“There’s no amount of counseling, kale, or yoga — even if these were available or affordable to everyone in the U.S. — that will alter the economic, political, and social forces that sustain poverty or war in the age of terrorism, or what we glibly call “work-family conflict.” We’re going to have to throw out the bath oil with the bath water if we’re going to tackle the social problems that actually create the stress we bemoan today.” – Dana Becker, PhD
Most people (including helping professionals) tend to give self-care advice that is not always consistent with the real world living situations of most individuals. I work in the non-profit sector, where precarious work, daunting workloads, low pay, and chronic emotional burnout has become normalized. I also live in a major urban center, where the price of living outpaces most people’s pay check. However, I do have the life skills and finances (marginally) needed to advocate for myself, and to apply the topical self-care practices required to maintain good health (i.e. sleep, yoga, meditation, social support, etc.). With that being said, I am also powerless to change the larger social/ systemic issues (i.e. neoliberal workplace practices, poor government policies and lack of social safety nets, global unrest, etc.) that largely impact me on a personal level and that often blunts out the formerly noted self-care efforts. However, I recognize that compared to many Canadians I am very privileged. With this in mind, I try to be sensitive regarding how I speak with others about self-care.
It often concerns me when I hear social workers (and others) blaming marginalized people for not taking care of themselves, and doling out topical solutions (i.e. sleeping, meditation, yoga, positive thinking, etc.) as a one size fits all prescription for most of the individual stress/stressors related to social and or systemic issues. When people provide Ill-conceived advice regarding self-care it can actually alienate and further increase a person’s stress level – especially when that advice is given to the most marginalized, and vulnerable, service users (or individuals) in our society. For people who are living “well below” the poverty line, who are working more than two minimum wage jobs, and who have to often choose between rent and food, sometimes survival is self-care. And, to be fair most people are not trying to be unkind when they “randomly” offer up self-care advice – most people are simply socially uninformed. For example, I think that Arianna Huffington had good intentions when she noted that a lack of sleep can have “profound consequences – on our health, our job performance, our relationships and our happiness”. However, we have constructed a world where not everyone has the privilege of being in a position where sleep is an option (especially single parents, working two or three minimum wage jobs, or caring for loved ones). Most people have limited financial resources and real material deprivation that often interferes with access to the resources necessary for adequate self-care.
While I have no real or tangible advice regarding self care, in the sometimes worrisome world that we live in, I would like to offer up one suggestion: unless someone is in the financial or emotional position to make use of the usual topical self-care practices (i.e. sleep, meditation, massage therapy, travel, etc.), please do not offer them up as solutions, especially in situations when a person’s stress is attached to – or caused by – larger social or systemic issues.