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Article- Escaping the Self-Care Cult

Updated: May 23, 2020

Bethany Coughan- May 24th 2019

I admit it, I bought into the self-care cult at first. How empowering the platitudes: change your thoughts, change your life, and how comforting to imagine we can sage and bathe ourselves into a state of wellbeing. With the right affirmations, you can activate abundance, and remove whatever energetic blocks are causing this existential angst. It’s an appealing narrative but those crystal collections won’t keep privatization at bay, or repair the crumbling social contract.

We’re living in uncertain times, navigating an ever-growing social divide, a gang of obtuse elites at the helm as we careen into a technological future that threatens to make many of us obsolete. Against this backdrop of government cuts to welfare, education, and health, we’re being sold the idea the issue lies within us, an epic con that says society isn’t flawed, you are. The glaring economic disparity, the social isolation of cities, the encroaching environmental catastrophe these are not the issues, rather, your response is. If life feels like a hamster wheel of work-rinse-repeat, you should think more positively, and consider cleansing those chakras.

It’s no coincidence that this new-age language and self-love revolution have made it to the mainstream. Lifestyle brands have managed to tap into the self-care movement, promoting the power of positivity and offering us appropriated objects for our altars, mantras divorced from their cultural context, and mass-produced boho trinkets. Spend your credit as you wish, but it’s tough to overlook the irony of an ethically bankrupt company selling bulk incense and shirts that read: Stress Less, Chill More. (Sorry, you can’t pay in good vibes).

I’m not saying that self-care practices can’t provide relief — gratitude is a transformational habit, yoga produces feel-good endorphins, and positive affirmations can help reset negative thought patterns. But, buying fully into the idea that we can manifest the life of our dreams through the power of positive thinking is a dangerous delusion that lets corporations off the hook, and makes those who are struggling responsible for their lot. In addition to tricking us into taking responsibility for the anxious state late capitalism has left society in, the language of self-care often lacks the follow-up of social solidarity or political mobilization.

On a certain level, our thoughts do create our realities — the way we perceive the world is shaped by biases we inherit, and experiences we have. Cultivating qualities like positivity and mindfulness can help you to ride the ebbs and flows of existence a little more gracefully. But suggesting to someone who has been structurally disadvantaged since birth that they should try a more positive perspective lacks the context of colonialism and systemic oppression. For those who are struggling to feed families, juggling multiple precarious jobs, or stressing about whether the welfare cheque will come, the act of radical self-love doesn’t cut it. Those most in need of healing are often overworked and overlooked, and left with little time to retreat in self-care.

Anecdotally, I can say that my ten years in the yoga community have been surrounded by a lot of well-off white women. There’s a growing “conscious community” spreading through festivals like Burning Man — a kind of neo-spiritual humanism that seems to have the potential to create more social consciousness but may yet lack the language of privilege and anticolonialism. Despite its roots as a festival of self-reliance and decommodification, at an average cost of $2200 Burning Man has become a playground for the privileged. As much as “burners” pride themselves on being cultural disruptors, this kind of consciousness festival is, in truth, a rather elitist happening. As far as mind-altering experiences, poor folks may have to wait for the trickle-down transformation.

I must admit, I’ve got cult ties. I go to cacao ceremonies and participate in things like solstice gatherings, group chanting, and soul-gazing — it helps me stay afloat. Communal activities are good for humans; we’re built for it. Bonding over shared experiences feels great, and staring into a stranger’s eyes is a powerful practice in presence. But I can’t help but notice there are no latinxs at the cacao ceremony, and the chanting is usually in a language unknown to the group. In a society where meaning is increasingly commercial, it sometimes feels we’re grasping at straws…

It only takes tuning into one of the many self-help powerhouses (Oprah, Gwynne Dyer) to see that the message may be misleading. Some version of your thoughts create reality, if you believe hard enough, it will happen. This idea of manifestation seems empowering at face value but ultimately makes the individual responsible for their lot. It’s the same kind of rhetoric conservatives use to dismiss the poor: if only you worked harder, your luck might change… Only now the work is spiritual.

The reality is that deep breaths and happy thoughts alone will not change the abusive power structures and systemic barriers that many folks face. In recognition of this, a more powerful mantra might be: “it’s not your fault”. The poor are not responsible for their lot, and the unemployed are not undeserving. We’re stuck in a global system that’s made to enslave; intent upon squeezing out more products and profits.

Deep breaths.

It’s a fine balance. Being angry is exhausting, and acknowledging the incredible imbalance of power in society will make your skin crawl. It can feel like we don’t have much control over the system, and so the appeal of positive thinking and turning inwards is self-evident. There’s no issue with new-age coping strategies, as long as we see them for what they are: adaptations to a broken system. Ultimately, self-care in the way you have to. If affirmations get you out of bed, and vision boards help restore optimism, there’s no harm in it.

Let’s just not forget to resist the systems that create the need for self-care. Let’s not get so lost in our own struggle that we forget those who are most in need of healing.

“The function of freedom is to free someone else” — Toni Morrison.

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