The reality of living through a pandemic means self-care has become more important than ever before.
The prolonged stress and uncertainty of lockdowns, upheaval, and daily death tolls, coupled with spending more time at home with very little else to do, means there has been an increased focus on small behaviours that makes us feel safe, secure, healthy and calm.
Globally, physicians have started to put more emphasis on the importance of self-care, recommending exercise, mindfulness and healthier work/life routines for patients struggling with their mental health.
But it is social media where self-care has really come into its own during the last few years – and even more so since the start of the pandemic.
You can’t scroll for more than a few seconds without seeing an influencer sporting a Korean sheet-mask, or sipping a tumeric tea, or reclining in a bubble bath surrounded by a frankly hazardous number of scented candles. Below these posts you will spot the hashtags #SelfCare, #SelfLove or #BeKindToYourself.
But what about if your kind of self-care would never make it onto your Insta grid? What if the things you do to make yourself feel OK at the moment aren’t particularly polished or aesthetically pleasing?
Does it still count as self-care if you’re not wearing a matching, pastel pink loungewear set and daintily dabbing hydrating serum onto peachy perfect skin?
Rebecca, 30, says she feels guilty when she looks on Instagram and sees people posting about their perfect self-care moments, it makes her feel as though she is doing self-care wrong somehow.
‘Some days, at the moment, my self-care is literally putting on a fresh pair of knickers. Or actually brushing my teeth before I start work.
‘Sometimes it’s literally lying on the sofa watching Netflix for five hours. I can’t really put that on my Insta stories and brag about it – but it something that makes me feel good at the moment because the pandemic has drained the life out of me.’
Rebecca works from home – as a publishing assistant – and lives alone. She says that spending so much time by herself, in the same space, has changed her relationship with self-care.
‘I used to relish the idea of making effort for my self-care. A rare Sunday with nothing to do – I would do the whole fancy bubble bath and candles thing, face-masks, a glass of wine, cook something amazing. Now, self-care is just about getting through the day.
‘Some days self-care is taking the day off work so I can have a cry and read my book in bed. Other days, it’s working out and going for walks. There isn’t one perfect picture of how to look after yourself right now.
‘So seeing this #SelfLove stuff on Instagram is needlessly stressful right now. I’m not going to sit around in full makeup and matching pyjamas so I can look like I have my life together. None of us have our lives together at the moment.’
It’s easy to fall for a commodified version of self-care. Companies, brands and influencers have been using this umbrella term as a strategy to sell products for years now, but you don’t have to spend money – or post anything on social media – to look after yourself.
Ruth Tongue, director of employee wellbeing company Elevate, says there is a lot of misunderstanding about what self-care actually is.
‘Many people do think that it needs to involve bubble baths, scented candles and giving yourself a home pedicure,’ Ruth tells Metro.co.uk.
‘This puts a lot of pressure on people to “live up to” these often unachievable expectations of self-care.’
Ruth says that actually, self-care is doing the things that nourish you – both body and mind.
‘It could mean eating peanut butter out of the jar if that makes you feel good, spending a whole day in bed watching Netflix, not exercising if your body is feeling exhausted, or taking a day off in the middle of the week for no other reason than you want to switch things up a bit,’ she explains.
‘Don’t get me wrong – exercising, eating well, focusing on your sleep and nurturing connections are all brilliant forms of self-care, but they’re not always what you need most – and there should be absolutely no judgement if you know that they’re not what you need right in that moment on a Saturday morning after a long tiring week.’
How to find self-care that works for you
You might find that your definition of self-care has shifted since the start of the pandemic – and that’s OK. We are all adapting to our new realities.
But just because your self-care methods are different now – and possibly less ‘productive’ or polished – that doesn’t mean they are any less valid or worthwhile.
‘One of my self-care rituals since lockdown, is to spend Saturday mornings in bed with my coffee, breakfast and Twitter or a book, without having to rush anywhere,’ says Ruth.
‘Whereas, in previous life I would have thought, “I must trek across London to get to that spin class before meeting my friend for brunch and getting to my next appointment all before midday.” The thought of it is exhausting.
‘We all (particularly wellbeing professionals) need to be more authentic about what reality is, and what we truly see as nourishing and caring for ourselves – be it ice cream on the sofa, hiding away for a day, or indeed getting up at the crack of dawn to run 10k.’
So, how do you find the self-care strategy that works for you? Life coach Faith Hill says it’s important to push back against the pressures of meeting certain standards on social media.
‘Self-care is about the self; you, and you alone,’ Faith tells Metro.co.uk. ‘It is about switching off from the daily grind to improve your wellbeing and feel better. And that includes switching off from social media and all the expectations it – sadly – elicits.
‘Self-care is about being you and not striving to meet the demands and expectations of other people.’
Faith says she gets why more people are showing off their self-care on Instagram. We are all feeling lonely, isolated, and we have nothing else to post about. It makes sense that we are looking to reach out for interaction and connection.
‘But, if you’re too busy worrying about how you look, or if the props and backdrop to your self-care selfie look fabulous enough, are you truly honoring your self-care time out, or yourself?’ Faith asks.
‘The more “unpresentable” your self-care is, the better; because you are doing this for you.
‘Slob around in those oversized jogging bottoms; smother an unattractive shade of brown homemade mask on your face; watch a tearjerker movie and let your face get red and blotchy as your sob your way through it.
‘By wasting time on trying to meet Instgram expectations, you’ll miss out on all the benefits of taking that time out.’
It’s important to remember that even if your self-care doesn’t look pretty, it is no less valid. And just because you haven’t put any makeup on, or put that pile of washing away yet, that doesn’t morph your self-care into laziness.
‘The downside of the commodification of the wellness industry, is that it is influencing people’s perception and expectations of what self-care is, and what it should look like,’ says Lee Chambers MSc MBPsS, environmental psychologist and wellbeing consultant.
‘It can cause us to gravitate away from our preferences, in search of something new and novel.’
He says this can also cause us to have unrealistic expectations of what self-care looks like, causing disappointment that stop us actually feeling the benefits of practicing it.
‘We can feel shame or guilt at the fact we can’t attain the perfection that is shared, that we may not be able to afford what is shown, or that it doesn’t work for our wellbeing,’ Lee adds. ‘And it becomes part of what can be an overly positive toxicity, selling us an external dream that makes us feel not enough and highlights our insecurities.’
Lee says that, ultimately, the answers to our self-care have to come from within.
‘Our self-care is not about what we share, but what is truly meaningful and regenerative to us,’ he says.
‘Sometimes messy self-care is the liberation we need, and not conforming to society, but being our authentic selves is a form of self-care we under-appreciate.’
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