How Odd Is My Bod: You Aren’t Failing at Self-Care

You want a change in your self-care routine, but you have no idea where to start. Maybe you plan an occasional self-care day or weekend and you’re like, “I’m gonna hydrate and eat healthy and exercise and clean my house, then rest, and I’ll feel so much better,” but when it comes time, you find yourself binging Friends for the 17th time and polishing off a whole package of Double Stuf Oreos.

Rather than feeling fulfilled, you feel guilty, thinking, “I’m failing. I should get outside. I should workout. I shouldn’t eat all of these.” Now, the Sunday Scaries are upon you, and you’ve wondered yet again why you can’t get your shit together.

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This is me, a random person, telling you that your weekend wasn’t a failure. On the contrary, it was perfect self-care.

I hear you saying, “Yeah, but how in the world is binging on Friends and cookies truly self-care?!”

I note your objections. You’re likely thinking you were lazy, gluttonous, and failing at adulting. I’ve felt that, and I still do sometimes.

But let me offer you a kinder perspective and a little background. What you’re thinking of as the shitty shoulds of self-care is nothing more than worn-out dogma that hasn’t evolved with our needs.

Self-Care Shoulds, According to . . . the Christian Bible?!

Imagine living your life based on the social rules of the 1600s. That means believing women should be obedient to their husbands, thinking witches cause suffering, practicing slavery as the norm, and living without indoor plumbing. No thanks.

Yet it is the Protestant work ethic that leads us into a constant state of should. Finding its roots in both Puritanical and Calvinistic beliefs, the Protestant work ethic is the idea that hard work will be rewarded with salvation. Max Weber, a German sociologist whose name was drilled into the minds of sociology students as being pronounced Veh-Ber, connected these ideas to the rise and popularity of capitalism. And while capitalism has perks, let’s just say it isn’t going well anymore. Some argue it was never really all that great, as it depends on exploitation and emphasizes inequality.

Basically, antiquated religious ideals dictate cultural expectations for how we spend our time. And those ideals will not die. Thus, we’re expected to be productive, obedient, and useful to god/God at all times.

If that’s your thing, run with it. For my part, that sounds exhausting.

Your weekend of Friends and Oreos was self-care. It was you being you. No amount of shoulds will change what you needed to do for you.

There are a lot of variations on this saying, but if you don’t rest, your body will make you. By rest, I don’t necessarily mean naps. I mean any of these types of rest.

There’s a good chance you needed mental rest, especially if you worked at least 40 hours during the week and tried to live up to the rest of the shoulds constantly pounding on your brain’s door.

In other words, your body (which, don’t forget, includes your brain) decided it needed the predictable comfort of entertainment you’ve enjoyed repeatedly as well as the sensory delight and energy-stimulating sugar from Oreos. I want to repeat certain keywords here:

  • Predictable
  • Comfort
  • Entertainment
  • Delight
  • Stimulating

If that’s not self-care, then I don’t know what is.

That, though, is the whole point of self-care. Nothing external can determine what you need to care for yourself. Society can make suggestions. We can recommend you take care of your basic needs, guide you to the types of rest, and provide services that aid in your self-care. However, you’re the only one who can determine what care you need for yourself in that moment.

In truth, you did determine what you needed for self-care. The only thing that interfered with thorough, effective mental rest and self-care was the external shoulds of the Protestant work ethic.

Tell that to fuck off. It was the weekend. Shoulds aren’t allowed in your house on weekends.

Mindless Self-Care Is Your Backstage

What you mindlessly do can be self-care. If you’re on autopilot and don’t put much thought into laying down to watch whatever feels good in the moment, it’s not the worst idea to trust that inclination. Of course, this is putting aside concerns with depression, avoidance, and procrastination. We can explore that in another post. For now, giving yourself the grace to simply be is OK.

In fact, you’re simply doing what you do backstage. Briefly, sociologist Ervin Goffman borrowed theater terminology to explain how our behavior varies based on where we are and who we’re with. The way we act in front of and among others is called the front stage. The way we behave when we’re alone is called the back stage.

