The Internet Wants to Help You Take Care of Yourself

Stop. Are you hungry? Then eat something before reading this.

The “self-care” tag on Tumblr is a really sweet place. It’s like if you were walking outside in a thunderstorm, umbrella-less, and you walked into a café filled with plush armchairs, wicker baskets full of flowers, and needlepoints on the walls that say things like “Be kind to yourself” and “You are enough.” It’s jarring, the change in scenery, but nice.  It also makes you realize that you’re soaked—you’d almost gotten used to it, out in the storm.

Taking care of yourself is not actually a new thing, nor is the idea that you may sometimes need to be reminded to do so. Just think of all the people on makeover-shows past who were told, “You spend so much time taking care of other people, it’s time to do something for yourself.”

But the word “self-care” has popped up a lot in my peripheral Internet vision lately, most recently in a deceptively simple game called You Feel Like Shit: An Interactive Self-Care Guide. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure story, but about your real life. (Although, truly, what is life but a high-stakes choose-your-own-adventure?)

“This is meant to be an interactive flow chart for people who struggle with self-care, executive dysfunction, and/or who have trouble reading internal signals. It's designed to take as much of the weight off of you as possible, so each decision is very easy and doesn't require much judgment,” the intro reads. Then the game walks you through an analysis of your physical and emotional state and offers suggestions on how to improve it. Have you eaten recently? No? You might need a snack. Are your surroundings unpleasant or gross? Go somewhere else, or clean up a little. Are you feeling anxious but don’t know why? Try some “grounding exercises” like deep breathing or going for a walk.

This is admittedly simple advice, but it’s not always easy to understand in the moment that you might be upset because you’re hungry, or that doing an unpleasant chore now might make you feel better later. The guide, created by Jace Harr, explicitly states that a lot of its questions, like “Do you feel triggered?” or “Are you feeling dissociated, depersonalized, or derealized?”, are aimed at common mental-health problems. The push to take stock of your physical and emotional state could be particularly helpful for someone who’s depressed, or whose clinical anxiety is acting up.

But several people I’ve seen share this link have pointed out that it could also be useful for anyone who’s having a hard day, or just isn’t naturally good at looking after himself. Sometimes when you’re stressed or dealing with things further up the Maslow pyramid, it can be hard to see how your experience is affected by how well your baseline needs are taken care of. How much of my bad mood could be fixed with a healthy meal, or by leaving the house? These are not idle questions.

Harr’s guide bears a remarkable similarity to a sort of mental checklist that I try to use myself—I will often, at the end of the day, just feel weird and bad, physically and emotionally, and not be able to pinpoint a concrete reason for the fog.

The checklist goes something like this:

  • Drink water
  • Eat something
  • Work out
  • Go outside
  • Take a shower

The logic is, if I still feel bad after doing these things, then something might actually be wrong. But usually, completing the checklist in part or in full makes me feel better.

These are the basics. People approach self-care in different ways. For some it’s a Parks and Recreation “Treat yo self” ethos. For others, it’s getting the hell off the Internet when the news cycle gets sad and overwhelming, as the news cycle is wont to do.

In a regular column for The Hairpin, Fariha Roísín and Sara Black McCulloch interview women about what self-care means to them, and discuss it amongst themselves.

“I think that initially, I had some misconceptions about idea of self-care,” Black McCulloch wrote in a recent column:

To me, it was a way to build resistance to bullshit, disappointment, and a bit of depression—a way to ward off uncertainty. But I’ve learned, along the way, that this is impossible. You’re never going to be consistently happy and you can’t prevent sadness or life from running its course. Self-care is a way to at least strengthen yourself, find some inner core so that you’re ready when life comes at you.

There could be an impulse to write off such reflection as navel-gaze-y, to question the value of publicly discussing how people spend their alone time. But I think this is a tributary of the impulse to sneer at first-person essays, a suggestion that the self isn’t worthy of time or consideration.

I’m just spitballing here. I don’t have any graphs to show you that people really have been talking about self-care significantly more in the past year or so than they were before, or that there’s been an uptick in the use of that word specifically. But I do think that there’s a growing acknowledgement of the fact that there’s little about modern society that prioritizes, encourages, or facilitates caring for yourself or treating yourself well. It’s all, “Buy more things!” “Work harder and at any hour of the day!” “Click back and forth uselessly between the same five websites and call it leisure!”

And people are pushing back on that with space, with quiet, with careful, simple care. The chaos swirls out there, and you eventually have to wade back into it. But if you stop by the self-care café, on your way out, you can grab an umbrella to take with you into the storm.