If there is a lack of clarity about the extent and nature of self-care as a practice, I think the seeker should begin by looking inwards. Self-care, like sexuality, like gender, requires to be seen as an integral facet of one’s being, only explicable through the gamut of experiences we accumulate through time, and the historical reflections that sustain our present lives and livelihoods. We care; therefore, we continue to exist, we choose our futures, create liveabilities that demand respect and acceptance. So, if self-care is a creation and manifestation of the self, it is alive, dynamic, diverse, poetic, and sometimes, unknowable too. Situated in knowledge of the self and surroundings that cannot be easily categorised into structures, self-care is a curious unscrambling of life itself. And very much like the lived self, it is also an amalgam of particular ways of thinking, being and rebelling, which are dictated by larger socio-economic structures.
On a good day self-care needs no external stimuli, no alarms or reminders; on a ‘bad day’ self-care is difficult to practice, and living amid the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the frequency of ‘bad days’ for many of us. When we read about the death and devastation around us, see loved ones being reduced to mere bodies, the out-of-control violence of structures and institutions, it becomes difficult to remember that care is not abstract, it is not performative, rather, it is a conscious design to enhance our survivability and self-preservation.
But self-care is not a clean and happy procedure, it is not definitively achievable when systematically explored. To understand the scope of self-care we need to see the ‘dark side’ of the landscape, and destroy the versions of self-care that denounce our plurality. In this fight, the only outcome can be a recognition of experiences beyond the wellness narrative structured around the neoliberal agenda. This article is an attempt at foregrounding some aspects of self-care that decentralise the prevalent commodification of it.
Self-harm/injury and self-care
Can we think of caring for a self that looks at the body beyond the possibility of nurture? If harm and care are oppositional forces, when/if they collide, do they become interlinked in their scope? Most of us have learned to love, nourish, respect and protect ourselves from harm or violence, but there are people who see their lives as outside of this governance. For various reasons and factors people self-harm, and unveiling the nuances of this experience can help us understand some aspects of selves that may navigate a different existence.
Nina Gunnarsson takes a deep dive into the self and its linkages with pain and scars as a process towards identification and healing. She writes, “The scarred body is proposed to have a meaning beyond the actual act of cutting or burning. When the skin is cut, the body bleeds. When the body bleeds, the body heals. When the body heals, the self also heals. This is what self-injury is about.” (Gunnarsson, 2021) This position is refreshingly different from the available knowledge about self-harm and self-injury, which is largely seen as a form of deviance from the ‘normal’, and at times even considered a by-product of mental illness. The dimension of healing from emotional pain through taking control of what happens to one’s body is overlooked, and people who engage in this act are considered by healthcare professionals to be justifying an obvious form of mal-adjustment. In fact, self-injury is not always about feeling physical pain, nor is it a consequence of masochistic tendencies. Gunnarsson explains that it “can be about not living up to gender-stereotyped cultural body ideals” as much as “a way to manage situations in everyday life, turmoil, and emotional pain”. (ibid.)
In her delightfully optimistic article, Gunnarsson uses personal experience as an appropriate tool to identify the idea of ‘agency’ within the act of self-harm/injury. Because many individuals who engage in this are aware of how to “carefully take care of their wounds, by cleaning them, dressing them, and making sure they heal properly” (ibid.) – an act that embodies a kind of self-care practice as well. Simopoulou and Chandler in their research with young people who use and experience self-harm describes this private act as, “a deeply relational act, informed by both the social and (inter)personal context in entangling ways,” (Simopoulou & Chandler, 2020) to discourage a simplistic binary understanding of care as ‘good’ and harm as ‘bad’ within psychotherapy. So, what appears as harmful and triggering need not be pathologised to the extent of suppression. With an expansion in the idea of a body’s relationality we can locate the concept of self-care outside of normative moulds.
Trans-lating as self-care
The body that carries the self and its identity is exposed to immeasurable cruelties defined by socio-historical processes, and here, the trans experience has much to offer in understanding self-care as productive. More specifically, using language as an instrument of self-awareness, trans people have inserted into it a kind of dynamic multiplicity that cannot be comprehended to its fullest. A trans body is a caring body, a trans self is a caring self, a self that listens to itself, despite the rage it witnesses around it, and simultaneously inheres a repetitive questioning of the static valuation of gender. Being trans is not about being dysphoric or being in flux, it is about surviving as a community when there is very little external support and care, when existence itself becomes self-care.
