Self-care is having a moment.
Search for #selfcare on Instagram and up pop more than 2 million hits. Meanwhile, “self-care coaches” are offering seminars that cost hundreds of dollars, and women’s magazines are publishing tips from celebrities such as Beyoncé. (“It’s not about perfection. It’s about purpose,” the singer told Elle UK.)
“Everyone is talking about self-care—everyone,” says Alexandra Elle, an author who lives in Rockville and leads self-care workshops around the country.
Google searches for self-care spiked last October and November—as the country was dealing with a tumultuous election and more than half the electorate was reeling from the result—then again in January after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Online posts urged anti-Trumpers to practice self-care to guard against protest fatigue.
What exactly is “self-care”? And why is it currently such a buzzword?
It turns out it’s not quite the same as just taking care of yourself. “Broadly, self-care is helping individuals be more attuned to their physical and psychological needs and wellness,” says Tova Jacobs, a clinical psychologist in Arlington. “It’s taking time to reflect on your life, your relationships. It’s taking time to listen to your body and mind and engaging in activities that nourish body and mind. It might mean things like meditation or mindfulness or yoga, as a way to be more attuned to sources of stress. Other things are nutrition, exercising, and proper sleep. It’s making an intentional decision to set time aside to prioritize your needs.”
The idea of self-care has been around awhile. In a 1979 60 Minutes segment on the “wellness” trend, Dan Rather called the phenomenon part of “something called self-care.”
“Self-care isn’t new,” Jacobs says, “but it’s probably more important right now. We’re working longer hours, taking less vacation, and constantly plugged in. Busyness is now a status symbol. We are overstimulated and overcommitted. Not carving out time for yourself can lead to depression or anxiety.”
Here’s one thing self-care is not: self-improvement. “Self-improvement implies there’s a problem in us we need to fix,” says Gracy Obuchowicz, a local self-care coach. “Self-care is fixing the way we care for ourselves.”
It’s also not just pampering, despite all the #selfcare Instagram images of women getting pedicures or indulging in mugs of cappuccino with heart-shaped swirls of foam.
For generations, health professionals—and for that matter, our grandmothers—have preached the importance of, say, eating well or going to bed at a decent hour. Is the self-care movement just branding the obvious? Is self-care being glamorized and monetized thanks to social media—the way yoga went from a simple spiritual practice to posts of people in $100 leggings?
“It does bother me that on social media, self-care looks so beautiful when really it isn’t,” says Elle, who has published books of poetry as well as affirmations. “Self-care is not an $80 pedicure. It’s not about taking yourself out to dinner or other materialistic aspects of treating yourself. It’s about taking a bubble bath. It’s about finishing that good book you started a month ago but work got in the way. It really means to take a step back, to be present and intentional.”
Besides, if self-care were just about getting a pedicure or a $9 kale smoothie, most women in Washington would have their lives figured out. True self-care, advocates will tell you, requires going deeper, into aspects of one’s life and self that this city of perfectionists and workaholics may find discomfitting.
At least I did when I found myself in a ten-week course, Beautiful Life Self Care 101, talking about poop.
It was a sunny day in late summer, and about two dozen women were squeezed into a basement yoga studio in Mount Pleasant, sitting on yoga mats. At the front of the room, radiating grace and calm, sat Gracy Obuchowicz.
We’d each paid $1,000 to learn the secrets of that grace and calm. I couldn’t help but do the math and wonder whether we were all suckers.
Obuchowicz explained how the course would work. Over the next ten weeks, we would get together as a group only twice—for a few hours that day for the kickoff and on a two-night retreat in West Virginia at the end. In between, we would be encouraged to read all or parts of a few books Obuchowicz recommended, download her weekly recorded lessons, read weekly inspirational e-mails, and join 75-minute group calls on Sunday evenings. We’d also get 15-minute private coaching calls with Obuchowicz up to twice a month.
