When Self Care Becomes Self Harm

The self care narrative is a complex one, and should certainly not be seen as a 'one size fits all' approach. We often have a tendency to simplify this narrative as being about treating yourself, or even just looking after yourself in the short term. However, the picture is often more complex than that. Consistently not going out to protect one's mental health can ultimately be worse in the long term, and is not what effective self care looks like. At what point can self care actually become self harm


It starts like this: there’s an event I was planning on going to, and I don’t feel like socializing.

“I’ll just stay in tonight,” I tell myself. “Have a self care night, do some reading, take some time to be alone.”

I don’t go. I do some reading instead, watch an episode of a tv series I like. It’s nice.

The next day, I have a few hours between classes and events, and nothing pressing to do. I take a nap. For two and a half hours. Getting enough sleep is an important part of taking care of yourself.

I ignore the fact that I got ten hours of sleep the night before and haven’t left my room for a week except to go to classes and eat.

I’m depressed.

Most of the time, I am self-isolating. I practically never feel like socializing. I always feel like sleeping. I spend most of my free time reading.

Whilst forgoing a social event once in a while because you’re burnt out genuinely is self care, avoiding interacting with others as much as possible isn’t.

However, it’s so, so easy to tell myself it is.

When I’m depressed, I don’t want to do anything. I want to sit around, avoid people, sleep. Which is pretty much what I end up doing. But I justify it by pretending that this is what taking care of myself looks like.

Here’s what taking care of myself actually looks like: hanging out with people I love, spending time outside, doing things that make me feel accomplished and productive.

But finding the motivation to do any of those things when you’re depressed is…. Difficult.

And when I stay holed up in my room instead, it ends up making my depression worse.

Now, I’m not saying that self care isn’t important, or that self care can’t be having a night in. Self care is incredibly important, and for many people a night in is exactly what they need to recharge. Occasionally, when I’m not depressed, a night in is even what I personally need to recharge. However, the self care narrative so often focuses on being alone, taking time for yourself, and doing solitary activities that you enjoy, and tends to ignore other more active, less traditional ways of taking care of yourself.

When you’re depressed, more passive and solitary self care activities are not always the best for your already struggling mental health.

For me, self care is cleaning my room. It’s finishing a piece of coursework early. It’s hanging out with my friends for six hours. It is, paradoxically, forcing myself to go to events when I would rather sit at home. These are the things that relax me, the things that make me feel positive and confident and happy with myself.

Self care is not about following a specific narrative of indulgent, self-focused activities. It is, ultimately, about what is best for your mental and physical health. Sometimes, that means denying yourself things you want and forcing yourself to do things you don’t want to do.

There’s no one-size-fits-all for self care. And when you’re not honest with yourself about what self care looks like for you, it can occasionally be justification for doing things that end up hurting you rather than helping you.