This creates a system of quantifiable self-care in which users are asked to compare themselves to others, to themselves, and ultimately to their idea of “health”. The metrics available to you always tell you that you could be doing more, you could be “closing your loops”, you could be breathing better (???), you could be fitter, happier, more productive. Does this sound like obsessively checking your bank account app or trying to rack up credit card points to anyone else? What happens when the way that we form relationships with our health becomes inseparable from the ways that we navigate work and money?
There exists a moral judgment on the work we do for our health, those who are doing enough are good, and those not “doing enough” are told to buy more products, change their routine, set a resolution, and conform. This standard of “enough” is always shifting toward something only accessible by the richest, able-bodied, mentally well individuals. The self-criticism encouraged by the self-care industrial complex “has been shown to preoccupy us with failure and contributes to symptoms of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and negative self-image” (Lieberman, 2018).
The reality is that health and healing look different for everyone. Especially for people living with chronic illness or disability, the standard of “healthy” is completely personal. According to a 2022 study, serious mental illness and physical disability limit the ability to complete Activities of Daily Living (ADL). The ability to engage with anything that we could consider to be “self-care” becomes hindered by the need to complete the necessary tasks of living, ADLs, such as bathing, eating, brushing teeth, etc. What you consider to be self-care may be completely out of the picture for someone living with a chronic illness or disability.
I live with multiple chronic illnesses that affect my ability to consistently engage withs self-care activities. I have days when completing my ADLs feels like optimal self-care. In this way, self-maintenance can take the place of self-care. I sometimes feel as though the most self-care I can give myself is showing up for my monthly blood draws to check on my thyroid and antibody levels. I have learned that setting boundaries and taking time to rest is critical self-care for me. Doing nothing is often exactly what I need. In a world constantly insisting that there is more I can be doing in order to support myself, this can feel like a failure. Jody Yarborough of the blog Love Disabled Life asserts that “building routines to ease pain, allowing extra time to accomplish a daily living task, and recognizing the signs of burnout far earlier than a non-disabled person might are examples of how every day is a self-care day for some folks. And this isn't out of indulgence. This is out of necessity” (Yarbrough, 2021). But, this standard of setting boundaries with yourself and others is not exclusive to people with disabilities or chronic illnesses.
In Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s seminal book, Care Work, she writes of the ways that she has seen crips showing up for each other. She shares some of her observations: "sharing resources and showing up, and having a spoken or unspoken rule that acknowledges that you both (the two crips in the situation) have stuff going on. You will offer what you can. You will stop when you have to. You will accept "no" to your offer without taking it personally" (Care Work p 71-72). This model of radically setting boundaries is commonplace within disability activism spaces. There is a concept called “Care Webs”, which Leah writes extensively about in her book. This is a concept that has existed in disability spaces for maybe all of time. The idea of showing up for each other, of filling in the gaps that others can’t fill for themselves, of asking for help, of saying no, and of saying yes when you can. It’s a culture of caring for each other because the systems meant to support us have proven their failures time and time again. Leah asks, “what does it mean to shift our ideas of access and care (whether it’s disability, childcare, economic access, or many more) from an individual chore, an unfortunate cost of having an unfortunate body, to a collective responsibility that’s maybe even deeply joyful?” (Care work, p. 25).
Living with disabilities in a world that encourages constant investment toward products and services meant to optimize our health means learning what you really need. For me, self-care looks more like cuddling my cats, going on walks with good music, and saying no. It doesn’t look like going to the gym as often as I can or tracking my heart rate religiously. The things that have helped my health the most have been free and have come from communities of people all trying their best together. If you take anything away from this, I hope it’s that it’s okay to say no and it’s okay to not make “progress”. You are existing, and that is enough.