Mind the Gap: The self-care dichotomy

In the past few years, a mindset that acknowledges mental illness has become more prevalent in the mainstream: Self-Care Culture. In communities where many people suffered on a daily basis, dialogue arose reminding people to take breaks or do something to make themselves feel better in times of struggle. This kind of rhetoric quickly snowballed into a larger movement that encouraged people to remember their personal needs in a world that invalidates mental illness. In an era when teens with mental illness began to use the internet to connect without adult interference, this initial understanding of mental illness involved trying to be kinder to oneself. Posts on websites like Tumblr would validate people’s illness and then say it was okay to cry or do something to alleviate symptoms at that time.

This validation of the existence of mental illness is an important step, and it makes people feel that they are deserving of things that make them happy. However, this validation model has led to self-care being primarily seen as a strategy based on distancing oneself from feelings and coping with illness in the moment, rather than the long-term.

By the time these types of posts (I noticed them on Tumblr before anywhere else) gained popularity, another set of ideals for self-care arose, representing a different set of mentally ill people and their tactics for helping themselves. This counter-model was based on self-care that works by pushing oneself to maintain or regain functioning, like brushing teeth or eating balanced meals. Purveyors of this model often harbored bitterness toward the validation model and people who supported it, seeing them as naive and avoidant. On the other hand, critics of the function model of self-care worried that prioritizing specific goals (like getting good grades) was high-functioning and adhered to outside pressure.  

The validation model is often a first step for learning to cut yourself slack and identify tactics to feel better when symptoms overwhelm you. In contrast, the function model represents a level of understanding of mental illness that identifies mental health as based on habits requiring vigilance and effort. This method also takes into account the value of fulfilling goals in the outside world and not just personal goals.

The next step to self-care, which is both helpful for short-term coping and long-term improvement of health, is a holistic model: knowing when to be gentle to yourself and when to push yourself. This requires a much deeper emotional understanding of the self. I have benefitted from both experimenting with and observing this model to understand which situations trigger bad emotional responses and how can you strategize to minimize those situations or adapt to being in them. For example, if parties worry you, both mediate your exposure to preserve your short-term health and examine what about them is stressful to see how you can work to be more comfortable at them in the future, if that’s a goal that feels helpful to you in the long-term. Self-care is a regimen for finding balance between being comfortable now and growing over time.