I liked the ease of a “class” taken mainly from home. There was a lot of suggested reading, though, including The Gifts of Imperfection, a guide to “wholehearted living” by Brené Brown; an Ayurvedic cookbook, Eat Taste Heal; and Absolute Beauty, a guide to “radiant” skin through Ayurveda. Self-care isn’t always heavy on Ayurvedic practices—that’s just an emphasis for Obuchowicz. Ayurveda is a healing system based on the belief that it’s important to keep yourself in balance, which may mean setting a bedtime that follows the body’s natural rhythm (before 10 pm for everyone, Obuchowicz insists) or eating a diet right for your dominant “dosha,” according to your energy level and temperament.
Obuchowicz told us a bit about herself. Now 35, she majored in photojournalism in college and is a yoga instructor. Neither interest gave me any clue as to why two dozen of us were looking to her to help figure out our lives.
She suggested we arrange our mats in a circle and asked us to go around counterclockwise and each talk about what had brought us to the course. What followed were sometimes anguished or heart-rending stories of women who were coping with illness or unhealthy relationships or who were exhausted or overwhelmed and wanted to slow down and enjoy life. It was reassuring to hear others describe struggles similar to—or, sadly, worse than—your own. Which was part of the point: Although we didn’t know one another yet, Obuchowicz said, we were there to offer support.
About halfway around the circle, a vivacious woman in her late thirties started to talk about why she had signed up.
“I’m looking forward to pooping regularly,” she said.
She was kidding. Sort of. While this course would cover behaviors and patterns of thinking, much would also involve creating daily habits of self-care to balance the body—a tenet of Ayurveda. We’d be urged to buy tongue scrapers and swipe them across our tongues every day, supposedly to rid our body of toxins; to give our muscles a self-massage at least once a week; and—as described in reading material we’d received before showing up—to drink a cup of hot water with lemon in the morning to get the bowels moving.
The goal was to make self-care routine. When you’re massaging almond oil into your aching calves or scrapping gunk off your tongue, the theory goes, you’re taking care of yourself and building internal resources to face whatever life throws at you.
I told friends and coworkers I was taking the course because it could make for a good article. But I’d also signed up for personal reasons.
I went in thinking I wouldn’t change many of my daily habits, because I already was doing much of what Obuchowicz recommended. I exercise every morning, practice yoga, meditate, am early to bed and early to rise, and eat healthily (though sugar is my Achilles heel).
Unlike some in the course who were busy with kids and didn’t take time for themselves, I don’t have children. My weekends are free for bike rides, tennis, museums, Nats games, time with friends, and volunteering. Unlike others in the course, I love my job and am not searching for my passion.
Self-care is not an $80 pedicure. It’s not about taking yourself out to dinner or other materialistic aspects of treating yourself.
While I’m grateful for my life, I’ve been dealing with some heartache and turmoil. My husband and I had been separated for a while at that point. I was in limbo and uncertain where my marriage and my life were heading.
On one of my private calls with Obuchowicz, I bemoaned that summer had ended. I love the season and all it can mean—weekends at the beach, back-yard barbecues, afternoons reading. I told her about a summer wish list I’d made on Memorial Day, of which only one of the ten goals got ticked off.
“It sounds like you need more joy in your life,” she said, suggesting that it wasn’t those activities I had wanted to experience but the pleasure I thought they’d bring.
She asked about the last time I had felt joy. I thought of lots of happy moments, but pure joy? She asked if I’d allowed myself to really feel the sadness of my crumbling marriage. Sure, there had been tears, I said, though I had tried to keep busy and not get depressed.
“If you’re not allowing yourself to feel those emotions,” she said, “you won’t feel joy, either.”
After I hung up, I cried. Hard. For a week or two, just about everything—a sappy commercial, a cute baby, a puppy—sent me scrambling for Kleenex.
