Grace Cale is a PhD student in sociology (full biography at the end). In this guest post, Grace makes an important distinction between “self-care” and “soothing” activities, where the difference is long-term versus short-term benefit, respectively, to our health and well-being. Are your usual self-care strategies just momentary distractions? Or, do they promote long-term wellness and balance? Read on to find out!
“Self-Care” vs. “Soothing”:
Not Necessarily So Warm And Fuzzy
Folks, it’s no secret: academia is not an easy world to inhabit. For many of us, while learning to navigate this unique place for the first time (or experiencing new difficulties), we often find that our usual mechanisms for coping with extreme stress cease to function effectively. This is the time where we give up trying to work for the day (or week), sit in an armchair cocooned in a blanket, and read articles on self-care. Self-care is important. It is a thing, which, to put it simply, allows us to keep going. Stress and work drain our little metaphorical bucket of energy, and self-care is supposed fill that bucket back up. This can be read on nearly any article on the topic. But, that is not why I am writing to you today.
Instead, today, I take issue with the content of many of these articles. For metaphorical-bucket-recovery, those who give self-care advice often recommend things like:
- Bubble baths
- Wine and a good book
- Going for a walk in nature
- Dinner with friends
- Seeing a movie
- Chilling at home with some Netflix
Some of these things work for some people, and that’s great. My long-time escape? Minecraft and comic-book-based movies and TV shows. But after a while of using this self-care strategy, I noticed something. These things served as a great distraction, but after several desperately-self-caring hours of such activities, I felt no more prepared to tackle the endless pile of work. As stress levels grew high enough to affect my physical health, I explored our university counseling services, where I discovered the difference between self-care and soothing.
Clearly these things won’t fit all readers. But if I have had this issue, I imagine some others may have, as well. I discovered that the activities that I enjoyed, while pleasant, served almost as a security blanket. They soothed my anxieties in those moments, but did nothing to alleviate the problem of overwork. When a therapist first told me this, I panicked. Self-care has to solve my problem? My problem is too much work! The only way to make it go away is to work, but it never ends, and I can’t work 24/7, and and and … and figurative hyperventilation ensued. Luckily, eternal work was not the solution. Instead, to make a long story short, through various programs and meetings, I learned a valuable lesson: Self-care is vital, but is not always soothing, nor must it be.
So, what does soothing actually refer to? When my therapist mentioned it, I was somehow mildly offended, as if someone had told me that I rely on a security blanket to get by as an adult. However, the metaphor is somewhat apt. Soothing behaviors, in this case, tend to be those things that, in the moment, calm your anxiety or worry. So, in my case, I was relying on distractions and entertainment to make me feel better, but these things did not actually provide any long-term healing, and did not strengthen my ability to cope with stress. It traded long-term growth in resilience for temporary soothing of discomfort.
What we are left with, then, is the imperative to find some way of taking care of ourselves, which may or may not also soothe our stresses and anxieties, which actually provides for our longer-term health, well-being, personal growth, and so on. As academics who may or may not have these skills, we need to have methods of self-care which serve us and the careers and lives for which we aspire. But these necessary means of self-care may not provide momentary relief.
Now, of course, if you find something that you enjoy and it actually refills your metaphorical energy bucket, by all means, do that. And it is certainly unwise to engage in “self-care” behaviors that are necessarily dangerous, painful, or so stressful that they are counterproductive. But I had believed that self-care must be something distinctly pleasant, enjoyable, or fun. For me, the magical solution ended up being two things I flatly disliked, and one thing I liked: yoga and mindfulness meditations, and studying a language (which happened to help my dissertation). These things may not work for everyone, but they did for me. Yoga provided low-social-pressure physical exercise (good for the bucket, and health in general), and required focus because of its difficulty (which helped keep me from expending energy thinking about work that I should be doing). For 10-20 minutes at a time, I would do guided meditations, which also helped me to divert my mind away from the energy-waste of constant work-oriented thoughts. It also turns out I loved studying a language, and the joy of learning helped remind me (in part) why I decided upon a career in research. It didn’t fix everything, but I did experience some improvement in my ability to function, and came down from the ledge of an overwhelmed breakdown.
However, as we consume the nearly countless offerings of articles on how to be kind to ourselves in our lives and careers, let us not forget that while self-care might sooth our stresses in the moment, many soothing activities do not necessarily constitute real self-care. I write this long, winding story to remind folks of two key things: if you have a self-care routine that works for you and you enjoy it, by all means, do that. But if you’re still struggling to fill your little perseverance pail, try out some of those things people say you should do, even if you don’t love them. If you can stand it, give it a thought. Exercise. It doesn’t have to be public, easy or hard. But do anything that you can actually keep up regularly. I do yoga video podcasts in my home office. Try meditation (some of the benefits are supported by research), or creative writing, or whatever you feel gives your brain a break from its constant processing.
We all signed up for this academic life. While we sometimes question those decisions, three things are for sure. It’s a ton of work, it’s exhausting, and we’ve got to keep our wells of energy full. We have to prioritize self-care in order to give our best to our communities, our departments, our students, and our allies in activism. We must, nay, we deserve to be well!
Grace Cale is a PhD student in sociology. Having gained her undergraduate degree from a college that specifically accepts marginalized and impoverished students, she is a passionate ally to many causes of social justice. Her research interests focus on political participation, social movements, neoliberalism, markets, and financialization. She can be reached at cale [dot] grace [at] uky [dot] edu.