Self-Care as a Relational Being

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“What is it to take care of yourself? Getting paid? Getting laid? Getting married? Getting pregnant? Fighting for visibility in your market? Realising your potential? Being healthy, being clean, not making a fool of yourself, not hurting yourself? Shaving in all the right places? What am I taking care of?”Jenny Hval

So what is it to take care of yourself? What does ‘care’ mean to you? Maybe finding some time to sit down and read. But what am I reading? Fiction – an escapism from the real, maybe that’s what I need right now, maybe the real world is too much. But is it escapism to read fiction? Maybe it helps to illuminate the real world, to untangle my questions and worries. Maybe I am reading non-fiction – about the struggles of others, thinking about how politics and power and entangled in the every-day, in counselling too; about how there is no such thing as being politically neutral, and that to think otherwise is to collude with the structures of power. This non-fiction is keeping me informed, keeping me angry, because I should be angry, I should be guilty about my own actions and inactions as a white cisgender man, and I must act to confront the systems of power I belong to. To not act is to collude with the status quo. To act in support of those with less power is to take care of myself, because the patriarchy and white privilege also cause me to suffer – because my suffering is tied up with the world, with others, no matter how individualistic we are told the world is by politicians and the media. We are all connected, and your struggle is mine too. But this non-fiction is making me so angry I am becoming ill, it is negatively affecting my work and my relationships. How can I challenge my relative’s racism or transphobia without damaging our relationship? How can I get so angry and it not negatively affect my work as a therapist? What if I cannot contain my anger at all this injustice – and so what? Anger should not be contained. What if other people cannot accept my anger? I want to help other people as part of my work, how can I do that if my own support network of family and friends have become cut-off by my anger? Maybe this fear of losing my support structures, even losing my mind, are excuses to do nothing, to continue to support the structures of power.

What does it mean to take care of myself? To ignore the injustice of the world? To fight it head on? We talk about ‘self-care’ and often seem to mean things like yoga, meditation or walks in the countryside. But that sometimes sounds pretty luxurious, and something not everyone has access to. What do we need a break from anyway – from work? What if work could be a type of ‘self-care’, or is it always a form of oppression, something to escape from? Perhaps work as a therapist, if done well, can build relationships, challenge the notion of individualism, and support radical changes to systems of power (e.g. within a person’s family system). Maybe for me this can be a form of ‘self-care’ – it certainly feels like a privilege. I don’t know how I feel about work as ‘self-care’. On the one-hand it feels as if there can be moments of relationship-building, re/connection with ourselves as embodied beings, mindfulness, purpose, achievement, community development and so on, through any work. On the other hand to what extent can these things exist while we live in a capitalist, racist, heteronormative, fat-shaming, sexist society which seems intent on destroying our natural world? How do I juggle these seemingly contradictory ideas?

What does it mean to take care of myself? What is this ‘self’ that I’m taking care of? I am a relational being. As I have described, my own peace and suffering are tied inexorably to the peace and suffering of others. Yet I have boundaries. Where do these boundaries end, and where do you begin? Anything inside my skin is ‘me’, anything outside of it is ‘other’. But that does not feel right – I know when someone has invaded my ‘personal space’. The saliva in my mouth is me, but when I spit it is not. When I cut my nails or hair, they are no longer ‘me’. When I eat food, grown by others, when does it become ‘me’? So I do not end where my body ends, yet there is also a boundary – I am not you. I have my own interests and desires, which may conflict with yours. There might be a balance to be struck between being ‘selfless’ (helping others to the detriment of your self) and being ‘selfish’ (helping yourself to the detriment of others) – finding a place in between these, finding your ‘self’, identifying your own boundaries, finding your edges, taking care of yourself.

 

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