A few weeks later, to my amazement, I had what I would describe as a moment of pure joy—in an almost comically unexpected place. A baseball fan who grew up in New England, I decided that morning to buy a ticket to the Orioles/Red Sox game so I could see Sox star David Ortiz play once more before he retired. In the stands at Camden Yards, I watched Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, another of my favorite players, warm up on the field near third base, practically in front of me. Suddenly, I felt flooded with such intense feelings of joy, I started to laugh.
Maybe Obuchowicz was right—by getting out of my head, as she’d urged, and allowing myself to feel sadness, I had opened myself up to experiencing all emotions, including joy. Because while I love baseball, my reaction that day was about more than the game. It seemed as if time had stopped. I felt completely in the moment, absorbing every sight and smell and sound. I felt joy at being alive.
“Self-care activates that which gives you energy, a positive energy,” Obuchowicz says. “And the formula for that is different for every person.”
For some, self-care might include spending more time in nature, or church, or CrossFit. Therapy is a form of self-care, although therapy tends to focus just on the emotional. While self-care goes deeper than pampering, treating yourself to a good latte or a fancy hand cream can be self-care if you’re not using that as a crutch to soothe yourself temporarily and avoid other issues. There’s no single prescription for self-care. Exercise can be one person’s haven and another’s hell. Whatever refuels you, versus depletes you, is self-care.
But if self-care were as simple as taking a walk outside or eating chocolate, more of us would be joyful day in, day out. Self-care, according to Obuchowicz, can also mean getting rid of any negative and nagging “shitty voice” in your head. As cliché as it sounds, self-care requires you to take a step outside yourself to look at your life—and then treat yourself with the same compassion, and to follow the same advice, you’d give a friend.
I was surprised at how self-critical many of the twenty- and thirtysomethings in the course—smart women, all—seemed to be. Some beat themselves up about careers they thought should have been further along, about relationships they thought they could handle better.
Self-criticism, Obuchowicz believes, is anger turned inward. One week’s group phone call was devoted to the anger many women feel—toward mothers, fathers, significant others—but don’t express. One way to do that constructively is to set boundaries with those who are causing pain.
Not making clear what you need from someone, not saying no to what you don’t, or not allowing yourself to be burdened by someone else’s anxieties or unhealthy behavior is one way we can sabotage our well-being. Boundary-setting is particularly hard for women, who tend to avoid conflict and who often care for their children, spouse, and parents first, sometimes at the expense of their own mental or physical health.
“Self-care, to me, is filling yourself up so you can pour yourself into others around you,” says Alexandra Elle. Married with a nine-year-old daughter, Elle, 28, went through her own “self-care journey” about four years ago when she felt “empty and unfulfilled.” Now, she says, “I plug myself into my Google calendar three times a week to make sure I’m taking a break.” Because what fills her up is alone time, she might meditate for an hour, read, journal, or cook a nice meal.
By getting out of my head and allowing myself to feel sadness, I had opened myself up to experiencing all emotions, including joy.
“I hear from a lot of moms, ‘Self-care is selfish—you can’t do that.’ In my opinion, if you are depleted and unhappy, there’s no room for giving other people a piece of you.”
Research backs up that notion, says Tova Jacobs: “If you spend time caring for yourself, you feel more grounded, more relaxed, more fulfilled. Your relationships tend to feel more satisfying. You can be more giving, a better partner.”
An image pops into my head of those pre-takeoff instructions that flight attendants give passengers: Put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others.
Self-care is not about just recognizing when you need the oxygen mask—it’s learning to not get to that point. “When we get out of balance, there’s a craving for things that will put you more out of balance,” Obuchowicz says. “The person who is too busy will take on more work. You have to be self-aware enough to know when you’re out of balance and how to get yourself back to balance.”
Again, all of this seems obvious. “It seems so obvious,” Elle agrees. “Put yourself first, don’t forget about yourself. But we do.”
I then ask Elle what makes her qualified to teach self-care.
“What do you think are the qualifications for teaching self-care?” she asks me back. “This is not therapy. This is about building community through conversation.”
