How Self-Care Became So Much Work

Charlotte Lieberman

AUGUST 10, 2018

The United States is no stranger to self-improvement, from the meditation and essential oils of the 60s to the Jane Fonda aerobics tapes of the 1980s and the fat-free-everything 1990s. “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1841, sounding a bit like a modern SoulCycle instructor. From these deep roots, the $11 billion self-improvement industry has grown.

Today, like so much around us, that industry is heavily influenced by tech. Our focus is shifting away from the actual self — our bodies, minds, and spirits — and toward data about the self. With iEverythings around us at all times, we expect our steps to be enumerated, our REM cycles to be recorded, and our breathing patterns to be measured. It’s not enough to just feel better — we need our devices to affirm that we are doing the work.

This dogged self-improvement quest is not the antidote. We are approaching the pursuit of work-life balance with the same obsessive (and oppressive) energy as we do our careers. Although the American Psychiatric Association reports that 39% of U.S. adults feel more anxious than they did a year ago, we continue to glamorize being overworked, busy, and stressed. Numerous studies support this — for example, the Journal of Consumer Research has published research showing that Americans associate busyness and stress with prestige and status. This might explain why counting our steps and recording our exhales are satisfying ways to measure the success of our self-care routine once we leave the office. But in this context, our high anxiety becomes just another thing to “work on.”

This raises the question: Are we genuinely interested in feeling healthier and happier? It seems likely that the values driving us to be workaholics in the first place are also encouraging us to “optimize” ourselves by using metric-driven “hacks.”

For type-A overachievers in particular, self-improvement bears a closer resemblance to work than to leisure. As a freelance journalist, I have also subsidized my life in New York City as a copywriter, editor, and consultant for a range of clients in the wellness space. I have led focus group discussions about meditation apps and created websites and content campaigns for prominent skin care lines, juice cleanse companies, and mental health apps. One of my clients recently told me her goal to start a meditation practice had short-circuited due to her tendency to turn everything — including self-care — into a chore. After trying out a 20-minute daily routine, she found that meditation ultimately caused more stress than it alleviated, which, in turn, made her feel guilty and bad about herself. Despite the fact that mindfulness meditation is now popular enough to be a billion-dollar business, the science behind it remains a work in progress. In a 2017 review of meditation studies from the past two decades, author and psychologist David Creswell, who directs the Health and Human Performance Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University, examined the methodological limitations of recent mindfulness studies. He dispels the misconception that mindfulness is a proven panacea for anxiety, depression, chronic pain, stress, and more. Still, he points out some impressive findings: Mindfulness can reduce activity in the amygdala, the brain region responsible for the fight-or-flight response. Mindfulness meditation has also been shown to reduce levels of interleukin-6, a biomarker in the blood that is elevated in high-stress groups.

Regardless of whether future scientific findings confirm the benefits of mindfulness, it’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach for stress relief. If meditation feels like “work,” it can become a restrictive, rather than expansive, practice. Treating meditation as a step needed to achieve the elusive goal of work-life balance keeps us dialed into the linear mindset of “checking things off our list.” If we rigidly commit to a meditation practice without considering how we might react on days when we don’t have time or aren’t in the mood for it, we might end up mired in guilt or self-criticism. This is not to say that if meditation feels difficult, you should just give up. But it’s important to see how this ancient tradition is being commodified by our culture as a tool for improvement. If your to-do-list mentality is a major source of stress in the first place, why add to it? The goal is to create space for yourself, to experience curiosity and explore without pressure. Take a few conscious breaths during your commute, or set an intention for your day before you leave the house. Remember: There is nothing inherently virtuous about torturing yourself (which, for the record, is an intention I frequently set for myself).

