you do – there’s a lot of food for thought) I am one of the self-care advocates who has not picked up my passion from a knowledge of Audre Lorde whom Spicer references in his article. In fact, I had not heard of her until reading the article. But, I have since learned that she was an influential figure in the realms of identity politics. Black, lesbian, feminist, poet, a mother and activist living in America, who was born in 1934 to Caribbean immigrant parents and died in 1992 of cancer.

I can’t claim to had (yet) read enough of her work to comment on her theory, so will focus on the summary Spicer shares in his article – “Caring for yourself became a way of preserving yourself in a world that was hostile to your identity, your community and your way of life.”

While I can’t relate to her experience of identifying in numerous ways viewed as “deviant” or “other” by society, I can relate to feeling an underlying constant struggle to be acceptable as myself. In a society where we are continually bombarded with a range of messages that we are not enough , that we need to change ourselves to be acceptable/beautiful/successful, accepting ourselves as we are to the extent that we love and care about ourselves and make active choices to do so, is indeed still a radical, political act.

In a society where we are continually bombarded with a range of messages that we are not enough , that we need to change ourselves to be acceptable/beautiful/successful, accepting ourselves as we are to the extent that we love and care about ourselves and make active choices to do so, is indeed still a radical, political act.

The whole time we are choosing self-care because it is intrinsically right for us as an individual, rather than succumbing to the sales pitches we are sold from companies profiting from our choices, the act of self-care remains in the power of the people. I for one hope that one day it does become de-politicised. Not because the corporations win, but because society is organised in a way where people are not struggling to meet their basic needs or achieve unattainable expectations. Society then holds and supports self-care and compassionate respect for others as the norm, and ceases to be something we have to make into a “thing”.