Manisha Singh was the woman in class that first day who made us laugh by bringing up poop.
She’d been finishing up successful treatment for breast cancer when she heard about Obuchowicz’s course. It had been a hard few years: She’d given birth, gotten a divorce, moved back to Washington from San Francisco, and then been diagnosed.
“I had a bunch of things I was stuffing down, and I didn’t have the space to process what was going on,” Singh says. The course gave her the space and the tools: “It’s through that messy process of feeling emotions that you can actually start to move through them rather than around them. Once you’re able to feel your feelings, you’re able to let go, and the letting-go creates room for other stuff that’s positive.”
Since taking the course, Singh has bought a house, gotten a promotion, and enjoyed being more present in her life, including moments of joy with her six-year-old son. She says her son, too, has seemed calmer.
Going in, she was a bit skeptical. “I still think, ‘What’s the deal with Gracy?’ I’ve been through so much, I should have life wisdom,” Singh says. “What has Gracy gone through to give her the credibility to tell us all what to do? [But] honestly, I give her credit for holding the space. I don’t think she does anything extraordinary. I think Gracy tries to define what self-care is and gives us the tools. It’s really up to us.”
Addie Ishii took the course in the fall of 2015. Soon after, she quit her human-resources job and started a dog-walking and home concierge business. “I was always so worried about work,” she says. “Now I work and I have a good time, but it’s not the whole of my life. I’m much happier. Gracy helped me find my Zen. And she’s a lot cheaper than a therapist.”
While the course taught me a few things about myself, and while I’ve made some changes I view as positive—meditating more consistently, slowing down when I feel out of balance—it did not change my life as much as it did for others, or as much as I’d hoped. Real change takes time and effort, and with everything I was dealing with, I may not have had the bandwidth at the time.
Although the seminar’s readings, recordings, and private and group calls all were useful, the closing retreat—when we were all together—was the highlight for me.
In hostel-like accommodations for two days and nights, Obuchowicz led us in yoga and meditation. She offered a tarot-card reading, which I did with skepticism. (I drew the card of creativity, which Obuchowicz interpreted as having the whole world in my hands to shape as I wanted. Isn’t that true for everyone?) We gathered for healthy meals—including one breakfast in silence. There were two art sessions; in one, I found it both fascinating and silly that I chose to fill a “dream board” with clipped-out images of beaches and Audrey Hepburn. We sat one night around a campfire. In two sharing circles, there were lots of laughs as well as tears as a few women talked about relationships they’d decided to end and other tough decisions the course had helped them face.
It was at a session on unlocking artistic inspiration—Gracy counts creativity and play in self-care—that I had my “aha” moment. I can’t draw, so when I put a colored marker to paper, all that came to me was hearts. I filled the page with cartoonish Valentine hearts, as an infatuated eighth-grader might do. All weekend—during meditation, around the campfire—the word “love” kept popping into my head. I thought at first it had to do with my marriage, but I realized it had to do with all the love the other women seemed to be radiating out to one another. Though an introvert by nature, I pictured myself sending love back out and immediately felt more connected to everyone around me. While it’s been hard to sustain, that sense of connectedness made me feel stronger. Many women later said that their takeaway was the importance of asking for help when you need it.
As elementary as self-care seems, many of us don’t fully practice it. Often, we trade sleep for another hour or two of work or Netflix or Facebook. We say yes to commitments when we should say no. We set often unrealistic goals for success. We push through fatigue.
Those are the hardest changes to make—harder than getting regular pedicures.
Alexandra Elle says that with all the interest in self-care, it’s not always easy to figure out what’s authentic and what’s someone trying to cash in on the wave: “But a part of me also feels like the more the merrier. The people doing things for trends will fall off and follow the next trend. But people who are touched by self-care will stick with it. For them, it could be life-changing.”
Executive editor Sherri Dalphonse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appears in the July 2017 issue of Washingtonian.