In more extreme cases, self-improvement can become an obsession. The rise of wearable devices like Fitbit that track our steps and sleep cycles can feed perfectionistic tendencies. UK-based marketing professors Rikke Duus and Mike Cooray conducted a study analyzing the effects of wearing a Fitbit on a group of 200 women. The women said the devices made them feel guilty whenever they fell short of their goals: 79% felt pressured to reach their daily targets, 59% went so far as to say they felt “controlled” by their devices, and nearly 30% referred to their Fitbits as “an enemy.” Although knowing our daily step count may provide the illusion of control in our lives, quantifying the “work” we are doing on ourselves (and ostensibly for ourselves) not only reinforces the idea that self-care should be work but also presents excessive opportunities for self-criticism. With a progress report available to us at all times — whether related to steps, sleep, breathing, gait, or calorie consumption — quantified self-improvement encourages us to fixate on the moments we fall short of our most granular expectations. And while beating ourselves up often seems like the most effective way to crack the whip, self-criticism has been shown to preoccupy us with failure and contributes to symptoms of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and negative self-image.

Given how readily self-care can turn into self-criticism in this landscape, social media is a vicious trigger. Instagram in particular pressures us to share our personal victories and turn them into opportunities for self-marketing. The intoxication of getting likes on that photo of your colorful salad or post-workout selfie is a powerful source of motivation. A 2016 study out of UCLA found that getting likes on Instagram posts activates a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which is also activated when eating chocolate or winning money. Yet, at the same time, this culture of compulsory sharing is what prompts us all to compare ourselves with everyone else. As I write this, I find myself comparing my daily routine with over 5 million Instagram posts invoking the hashtag #selfcare. These posts exhibit a range of photographed activities, from candlelit bubble baths to meal prep to inspirational quotes against monochrome backgrounds (“Say yes to you”). For all the buzz about #selfcare on Instagram, it isn’t actually increasing our well-being. In fact, a recent study calls Instagram “the worst” social media platform for mental health, showing that it heightens users’ feelings of inadequacy and anxiety by creating unrealistic expectations and instilling what the researchers call an attitude of “compare and despair.” Or, as a friend said to me, “Vacation pictures make me feel poor. Gym pics make me feel out of shape. Food pics make me hungry, and anything well-curated makes me nervous that I don’t pay enough attention to detail.”

Of course, engaging in rituals of self-discipline for the purposes of “improvement” is an ancient pastime. Self-denial through fasting or extreme dietary restrictions exists at the core of most major religions, often as a means to achieve spiritual purity, atonement, or enlightenment. Even now, our attempts to exert control on our bodies and minds remain underpinned by a moral charge. Yet what’s different in today’s world of solutionism and tech is that prioritizing self-care — specifically with the aid of consumer goods like wellness apps and health food — is not just a testament to one’s self-discipline or moral virtue. It is an emblem of success and cultural know-how. Last year, journalist Amy Larocca wrote an article titled “The Wellness Epidemic,” in which she argued that, in the world of luxury meditation studios, ayurvedic cleanses, and sober morning raves, the mythical goal of wellness is only available to the rich, who have the time and resources to spend diagnosing their “maybe-kind-of-celiac disease” and purchasing $1,000 skin care protocols. “Spend a little time in the wellness world, and it seems like everyone has an official diagnosis,” Larocca writes. Part of the irony of wellness culture is that it requires us to focus constantly on the specter of illness, as it’s fueled by the (im)possibility of perfection. With green juice at $9 a pop, and luxury spin classes at $35+, the more aspirational self-improvement activities of our day are out of reach for most people. This further circumscribes self-care with values of conformity and achievement, as well as their shadow sides — feelings of inadequacy and self-criticism.

There are infinite opportunities for personal growth, self-care, and genuine stress relief that don’t require money or clenched fists, but instead enable us to take a genuine break from goal-oriented and metric-driven thinking. What about cutting ourselves some slack on the days we don’t get as much done as we had planned? Or reminding ourselves that laughter is healing? We may idealize the actions we are able to document and share, or the data we can collect and track, but there are plenty of times when what we need to do to feel better — and actually get better — is less. For better or for worse, there is no app or amount of money that can help with that.

Charlotte Lieberman is a New York-based writer, editor, and content consultant. You can find her work in The New York Times, The Harvard Business Review, Marie Claire, and Guernica, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter @clieberwoman.

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