A Critical Look at Self-Care Culture and the Importance of Knowing Its Limits

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Key Takeaways

  • Self-care is a widely popular concept, often touted as the solution to many psychological problems.
  • Yet, when used without an examination of consequences, such as financial or emotional, there are times it can be harmful.
  • Trusting your gut is an important part of choosing which self-care avenues to pursue.

As a society, we have collectively become obsessed with the idea of self-care. On TikTok, “#Selfcare” has 28.2 billion views, while the hashtag can be found on over 66 million Instagram posts.

On the surface, it makes complete sense. Who wouldn’t like the idea of making oneself feel better and taking care of their mind, body, and soul? Yet, the broad reach of self-care as both concept and action is far more multifaceted.

It can be undoubtedly positive, but we have to be careful not to co-opt self-care as a cure-all solution to our mental health problems. This is where the tough love comes in. Self-care pursued without awareness of your specific needs, and future repercussions can cause emotional, financial, mental, and physical consequences.

“We are constantly encouraged to pursue self-care, and it’s packaged as massages, lotions, candles, vacations, and extravagant purchases,” explains Saba Harouni Lurie, LMFT, ATR-BC, the owner and founder of Take Root Therapy.

Lurie continues, “Pursuing self-care at any cost can be harmful, as it can prompt us to make choices that may not benefit us in the long term. Taking breaks and caring for yourself is essential, but disregarding responsibilities or making purchases you can’t afford can cause more stress and create additional problems.” 

Self Care Won't Solve All Your Problems

Lurie points to the widespread suggestion that self-care will cure us, regardless of what issue we face, as an extremely dangerous fallacy that ignores external systems which may be causing poor mental health.

Instead of looking at how society, government, and medical systems should help, self-care leaves the onus for change entirely on the individual. “This emphasizes the idea that one is wholly responsible for their own mental health and that if they are struggling, it’s because they need to purchase another designer candle or go on an extravagant vacation. When our systems fail us, the person struggling becomes the problem instead of their context and our society,” adds Lurie. 

Saba Harouni Lurie, LMFT, ATR-BC

We are constantly encouraged to pursue self-care, and it’s packaged as massages, lotions, candles, vacations, and extravagant purchases.

— Saba Harouni Lurie, LMFT, ATR-BC

This isn’t to say that self-care is an entirely misleading and harmful idea. No, to the contrary, self-care can be undoubtedly beneficial. However, it is critical that it not be treated as the ultimate solution or pursued without consistent evaluation.

According to Dr. Zishan Khan, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health, self-care can lead to a person becoming overwhelmed or burnout when met with a sea of advice, doled out everywhere from podcasts to self-help books. 

Another danger can come when self-care actions reach the level of obsession or even addiction, cautions Dr. Melissa Boudin, MA, a psychologist and clinical director of Choosing Therapy. “When you spend a large amount of time thinking about or practicing a certain self-care behavior, to the point where it is negatively impacting your relationships, work, or home life, this may be a sign that self-care has gone from beneficial to harmful,” she says, using the example of self-care through healthy eating or exercise and then constantly fixating on them or going so far as to develop an eating disorder. 

Khan further emphasizes the danger of unregulated physically-centered self-care advice, such as from influencers. “Their content often has an overwhelming focus on beauty and improving one’s looks. This can inadvertently lead to body image concerns and thus actually worsen one’s mental health,” she says. “Fitness goals should be attainable and realistic, and physical activities should result in an improvement of our sense of self-worth.”

Zishan Khan, MD

Self-care can only benefit a person if it is consistent with their goals and values.

— Zishan Khan, MD

Your gut instinct is essential in the above case and when presented with any self-care suggestions. In many cases, you are aware if something will distress you further or cause long-term repercussions. “Don’t allow what others suggest to cloud your internal voice and always lean on those you know personally and feel comfortable with over strangers that don’t understand you as an individual,” says Khan. “Self-care can only benefit a person if it is consistent with their goals and values.” 

To this end, Lena Suarez-Angelino, MSW, a licensed clinical social worker with her own online practice, recommends creating a list of activities that make you feel better but don’t overextend you. Worthwhile and beneficial self-care may include anything from time with loved ones to crafting—whatever makes you feel good. So, no, if you can’t really afford to buy dinner for the fifth time this week, that is not it. 

In all cases, self-care is about meeting yourself where you are but also being aware of when it’s time to ask for extra help. Khan, Lurie, and Boudin all emphasized that self-care can alleviate negative symptoms but may not serve as a substitute for clinical help for an ongoing mental health issue. 

What This Means For You

Self-care can be beneficial when utilized correctly and with boundaries in place. However, it's critical not to rely on it as the only strategy for mental wellness. Self-care is just one part of the mental health puzzle, and it's important to be mindful of its limits.