Self-Care Alone Won’t Save Us

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


The great feminist thinker and poet Audre Lorde once said, self-care “is not self-indulgence—it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” This statement remains just as true today, if not more so. Income inequality has only grown. Job stability is increasingly precarious. In fact, actual jobs are increasingly difficult to come by– we are increasingly reliant on short-term, part-time gigs, working as independent contractors  or contingent workers with no benefits and no security. I am a millennial, and my generation in particular is famously financially screwed. Much ink has been spilled over the issue.

Part of the zeitgeist of my generation is a constant existential dread– a suffocating panic threatening to close in on us. It’s not hard to see why. 1 in 5 millennials live in poverty. Many of us will never own homes. We are burdened by exponentially more student debt than our parents with far worse job prospects through no fault of our own. We were simply unlucky enough to have graduated during the worst economic crisis in recent memory, and we face the scariest financial future since the people who lived through the Great Depression. This is all real.

To make matters worse, a lot of us have watched in horror as democracy has eroded before our very eyes. The Trump administration has banned the CDC from using words. That in and of itself is beyond troubling, but the words banned should have us all panicking about the administration’s insidious fascist aggression towards science, reason and marginalized people. Now that these words are banned, we can forget about any policies that have helped science and underserved people flourish.









Is it any wonder that so many young people feel the weight of the world on our shoulders? We have to navigate devastating personal circumstances just to keep ourselves afloat– and we often fail– while we have to resist a potential dictator. All of this while our country tells us we are entitled, whiny, and taking things far too seriously. “Just try harder,” they say. “Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps. Stop buying so many lattes and all those avocado toasts.”

Yes, some of us buy the fancy lattes. Some of us buy avocado toasts. And manicures. And brunch. We go to yoga class. We do meditation. But a lot of us consider sleeping, showering and eating to be self-care because we are too tired, too poor and too anxious for any of those other things. And no, that doesn’t necessarily mean we are broken or mentally ill. What other logical response is there to crushing poverty, debt, and the eerily seamless transition into living a dystopian novel? It’s as if we were all too busy and too downtrodden to notice it happening, let alone fight back.

Here’s what writer Laurie Penny said about the importance of self-care:

“The ideology of wellbeing may be exploitative, and the tendency of the left to fetishize despair is understandable, but it is not acceptable—and if we waste energy hating ourselves, nothing’s ever going to change. If hope is too hard to manage, the least we can do is take basic care of ourselves.”

I find this point of view unbelievably tone-deaf and beside the point. I strongly object to the claim that people on the left hate themselves. We do not hate ourselves. We spend record amounts on self-care because for us, it often stands in for health care or other types of care we sorely need that aren’t provided by our government. We aren’t even provided with validation that our problems are real. We have had to create our own happiness from nothing, and we have been innovative in doing so given our lack of resources. Besides that, we have learned to take our joy in the smallest of things.

Penny extracts many of her conclusions from her own experience, and we know little of her background. She says:

Overpriced charcoal health drinks aren’t good for liberating anything except your wallet and your colon in short succession, but walks in the park are free, so I occasionally go out in the sunshine and try to soak up a bit of Vitamin D without worrying about skin cancer, melting ice-caps, and millions of people drowning in Bangladesh. I no longer subsist entirely on chicken nuggets, cigarettes, and spite. I sometimes take a day off, because it became apparent that the revolution was not being driven any faster by my being sick and sad all the time. Late Capitalism is as good an excuse of any for not getting out of bed, but huddling under the covers worrying about Donald Trump is a very inefficient way of sticking it to the man.

It is neither realistic nor fair to ask people living in poverty under this regime to simply grab their mental health by the reins. If subsisting on chicken nuggets is all one can manage as opposed to eating nothing, then I applaud that as self-care. Perhaps for Penny, taking a day off is an option. Perhaps for Penny, getting out of bed is something she is capable of doing. Good for her. But I would not dare tell someone to deal with their stress by going for a walk when they’re struggling with putting food on the table. What a privileged position to take.

The severe stress caused by poverty and a disintegrating government will not be healed by self-care, and it is naive and dangerous to suggest it will. For one thing, physical stress caused by decades of overwork, lack of sleep, poor food quality, lack of health care (including mental health care)… none of that will be alleviated by meditation. Poor people will tell you as much. Maybe some would argue that it’s better than nothing, but I argue it’s a woefully inadequate band-aid to a structural problem. Before we can even talk about something like self-care, we need to address the basics: food, shelter, and safety.

My point is this: people should try to do self-care if they can. I don’t want people to lose their will to live and to fight. But if we focus on things that are within the purview of personal responsibility we are buying into neoliberal logic that will ultimately harm us. The government wants us to look inward for solutions that are going to keep us pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps as long as possible, because as long as we are doing that, we aren’t blaming them nor are we demanding anything from them.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a self-care guide that’s actually realistic and for everyone, even people with mental illness. None of that navel-gazing white people yoga crap.

Readers, what do you think?

5 thoughts on “Self-Care Alone Won’t Save Us

  1. Thank you for sharing. I agree. I think this also reflects the notion once again that a marginalised group’s suffering under Trump’s reign are expected to do a lot of emotional work, labour and take on a lot of responsibility for their own marginalisation at their own expense, which is patently ridiculous. As said, would a homeless shelter worker turn a starving homeless person away to focus on ‘self care’ because they are ‘stressed’ when they are literally starving? It would seem ridiculous and cruel. As a member of the LGBT community, it would be insulting for me for someone to say I need to calm down and just chill out and *take a few deep breaths* when my and my whole community’s lives and rights are being further marginalised and affected from right under our noses, especially when every win was so hard won. It would be tone deaf and insulting, not to mention coming from a place of privilege to have the option to ‘opt out’ of such ‘casual’ stress and constant low-level anxiety. One would be asking those who have been the most disproportionately affected to dig themselves out of a hole they themselves didn’t create. Just as you cannot tell someone (or should not) to just ‘become straight’, you cannot and should not tell a person starving, fearful for medical care or requiring any basic human rights and survival needs to just ‘drop’ their essential needs in the name of ‘reduced stress’. To do so shows the privilege and ignorance of such commentators that they are able to ‘opt out’ from the constant, real and visceral essential needs such marginalised people are struggling to get through and survive each day.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the LGBQTI comparison is really useful. It’s really insulting to ask people living in crisis to accept any kind of feel-better-ness practice as a substitute for reshaping structural or social inequalities that are keeping them in crisis. It’s bread and circuses stuff. I’ve benefited a lot from mindfulness, embodiment and therapy, but it would have been (as you said, and I liked the emphasis) beside the point to do much of that when I was at the poverty line in my 20s. And ineffective, I’d imagine.

    On a meta note, I’d like to read your take on the word-banning in and of itself.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It just seems so *obviously* fascist; that’s what shocked me, I think. So shameless. They may as well have organised a book-burning day. It surprises me that they don’t care about being even a bit subtle.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s