Flipping the coin: life between self-care and self-sabotage

As the conversation about mental health gets more personal and spreads wider, another topic makes room into our lives and talks. Self-care. Understood as a set of practices and rituals that help enhancing one’s well-being, self-care is praised, talked about, and made look like something pretty, pink, comfy and glowy.

And, even if, at times, it really is comfy, pretty, glowy and pink, it rather isn’t. Because the first thing about self-care routines that should be understood is that any routine of this kind responds to a state of need. There is no self-care if there is no need for it. And it can be anytime. Self-care ain’t as pretty as social media makes it appear, because there’s more about that particular routine than the cozy surface. There are issues that one tries to manage behind every self-care routine shared. 

And self-care is not always about bubbly baths, cozy sweaters, or hot chocolate and cheesy movies. It also is about anxiety, emotional pain, about hanging on and diminishing the damages. It  is also about uncomfortable but necessary life choices, like learning how to properly manage one’s money, taking that medical exam you keep avoiding, or getting into therapy.

It is  also about long, sleepless nights when you just sit with yourself, and revisit milestones of your life, trying to figure out what went wrong. What could’ve been done better. About admitting that, no matter how dear, some people around us are toxic, and we need to distance ourselves from them.

But, above all of these, self-care starts on the very moment when someone understands that self-sabotage will lead nowhere. Because a lot of the problems which require self-care routines for minimizing their effects, are the consequences of past self-sabotaging acts. And from compulsive shopping, to hanging on the wrong people repeatedly and for too long, everything can, at some point, turn into a self-sabotaging act.

No one thinks about little kind gestures done for themselves in the good days as self-care. But, whenever the bad times hit, the little coffee dates we’re taking ourselves to, the long baths, or any other thing that used to bring us a good vibe and we keep doing even if we feel like drowning, suddenly gets labeled as self-care. Actually, it is just about being persistent, and not giving up on who you are. 

Because self-care and self-sabotage are the faces of the same coin. As mental health is not constant, is something fluctuating, depending on a lot of factors, and not as much that can be under our control as we’d like to be, same is this continuum. 

There is a personal dynamic in every story of self-sabotage, as well as in every routine of self-care. Even if social media tries to say so, not every kind of self-care routine works in every situation, for every individual. As the journey unfolds, the needs to be met change, and there are all kind of needs and days.

There are days when cleaning the house while listening to my favorite gangsta rap tracks is as close as seeing a therapist as one could get. There are days when all I have to do is to cook something both tasty and healthy, while chatting with mom. There are days when I need a long bath, some blues and getting my nails done in order to calm down my anxiety and feel better about myself. There are days when I cry myself to sleep, in order to let the grief and the hurt release themselves. Days when I’d do all of  this at once, or not at all, none of it. 

But there are also days when all I need is sitting with the cats and listening to some blues. Or when all it takes is a good chat with my favorite people and a memes exchange. Or maybe a short shopping session. As well as the days that require me  to make big decisions for what will come next. 

These are all forms of self-care. As well as procrastinating, hanging out with the wrong people, eating your feelings or letting yourself get devoured by anxiety are forms of self-sabotage. Basically any action taken, aware or unaware of it, that has the potential of endangering our well-being, even if we talk about immediate, mid-term or even long-term well-being, counts as self-sabotage.

Of course, life will always be a mix between these two, and this should not scare us. I know, it seems to be easier said than done, but fictional expectations will never lead to real progress. And there’s nothing that did more harm than the idea that the journey to recovery should be smooth, linear and predictable. Neither the recovery journey, our mental health needs, or the self-care routines are. And this is absolutely great, as it was never supposed to, in the first place.

Because they’re so intimately linked to someone’s life history and personality that you’ll never see two of them to be the same. Might seem alike, but that’s only a superficial feeling about a façade. Self-care is, somehow, the bright side of the story, the one that brings us joy as we practice our ritual, and as we tell the others about. The side that tells the others we know in the same kind of situation that good days can still happen, despite of all struggle. 

But there are the self-sabotaging moments the ones who really get to shape us into different persons. The moments that make us take deep breaths, while asking the eternal question: How on earth did this happen, why I’ve got to this point?. Those moments when we feel like quitting. Like taking a nap for the next…few years, until every problem we have will be solved. The moments when, even if we feel like giving up, we keep going. And, especially, the moments of enlightment, when we finally understand what are we doing wrong.

Of course, it ain’t easy to talk about these moments, that would mean the healing is easy. And everyone knows it ain’t at all. Healing is a beautifully dramatic story, with ups, downs, and even stops. How one approaches this, though, is a whole different thing, a thing shaped by their personality and values, while changing the person’s personality, values and beliefs. Getting the courage to actually sit, even with a single other person, and tell the stories of those moments, is a great thing. It is the main sign of the pain starting to fade away. 

At the end of the day, the only thing that should be let to sink in is the fact that self-care is not just a label we mindlessly attach on random practices. 

Self-care is a whole category of small gestures of kindness directed to one’s person, that allow us to function during the tough times. This is why it matters to openly talk about self-care, even to share our favorite self-care routines, and perhaps even their stories, or what they’re good for, and this is also why, when somebody tells us about a thing that it functions as a self-care routine for them, we don’t get to tell them that they don’t. 

Because the only person entitled to label a thing or other as a self-care act, is the person practicing it, with the good, the bad, the pretty and the ugly sides of their journey.