“Translation is a necessary and profoundly hopeful act for those who trans gender, for we have been taught that transgender is marked by dysphoria, a word from Greek that means difficult to bear, difficult to carry. In order to carry or bring across, we become poets, storytellers, and artists.” (Enke, 2014)
- Finn Enke uses the term ‘translation’ to define the trans experience as one that is survivalist by nature, remaking and sometimes exceeding disciplinary language, but attempting to communicate. Gender pronouns, its insistence, and the frequent misgendering together help trans people define a sense of active caretaking. Without conforming to the idea that there was an ‘original’ version of the self, trans identity transforms acceptable ways of being and surviving, caring and communicating. In this light, self-care is a continuous process of making and unmaking, being responsible for creating and even destroying elements of the self when required.
Escape as self-care
Discovering our abilities to imagine self-care is as important as accepting our limitations, and even identifying our ‘disabilities’. This is a difficult process because whenever we are confronted with understanding a self that is infused in ableist discourse, our dis-ability to cope becomes stigmatised. Self-care as surviving is not just about coping and adjusting, sometimes escape can be envisioned as an impactful caring process.
Philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari define “lines of flight” as a moment of ‘escape’ from one paradigm to another, where the movement/motion becomes a strategic political shift undertaken to displace normative constructions of knowledge. (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987) Thus the understanding of self-care as beyond measurable, and located in an infinitesimal landscape of possibilities wherein power apparatus-defining paradigms are disrupted. Escaping from the obvious constructions of coping, living, surviving, self-care has the potential to envision itself as ‘dis-abling’ an ableist construction of identity. For oppressed communities ‘flight’ (‘fluite’ in French) is presenting a backdoor to escape from violence and be sustained in a binary world. This flight is a rejection of available structures that force us to see only acceptable versions of ourselves, this escape can reimagine resources people need to combat structural damage.
Through self-care comes knowledge, with which we decide and choose what to escape and what to commit to. A materialistic version of self-care refuses to acknowledge that ideas of disability (marked by limitation/lack) can initiate a different frame of representation not controlled by social norms. Not facing the fire, not adjusting, not getting ‘better’, not living are also ways of seeing self-care in action. We fly away from acceptable versions of care-acts that glorify resilience instead of resistance.
Self-care as connecting
Finally, self-care as a concept cannot be presented without its current associations with the neoliberal process, where the individual becomes all-encompassing, diminishing the way collectivity is foundational in oppressed people’s versions of care. Author and activist Audre Lorde shines light on this often-neglected idea that caring for other(s) is also caring for the self.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” (Lorde, 1988)
Self-care is not limited to an individual’s response to suffering. Larger sociological processes that have made the idea of care the responsibility of the individual alone depoliticise its collective transgressive potential. Sara Ahmed writes about Lorde’s critique of neoliberalism’s effect on imagining care, for Lorde “self-care can become a technique of governance: the duty to care for one’s self often written as a duty to care for one’s own happiness, flourishing, well-being.” (Ahmed, 2014) To see happiness and wellness as inherent to a life worth living, “to assume your primary responsibility is to your own happiness” (ibid.) are propagated to diminish the impact of a connected and shared existence. Self-care is as much about self-knowledge as it is about caring as a collective critique of valued paradigms.
Today, self-care is aspirational, not just a ‘radical act’, it is the power that drives people towards imagining a sustainable existence. Truly, self-care is transformative, especially for people who face oppression, and this is why self-care as a concept should not be diluted and appropriated by the powerful. Self-care is collaborating with histories and generating a discovery of contexts merging, interacting and evolving for a shared future.
Ahmed, S. (2014, August 25). Selfcare as Warfare. Retrieved June 6, 2021, from https://feministkilljoys.com/2014/08/25/selfcare-as-warfare/
Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Enke, A. F. (2014). Keywords: Translation. TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 241-244.
Gunnarsson, N. V. (2021). The scarred body: A personal reflection on self-injury scars. Qualitative Social Work, 1-16.
Lorde, A. (1988). A Burst of Light, Essays. London: Sheba Feminist Publishers.
Simopoulou, Z., & Chandler, A. (2020). Self-harm as an attempt at self-care. European Journal for Qualitative Research on Psychotherapy EJQRP, 110-120.
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