‘You should make more time to take care of yourself’ is a comment constantly aimed at Joyce and me. This always fills me with puzzlement and to an extent, frustration. I have a Joyce to take care of me and I take care of her. Why do I need to take care of myself? Nobody is volunteering to take a job off my list while I’m indulging in a bit of self-care, it will still be there when I get back.
We live in a society that values mental health, self-care and me-time and I understand that. Being quite a self-aware person, I know that much of my attitude is nothing to do with the concepts themselves and everything to do with the language that surrounds them. I prefer to think about optimising our mental wellbeing, which is something much more positive than avoiding or improving poor mental health (as well as considerably cheaper to the NHS), and the concept of leisure time, which avoids those horrible words self and me.
I know I’m old-fashioned, but sometimes there is nothing wrong with that. I was brought up with phrases with ‘there is no I in team’, ‘sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you’. Now, I know that last one is an outright lie, but it is a rather blunt way of saying that we can control how much power we allow other people to have over us through their attitudes towards us.
I was very involved in Guiding as a child, with mottos like, ‘A Brownie does a good turn every day’ and a Guide Law that instructed us something along the lines of ‘Think of others before oneself at all times.’ Believe me at the time, I knew all ten by heart and took them quite seriously. I still think the best form of self-care is to do something helpful for somebody else. The buzz, oh the buzz!
I think one of my issues with self-care is that so many activities people suggest as self-care do not appeal to me. They simply don’t float my boat. Being a very fast thinker, I have quite a short attention span; more than about 3 minutes of nature sounds drive me to the brink with boredom, unless it is as an aid to study. Manicures are equally tedious – I talk with my hands, please don’t ask me to keep them still. A night at the cinema? Covid, and the soundtrack is almost always a bit too loud for me, let alone Joyce.
The Evil word ‘should’
And then there’s that word ‘should’. As soon as someone tells me that I should be doing it, self-care becomes another duty to perform. There is more than enough duty in my life already. Life is about passion, love, excitement and enjoyment. Well done, ‘should’ people, you’ve just sapped all the joy out of my walk on the beach. OK, so I have a bad attitude when it comes to the word ‘should’.
So, for those of us who, as soon as they hear the word self, have a nasty tendency to add the suffix, -ish, what language is more constructive for us? Netflix and Chill has become a codeword for a more sensuous activity, so that’s out.
Another way of framing it
I’ve talked about my love of constructive relaxation before, whether that be painting a wall or listening to a podcast while cleaning out the chickens. But do we have to dress it up as self-care? Reading a book for half an hour because you enjoy reading and it helps you sleep is simply part of a sensible night-time routine.
Joyce and I almost always watch 2 programmes’ worth of something fairly undemanding but entertaining between dinner and bedtime. Is this self-care? Some would say so, we consider it as the only activity for which we have anything left in the tank. We sit there in front of the telly, with Kevin the cat walking from lap to lap for cuddles, scritches and burr removal.
For me this is more redolent of a phrase I picked up from a Uni friend over 20 years ago. This is not self-care, but ‘gorming out’, a sort of staring into space, or in this case at the TV. The mind wanders, daydreaming other scenarios for the characters on the screen while subconsciously processing the dealings of the day. I’m not quite sure where the phrase comes from, but the friend who shared it with me was an East Yorkshire girl. So, next time you are concerned for a friend’s mental wellbeing, please don’t tell them they should look after themselves better. Perhaps you do them a bigger service by inviting them to join you in a good session of gorming out, however you interpret it.