By Rachael Friedman, Evaluation and Research Intern
Throughout this past year, I have had to be online a lot. My job, school, and social life shifted to being remote, and while spending most of my time on the internet, I noticed a significant increase in the use of the word “self-care.” I was bombarded with Instagram ads selling “self-care bubble bath” promising to wash away the stress of the pandemic. At school, professors would add “remember to practice self-care” to emails detailing how we were still expected to finish our final assignments on time, and the job I held during the spring of 2020 offered self-care days as compensation for the overtime we were working. With so much work to do, I convinced myself that taking time off would only add to my anxiety. My self-care practice was to work harder.
Last summer, I thought that the busyness, stress, and uncertainty were temporary. There was a mantra in my head that “soon everything will calm down”, and then I will be able to take a break. I can “push through” until things simmer down...but then they didn’t. Every time I thought I reached the top of a mountain and expected to see a valley, I would discover that there was more mountain to climb. I felt cynical seeing the term self-care everywhere when it didn’t feel applicable to my own life.
When I started at REACH as the Evaluation and Research Intern in the Fall of 2020, I encountered the word self-care right away in our training orientation. Luckily for me, no one saw me roll my eyes. Not only did it appear in training, but my supervisor, Molly, asked me at the end of one of our first supervision meetings “what will you do to intentionally take care of yourself after our meeting?” I paused. No one had ever asked me that question in that way before, and I simply answered with what I was already planning to do- take a walk outside. I wasn’t planning on doing it with any purpose, but the question made me think.
As part of my role, Molly and I taught about healthy and unhealthy relationships in the local middle and high schools. The topics we covered can be heavy, so we encouraged students to check in with themselves throughout the conversation, reach out for help if they need support, and share how they will intentionally take care of themselves once our lesson is over.
We hear a variety of different answers: “eat lunch,” “sleep,” “go for a run,” “play with my dog”
When I hear these responses, I ask myself “are those things really self-care? Wasn’t that student going to eat lunch anyway, even if we didn’t ask?”
Well, when I was asked the same question, it made me think about why I answered “go for a walk.” I thought about how walking is one of the few times during the day when I don’t feel pressured to check my email. I thought about how much I like feeling the sun on my skin while I’m outside, and I thought about how getting my heart rate up makes me feel more energized for the rest of the day.
Maybe, the student who answered “eat lunch” did so with intention simply because we asked the question. Perhaps, they felt gratitude for whomever prepared their lunch for them that day, or that they had something to eat. It could be that the student spent some time thinking about how much they enjoy bologna sandwiches, and it may be that they reflected on how much better they feel after the lunch period is over and they are full.
I have been skeptical of the commercialized term self-care, but I could see the benefit of doing activities with intention. In practice, why is it still so difficult? It can feel like self-care takes time away from more “productive” tasks, or the things we see advertised as self-care online are inaccessible to our lifestyles and budgets. Or, we may feel like self-care is something we do after we experience burnout instead of something that is a regular, prioritized part of our everyday routine.
These barriers feel completely different when we are in an environment of collective care.
“Collective care” is the idea that a group is responsible for tending to the well-being of its members rather than it being the sole responsibility of the individual. For example, instead of merely preaching the concept of self-care, Molly has created an environment that supports my practice of self-care. When I ask for transition time between meetings, Molly praises my forethought and ability to articulate my needs. When I was experiencing a particularly busy period, Molly started the conversation about reprioritizing our tasks to keep me from burning out. Self-care is easier when the people around us show empathy for our needs.
Fortunately, we do not need to wait for our circumstances to change to foster a environment of collective care. We can model sustainable practices by doing the things we are already doing (for me: walking outside, cooking a meal, taking deep breaths), just with added intentionality. We can create an environment of collective care in our own lives by practicing empathy for ourselves and others, by understanding and, when possible, removing the barriers others are experiencing, and by asking questions to make our loved ones pause and think.
Who can you ask “what is something you will do to intentionally take care of yourself?”