I’m a huge fan of this metaphor. It explained why I felt like a phony.

I often felt like I was pretending to be someone else when I was with other people. I couldn’t wait to get home, be alone, and be myself, i.e., backstage. I remember reading “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar in school, and man, did it stick with me. Goffman gave me the why. I wasn’t being authentic, and putting on that mask for so long wore me out. If you can relate, let’s talk in the comments.

Put it this way: Beyond the role of the self, we play countless other roles in life–child, employee, sibling, consumer, etc. Because those roles involve interacting with other people, each role demands from us certain behaviors, like following rules, working hard, not giving purple nurples, and buying stuff. The Protestant work ethic demands one-quarter of our waking hours per week, capitalism demands half, and sleep claims the rest.

No matter what you do, you can’t simultaneously fulfill all the expectations of every role all the time. Your Friends and Oreos weekend might’ve been a disappointment to a personal trainer, but Netflix and Oreo loved you. You can buy all sorts of stuff that meets your definition of self-care. You can take vacations. Who says you aren’t still being useful to society?

When folks say you can’t please everyone, this is why. But how you make others happy is not what self-care asks.

When, exactly, do we get to be backstage with no expectations?

External social demands and influences make life fucking hard. It’s why we’re so concerned with work-life balance. One study says, “94% of workers in the professional service industry work over 50 hours a week.” Those are the hours we actually work. It doesn’t account for how many hours we spend thinking about, getting ready for, and commuting to and from work.

How can anyone successfully separate their work-related frontstage behaviors from their backstage selves? How can we reduce the handsyness of capitalism when it touches everything? And did capitalism wash its hands?

Unless we’re fantastic at boundary setting and compartmentalizing (and if you are, come be a guest poster for me), frontstage influences sneak into our backstage far too often. (Hey! Get out of there!)

Thus, when we’re on our own, hearing ourselves over the noise of the frontstage is a bigger challenge than we realize. What I mean is . . . Friends and Oreos didn’t feel like self-care because we bought into the bullshit of shoulds. It didn’t feel restful. It didn’t feel happy. We were too busy thinking about what others told us to do rather than listening to that voice inside that said, “I just want to do fucking nothing.” We needed mental rest, and we didn’t get it because we felt guilty.

How are we not reveling in binge-watching and yummy cookies? Why are we letting guilt win?

Because of the word “should.”

Despite what shoulds the Protestant work ethic and capitalism push on us, there’s nothing wrong with defining rest on your own terms. In fact, that’s the only true way to define rest.

If you’re questioning that and thinking, “Yeah, but . . .” Take a moment and try this:

  • Make a list of your objections
  • Next to each objection, write where it originated
  • Decide how each objection makes you feel about yourself
  • Ask which objections are serving you

For example:

  • Are you thinking you shouldn’t eat all of those Oreos because they’ll make you fat?
  • Ask yourself who taught you that being fat was bad.
  • Does it make you feel better in all facets of your life to fall in line with the expectation that your body should be a certain size? What I mean is this: Does the pressure to be thin stress you out?
  • If you decide that pressure serves you, keep at it. If the pressure to look a certain way creates stress, rethink your subscription to it.

Or consider this: Are you thinking that rewatching Friends was a waste of your time? Ask yourself who decides what your time should look like. Maybe ask yourself if rewatching something you’ve already seen creates harm in any way.

Re-evaluating shoulds, entire cultural beliefs, and how they’ve influenced our behavior takes a lot of time and practice. This isn’t something any of us can resolve in one weekend. Getting started on it by looking at one or two moments of guilty feelings can make a huge difference in quieting the noise that interferes with effective self-care.

After all, you certainly weren’t born thinking Friends and Oreos were bad things. So, who taught you that? What did they stand to gain by making you doubt your joy? And how much rest can you gain by rejecting their demands?

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